UP team proposes single address dataset to identify and respond to emerging COVID-19 clusters

Posted on July 06, 2020

A team from the University of Pretoria (UP) has proposed a way forward for establishing and coordinating a single address dataset for Gauteng, which could be adopted by the rest of the country. One address dataset is needed now more than ever, as addresses are imperative to control and slow down COVID-19 infections, says Professor Serena Coetzee, Head of UP’s Department of Geography, Geoinformatics and Meteorology.

“The World Health Organisation recommends surveillance, rapid response and case investigation,” says Prof Coetzee about the pandemic, which is gaining momentum in South Africa. “When community transmissions are occurring, the geographical spread of the virus needs to be monitored so that the impact on health services can be assessed and managed accordingly. Those who are infected should be rapidly found and isolated, and anyone they have been in contact with should be traced. The residential address of an infected person plays a pivotal role in this.”

Prof Coetzee, along with Samy Katumba of the Gauteng City-Region Observatory (GCRO), who is also a PhD candidate at UP, and Dr Antony Cooper of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research and an extraordinary lecturer in the department, spoke to professionals in the Gauteng city region to understand how address data is maintained and used by different government entities. Their research was commissioned by the GCRO and was published on its website. “Based on international good practices, we propose a way forward for establishing and coordinating a single address dataset for Gauteng.”

Historically, some areas in South Africa do not have addresses. “Without an address, people effectively do not exist: they cannot buy airtime, they cannot open a bank account, they cannot vote in elections, and they cannot even provide friends and family with an address to visit,” explains Prof Coetzee.

Another factor to take into account is the form that has to be submitted to the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) for notification of communicable medical conditions requires the residential address of the patient and that of their employer. The NICD documents state that those who test positive for COVID-19 “may be called, visited at home or advised by government officials, community health workers or by the NICD… to assess if your home environment is suitable for isolation, to assist you and members of your household adhere to the home isolation recommendations and to monitor your illness”.

Without a patient’s address on the form, they cannot be located and the geographical spread of the disease cannot be monitored effectively, leading to inaccurate impact assessments and possible overloading of health services. There is also no way to support such cases in the home environment. “In the current pandemic, this can lead to loss of life if emerging clusters of COVID-19 infections cannot be identified and responded to timeously,” cautions Prof Coetzee.

Currently, address data in the Gauteng City-Region is maintained in silos at different government entities, without any coordination and adherence to international standards and good practices. Addresses provided to these government entities – such as when applying for subsidies or for a municipal account – are not always validated and verified against a reference dataset. “This results in duplication, inconsistencies and even fraud, which cost the municipalities, provincial and national governments billions, and damage their reputation,” says Prof Coetzee.

The road to better address data in South Africa requires multiple interventions and initiatives, including raising awareness; describing, encouraging and nurturing good practices; and providing policies and legislation to guide government in its work. “More than one government entity could be assigned the mandate to coordinate a national or provincial address dataset,” explains Prof Coetzee. “To move forward, a decision and strong political leadership together with sustainable funding are required.”

Gauteng’s address datasets are maintained at its municipalities, meaning it could lead the rest of the country by example towards a single uniform address dataset that can be used as a reference by everybody.

To support the fight against COVID-19, the South African Bureau of Standards has made SANS 1883 freely available to anyone here. It describes all the different kinds of addresses in use in South Africa, including street, site and informal addresses. “SANS 1883-2 explains how addresses can be converted into a single uniform data format, regardless of whether they were written on paper, entered in an online form or are part of a municipal geospatial data infrastructure,” Prof Coetzee explains. Using the same names or terms for different kinds of addresses is a first step towards avoiding inconsistencies and confusion. Following the same data format makes it possible to develop tools that verify and validate addresses and to integrate data from different municipalities into a single provincial dataset.

Addresses are key to governance and decision-making in a municipality, province or country. “They are essential for elections, tax collection, service delivery and emergency response,” explains Prof Coetzee. Because different government entities work within the same geographical space, it makes sense to have a single address dataset that everybody can use. “This eliminates duplication and inconsistencies, reduces costs, and makes it possible to exploit synergies. This leads to a better return on investment for taxpayers’ money.”

- Author Primarashni Gower
Published by Hlengiwe Mnguni

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