CEO, Council for Geosience (CGS)
Council for Geoscience (CGS) has the mandate to undertake research and investigate all geoscientific and geological aspects in South Africa. The agency investigates various aspects of the country to provide scientific inputs into policy formulation and thus plays a crucial role in SA’s development. In this interview, Mxolisi Kota discusses the agency’s mandate, initiatives, data sharing mechanisms and the major challenges.
What is the mandate and activities of Council for Geoscience?
Council for Geoscience (CGS), like any other national geological survey organisation, has the mandate to undertake research and investigate all geoscientific and geological aspects, in both the off-shore and on-shore environments of South Africa. We investigate the physical, chemical and engineering aspects of the geology of the country to provide scientific inputs into policy formulation; and advise private and public clients on various geoscientific aspects. So, when people want to build various types of infrastructure, we provide geoscience inputs into those developments. For example, while building the fast rail link between Johannesburg and Pretoria, we offered valuable advice about the stability of certain engineering foundation conditions and how they should be handled by the engineering contractors. Thus, we provide geoscience inputs for various types of developments within the South African environment and advise municipalities, provincial governments as well as the national government on how to appropriately handle developmental projects in various geological areas. Besides, we also provide geoscience solutions to ameliorate negative environmental legacies that are related to a long history of mining in South Africa.
We mostly use various kinds of earth observation platforms but other useful techniques as well such as Landsat ETM+, Aster Data and Hyperspectral Data, which are very useful for this purpose. Apart from that, we undertake geophysical airborne surveys where radiometric data or even gravity data are very useful for us to be able to understand certain physical and chemical aspects of the geological environments that we investigate. Similarly, we also have a helicopter which is used for conducting airborne geochemical sampling programmes wherein we fly and sample the top soil environment on a square kilometre grid and subsequently analyse those data to produce a geochemical map coverage of a specific area to understand the chemical characteristics of rocks and soils in that environment.
We have got yearly programmes as part of our standing state-funded annual technical programme. So, depending on the demand and requirements of our key stakeholders, we target specific areas on an annual basis and undertake surveys on those areas. At present, we have the entire country completely mapped on a scale of 1:250000. However, the next challenge is to complete the map coverage of the country at the 1:100000 or 1:50000 scale; and going down to even 1:10000 scale in certain instances. South Africa is a huge country and to be able to complete the whole coverage of the country at such a fine scale could a very long time and thus you have to start prioritising areas.
Is the Council exploring new technologies like flying UAVs, which offer faster and better coverage?
Yes we are. In fact, one of the key projects that we are involved with is the development of our own geophysical survey capabilities to try and target certain specific areas. Unfortunately, because of the financial crisis we were forced to put that ambitious and exciting project in the back burner.
What are the mechanisms that you use in terms of making your data available?
We have got a system of collecting various types of information and putting it into maps. While we largely disseminate paper maps, we have now started to migrate into a digital environment, and only print two-dimensional paper copies on demand. However, a critical issue for us as well as for a number of other African geological survey organisations, is that we are not fully funded by the state and so we are expected to augment our revenue through commercial activities, one of which is the sale of data. However, we are also having internal discussions to understand how much do we generate through the sale of basic data and see if there is an opportunity to start considering making at least of a certain our datasets available for free on web portals at some point in the future. This is a very important consideration for a number of geological survey organisations, whether they are in Africa or other parts of the world.
Can you tell us about the kind of revenue that you generate by selling maps? Who are the major users/buyers of your maps?
The revenue generated by selling maps has diminished progressively over the recent past, which is why we are forced to consider whether or not it is still viable for us to keep this data and to disseminate it only through sales. One of the major reasons for this constant decline is the fact that even if the users do not have direct access to the data, they can still use surrogate data sets to detect certain properties of geoscience environment that they are investigating. Thus, it becomes critical for us to start reviewing whether or not it is worthwhile for us to keep this data.
In the South African environment, the mining industry is the main consumer of geoscience information. More recently, because of huge infrastructure programmes, a number of construction industry based organisations have also started using our data. Besides, the renewed interest in environmental sustainability issues has led to more and more demand for our data and value added products from government, municipalities and other environmental organisations.
You are in the process of converting paper maps into digital format. How old is this initiative?
A considerable amount of work has already been done in this regard. As we produce new data, it is being converted into the digital format. However, for an organisation like ours, which has existed for more than 100 years, there are a number of legacy maps that are very important for the geology of the country. These maps are still largely in analog paper format and converting these into a digital environment is one of our biggest challenges. We hope to have sufficient resources in the future to progressively start digitizing these into line work that can be incorporated into GIS databases and can be used in a much more dynamic fashion.
Council for Geoscience is planning to have 1:10000 scale mapping and several other initiatives. But do you really have the capacity or availability of expertise to undertake such a huge project?
We are already collecting information at 1:10000 scale. But, as I pointed out, owing to the very high resolution mapping, the pace of the mapping programme is very slow compared to the areas that need to be covered. Although we do have the capacity required for these projects, but there is a major issue from the talent point of view, which is not unique to just this organisation or this country but is a worldwide phenomenon. We realise that there is almost a missing generation of geoscientists globally and we are struggling to find enough mid-career scientists to fulfill our operational requirements. A number of senior and highly experienced geoscientists at the Council for Geoscience will retire in the next couple of years and we are finding it difficult to find their replacement.