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First Person: Boy Scout to surveyor of world repute

Dr Derek Clarke
Dr Derek Clarke
Chief Director
Surveys and Mapping Department of Rural Development and Land Reform
South Africa

As a boy Scout, I developed immense interest in maps. I was born and brought up in South Africa but spent a large part of my childhood in Swaziland. My interest in maps took me to surveying eventually. I did my Bachelor of Science in Surveying from the University of Natal in Durban and registered myself as a professional land surveyor in 1979. In the 30 years of my service, I was fortunate to have worked in a variety of challenging environs that gave me a lot of opportunities in production, research, planning and problem solving. Initially, I had good exposure in photogrammetry, remote sensing and cartography but not much in GIS. I got myself involved in a digital mapping project in 1982 and that’s when my interest in GIS developed. This led to the initiation of the National Exchange for Geo-referenced Information Standard Project in 1985. There were several constraints in terms of the inability to exchange data due to lack of standards and limitations of proprietary systems. We realised not all organisations are using the same language. So, it took lot of efforts to educate the people. Though we completed the project in 1986-87, the project didn’t match our expectations when it came to the implementation of it owing to proprietary software being used. Several leading GIS software companies competed with each other to capture the market share. I agree competition is there even today, but they tend to listen to users and are quite adaptable.

In 1989, South Africa initiated its efforts to build the national land information system (NLIS), a forerunner to national SDI. I was chosen to drive the programme. The main objective of the programme was to improve on the existing standards, try and coordinate the happenings in the public sector so that duplication is minimised, to encourage government departments to be custodians of their datasets, make them accept their responsibility of sharing. In 1997, it was decided to restructure the NLIS into the National Spatial Data Infrastructure to be aligned with international trends. In 1993, I was promoted to the director of mapping and in 1997 to the Chief Director of Surveys and Mapping (head of the national geodetic surveying and mapping organisation). My new role is more of managerial and programme management rather than production. During that time, I did masters degree in public administration in 1995 and achieved my Ph.D in 2007.

Teaching to fish
In 1997, we structured the national SDI. There after, the department started a new component and unfortunately since then I have not had direct responsibility for South Africa’s national SDI. But I hope that this situation will change in the near future. My organisation has been one of the major data custodians – geospatial data creators and maintainers. Obviously we all have a great role to play in the national SDI. In early 2000, the approach then was to encourage people to participate, collaborate and cooperate. This wasn’t working. In late 2004, a new legislation for the national SDI was drafted, which created a 40- agency coordinating body to look into the issues of policy, to ensure that duplication is minimised, standards are set and maintained and very importantly to try and create metadata.

Ultimately, SDIs need to be taken to the community level. It should be made participatory. If we don’t look at these societal issues, it would be too inward looking, alienating the people, to whom we are supposed to cater to. It is important to involve them as well. You know the old Chinese proverb – give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach a man to fish and you feed him for life. That is the situation we have today. As people, as a country, we have to learn. There are people to take us to a particular level but after that you have to empower yourself to grow on your own.

Africa Unite
The committee on Information Development (CODI), now CODIST, meets every two years where African countries report on the progress they have achieved since the last meeting. At the end, they make some resolutions. They are meant for the African governments to implement the recommendations and make progress. But I noticed that these conferences make very nice resolutions but the next time you attend these conferences, there is no progress. African countries are reporting no or minimal progress. I, personally, became disillusioned of this inaction. I felt we ought to have something more concrete and so I put forward the concept of the Mapping Africa for Africa initiative. That was in 2003. It was fortunate that the ICA endorsed it followed by CODI in 2004. It became an essential part of CODI-Geo and they created a working group on fundamental datasets and the whole initiative came to be called Mapping Africa for Africa. I have been driving this initiative since 2003 trying to make a difference in Africa. One of the reasons why this is close to my heart is that it has been hard seeing my colleagues in other countries talking and complaining without progress being made. South Africa cannot work in isolation as a country. We need to work in association with our neighbours. Otherwise, there will be a flood of economic refugees into South Africa. It will be a tremendous burden on the country’s public services. Instead, if we work together, assist and support each other, development will be more uniform in the region.

I acknowledge that it is the responsibility of the technologist to educate the decision makers at the highest level for some tangible action. We can see the need for what we are doing but we are unable to put it in a language that a politician can understand.

Africa and beyond
I served as the president of GSDI in 2000-01. One of the main reasons for me to be part of such an organisation is to have international collaborations so that we can learn from each other, share information and also when we look at our country and region, we also need to look at the world as well. We are also contributing to the Global Map Project, to create a global dataset, which is being sponsored by the Japanese government. I am also serving as a Vice-president of ICA. This is with an intention to network internationally, particularly with developing countries. We don’t have the human resources, technology know-how or the financial capabilities developed nations have. But it is important to use the resources at hand optimally. So I observe what the developed nations do correctly and what went wrong, so that we don’t make the same mistakes.

Greater meaning to life
I have had good support from my family all through. I realised life has greater meaning than just work and you ought to have a balance. You just can’t be a technocrat, you can’t immerse yourself in work. You have to look after your body as well, without which you cannot perform. I have one daughter from my first marriage, working as a freelance illustrator and is a budding author. I am father of three-year-old twins from my second marriage. To be a father at this age is quite a change and enjoyable. When you are a father, you certainly see things very differently and I am more mature now. I am currently training as a professional integral coach, which is immensely developing me as a person. I hope that I can use my coaching to make a difference to the lives of those that I coach.

Long way to go
I still feel there is a lot for me to do in the organisation, a lot to do and a lot to live for. We are just finishing the redesign of our data model. We re-designed a fully integrated topographical information system, which is the heart of the organisation. We integrated various databases, fully structured and integrated GIS and made it feature rich. But now we have to take it even further. We are in the process of redefining the standards across the organisation. I am also quite passionate about people development. I believe in empowering people to have choice. Everyone is an individual and maintain dignity in their work. I don’t like to impose myself on others. I give direction and guide. I follow coach and approach policy. Unless they go critically wrong, I listen to people and go with their recommendations and decisions. But yes, I am capable of saying no as well. At the end of the day, if I can make a difference to a person, a community, I feel I am worthy and I have done my bit.