Advancing the research and application of data science tools to improve policymaking in South Africa.

We work alongside policymakers and societal actors to identify high-impact applications of data science tools that could accelerate the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals in South Africa.

The

CHALLENGE

South Africa faces serious and complex developmental challenges. Using the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as framework, South Africa’s recent SDG Report provides a snapshot of the scale of the challenges.

  • Approximately 30 million South Africans live below the national poverty line.

  • South Africa faces the double burden of malnutrition – the coexistence of undernutrition and overnutrition.

  • The burden of communicable and non-communicable diseases is substantial.

  • More than 80% of grade 4 learners are unable to read for meaning.

  • South Africa has one of the world’s highest number of cases of rape.

  • The quality of South Africa’s drinking water is declining - water in 46% of supply systems is not safe to drink.

  • South Africa faces an energy crisis, marked by persistent outages and soaring costs.

  • Economic stagnation contributes to one of the world’s highest official youth unemployment rates.

  • Inadequate investment in research and development is hampering South Africa’s competitiveness.

  • The country continues count among the world’s most unequal countries.

  • South Africa’s urban pollution levels remain high, in many cases more than double the World Health Organization’s annual mean safe limit.

  • South Africa’s material footprint per person remains high and has not notably decreased since 2019.

  • South Africa is a significant contributor to climate change when considering its per capita greenhouse gas emissions.

  • South Africa is experiencing a troubling rise in ocean pollution, as seen in the rise in phosphorus concentration.

  • Terrestrial and freshwater ecosystems are poorly protected, with only 29.7% and 10.7% coverage.

  • South Africa has a very high murder rate.

  • South Africa’s debt and the related debt servicing costs have been rising consistently – it is expected to stabilise at 73.6% of GDP in 2025/26.

Current

projects

The Policy Innovation Lab works with a network of experts from universities in South Africa and globally as well as with non-academic entities. Our partnerships are centred around the topic of policy innovation. Our projects include research, training and initiatives aimed at achieving social impact. Through this multifaceted approach, we want to support policy innovation to ultimately accelerate the achievement of the SDGs in South Africa and beyond.

  • A framework for digital transformation in the public sector

    Background

    Digital transformation in South Africa’s public sector is a complex, multifaceted programme aimed at using technology to improve socioeconomic outcomes. We are creating a framework to fast-track digital transformation in South Africa's public sector.

    Description

    The proposed framework has four dimensions:

    • Leverage digitisation and digitalisation for positive socio-economic effects.
    • Focus on societal outcomes like eradicating poverty, reducing inequality, and eliminating unemployment, supported by better services, accountable institutions, improved education, and engaged citizens.
    • Establish effective governance and coordination mechanisms.
    • Meet key institutional and infrastructure requirements.

     

  • Deploying machine learning to identify policy overlaps

    Background

    South Africa’s pursuit of sustainable development is reflected in a vast network of policies and legislation. Numerous government departments, agencies, and stakeholders contribute to this agenda, resulting in a multitude of policies addressing the environmental, social, and economic dimensions of sustainable development.

    The sheer volume of policies and legislation makes incoherence likely. The complex web of policies also makes it challenging to determine accurately potential policy synergies and conflicts. This lack of coherence and challenges with addressing incoherence impede South Africa’s ability to allocate resources efficiently and, ultimately, accelerate progress towards sustainable development.

    Description

    The project usesmachine learning (ML) tools to analyse publicly available South African policies and legislation related to sustainable development. By doing so, it seeks to build on and contribute to the growing body of research on using ML for improved public policy. The project seeks to go beyond existing policy databases and traditional research methods by leveraging the capabilities of ML to identify potential synergies and conflicts. By doing so, the project aims to inform the development of a coherent and strategically aligned policy framework, paving the way for more effective and efficient pursuit of South Africa’s sustainability goals.

  • Using machine learning to collect and analyse citizen data

    Background

    Citizen-generated data (CGD) plays a crucial role in enhancing transparency and accountability in service delivery, especially in resource-constrained environments. By empowering citizens to report local service delivery failures, CGD offers ground-level insights that traditional, centralized data collection often overlooks. This empowers marginalised communities to voice their concerns and contributes to more inclusive and participatory governance models.

    Description

    This project aims to leveraging the widespread use of WhatsApp to create a scalable and inclusive platform for citizens to report service delivery failures and thus providing information on potential service delivery interruption hotspots. The collected data will be analysed using AI to generate insights for improved service delivery and accountability. This concept creates a single platform to track potential service delivery hotspots and thus potential areas to intervene at scale. It complements current citizen-driven initiatives by creating an additional data source with which to cross-check existing sources. Additionally, this project makes possible a close to real-time analysis of potential service delivery interruption hotspots. All citizen-generated data will be submitted anonymously, ensuring there are no privacy issues associated with the data collection. The anonymity of the data also encourages more honest and open reporting from citizens, as they can report issues without fear of reprisal.

  • Accelerating progress towards the SDGs

    Goalkeepers Network

    We proudly host the South African network of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's Goalkeepers initiative. The Goalkeepers community is a global collective of collaborative and diverse changemakers. Members include both emerging and well-known leaders who live all over the world and represent an eclectic range of cultures, professions, and interests. As the Policy Innovation Lab we are proud to support this community in South Africa.

    SDG Reporting

    We supported the National Planning Commission in drafting South Africa's 2024 Voluntary National Review (VNR), a crucial report presented to the international community that documents the nation's progress towards achieving the SDGs. VNRs aim to facilitate the sharing of experiences, including successes, challenges and lessons learned, with a view to accelerating the implementation of the 2030 Agenda. VNRs also seek to strengthen policies and institutions of governments and to mobilize multi-stakeholder support and partnerships for the implementation of the SDGs.