Universal access to information - why it is important

Posted on September 28, 2021

In 2019, the 74th United Nations General Assembly proclaimed 28 September as the International Day for Universal Access to Information (IDUAI). The aim is to recognize and raise awareness of the importance of universal access to information. The 2021 theme focuses on access to information legislation, how this should be implemented to strengthen institutions in support of the public good and sustainable development, and international cooperation towards implementing this human right.

In South Africa, the human right of access to information is protected in the Bill of Rights of the Constitution:

S32. (1) Everyone has the right of access to

a. any information held by the state; and

b. any information that is held by another person and that is required for the exercise or protection of any rights.

The Promotion of Access to Information Act No. 2 of 2000 gives effect to this right and the Spatial Data Infrastructure Act No. 54 of 2003 promotes universal access to “spatial information in support of spatial planning, socio-economic development and related activities”. Together with laws such as the Protection of Personal Information Act No.4 of 2013 and the Electronic Communications and Transactions Act of 25 of 2002, these Acts provide the legislative framework to ensure that everyone in the country can exercise their human right of access to information, including geospatial or geographic information, i.e., “information concerning phenomena implicitly or explicitly associated with a location relative to the Earth” (ISO 19101-1:2014).

Geospatial information, such as administrative boundaries, place names, road networks and addresses, is required for managing a city or country and is therefore often maintained by governments. Such information is increasingly published with an open license in the spirit of universal access to information, but also to realize efficiencies: if data can be freely re-used and shared, then one does not have to spend time and effort on contract negotiations and policing those contracts. Freely accessible data reduces duplication and redundancy, and additionally, user feedback  (e.g., about missing or inaccurate data) can be collected and used to improve the quality of the information. Satellite imagery, another kind of geospatial information, is also sometimes available with an open license. For example, the Sentinel products are collected through the European Union’s Copernicus Earth Observation program and are available through the Copernicus Open Access Hub, while the Landsat products are available through the USGS Earth Explorer. The United Nations Committee of Experts on Global Geospatial Information Management (UN GGIM) predicts that the drive toward access to government owned geospatial information that is free at the point of use will continue to develop in future.

Some of the information in this news item is based on the following article:

Coetzee S, Ivánová I, Mitásová H, Brovelli MA, 2020. Open Geospatial Software and Data: A Review of the Current State and A Perspective into the Future. ISPRS International Journal of Geo-Information, 9(2): 90. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijgi9020090

- Author Department of Geography, Geoinformatics and Meteorology
Published by Christel Hansen

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