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.



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.



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.

  • Optimising the policy advice system in South Africa

    The Policy Innovation Lab helps optimise South Africa's policy advice system by analysing current processes and identifying areas for improvement. By mapping out existing procedures, it gains a clearer understanding of how policy advice is generated, evaluated and implemented. The projects run under this heading highlight inefficiencies, bottlenecks and gaps in the system. Using these insights, the Policy Innovation Lab proposes targeted improvements, drawing on innovative methods and best practices from both local and international contexts.

  • Cataloguing AI tools for use in government

    We have developed a curated catalogue of modern digital tools used in European governments to inform South African policymakers about effective AI tools that could be suitable for implementation in South Africa. This catalogue provides detailed examples of AI tools from Europe, highlighting their goals, successes, and potential for adaptation in South Africa. Additionally, it identifies potential challenges in transferring these tools to the South African context. Our approach is practical, emphasizing opportunities that are most likely to be beneficial and deployable in South Africa. The searchable catalogue will be available on the Lab's website soon.

  • Analysing the manifestos of South African political parties

    In the midst of crucial negotiations for forming a coalition government, the policies of South Africa’s largest political parties ­– the African National Congress, Democratic Alliance, Economic Freedom Fighters and the uMkhonto we Sizwe Party – are under the spotlight. Understanding how their policies converge and diverge on key issues is essential for both the public and the parties involved in negotiations. To shed light on these policy positions, we released this comprehensive analysis of the parties’ manifestos. This analysis aims to inform the public about the similarities and differences in the policy agendas of these political entities.

  • Prototyping digital tools for better policymaking

    The Policy Innovation Lab develops and prototypes digital tools with the potential to improve policy advice and policy co-ordination. At present, the team is developing a tool that leverages 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.

  • A framework for digital transformation in the public sector

    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. The 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; and meet key institutional and infrastructure requirements. The full framework can be accessed here.

  • Deploying machine learning to identify policy overlaps

    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. The project uses machine 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.

  • Accelerating progress towards the SDGs

    We proudly host the South African network of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's Goalkeepers initiative, a global collective of collaborative and diverse changemakers, including emerging and well-known leaders from around the world who represent an eclectic range of cultures, professions, and interests. As the Policy Innovation Lab, we support this community in South Africa. More information is available on the Goalkeepers microsite. Additionally, we supported the National Planning Commission in drafting South Africa's 2024 Voluntary National Review (VNR). VNRs facilitate the sharing of experiences, including successes, challenges, and lessons learned, with a view to accelerating the implementation of the 2030 Agenda. They also seek to strengthen government policies and institutions and to mobilize multi-stakeholder support and partnerships for the implementation of the SDGs.