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Data rescue for future researchers

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Professor Emeritus Francis Wilson.

By Zama Khwela, Postgraduate Diploma in Media Management student


DataFirst, located at the University of Cape Town, recently launched the Keiskammahoek Rural Survey (KRS) and Surplus People Project Survey Datasets (SPP) in partnership with the Neil Aggett Labour Studies Unit (NALSU) of Rhodes University. The rescuing of these datasets formed part of a national Data Rescue Project that had been initiated by DataFirst.

The launch was attended by several Rhodes University lecturers, members of the Border Rural Committee (BRC), the Dean and one of the Deputy Deans of Humanities, and the Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Research and Development, Dr Peter Clayton.

"This represents a very timely and important launch of these two valuable datasets that have been rescued. This initiative represents a new understanding and a new consciousness about the importance of the dataset itself, rather than the importance of the paper or book derived from the dataset," said Dr Clayton in his welcoming statement.

DataFirst, founded by Professor Emeritus Francis Wilson, provides a data curation and archiving service. Prof Wilson opened the panel discussion with a personal story about his introduction to the KRS, which began when his mother, Prof Monica Wilson, was working on it when he was just a little boy. He joked about being an unpaid child labourer, since he helped his mother by measuring the water’s level with a ruler every day. He also gave an overview of the history of the development of quantitative research capabilities in South Africa.


“It was very much in my blood,” Prof Wilson declared regarding research and the KRS.


Dr John Reynolds, the Head of NALSU and a member of the DataFirst External Advisory Board, introduced the speakers and gave a brief overview of the SPP and the KRS. Further detail on the work undertaken to digitise the two datasets was given by Lynn Woolfrey, the DataFirst Manager, and further detail on research in the Keiskammahoek District was given by Emeritus Professor Chris de Wet of Rhodes University.


The SPP, which was established in 1979 and carried out a household survey in in 1980-1981, was focused on implications of the apartheid government’s programme of forced removals on the lives of South Africans. The principal investigators, Laurine Platzky and Cherryl Walker, wrote a well-known book based on that research, entitled Forced Removals in South Africa (1985). The data that were gathered by the SPP were spread between the libraries at the University of Cape Town and the University of KwaZulu-Natal, and rescuing these data required a partnership between DataFirst and the University of KwaZulu-Natal.


The KRS was undertaken in 1947-1951, which was during the transition period at the beginning of Apartheid. It has served as a baseline for subsequent rural and social science research, not only in the Eastern Cape, but across South Africa. The results of the KRS were published in four volumes in 1952. The first volume focused on the natural history of the Keiskammahoek District, the second on its economy, the third on social structure, and the fourth on land tenure. Funded by the National Council for Social Research, the KRS drew on the contributions of a range of Rhodes University Researchers. Follow-up research undertaken from the late 1970s to the mid-1980s led to the publication of a book in 1997 edited by Profs Chris de Wet and Michael Whisson of the Rhodes University Department of Anthropology and entitled From Reserve to Region: Apartheid and Social Change in the Keiskammahoek District of (former) Ciskei: 1950-1990. Prof De Wet continued to undertake research in the district thereafter.


The launch emphasised the importance of data being published publicly. DataFirst works to make data available to anyone who wishes to use it, for whatever purpose, as easily as possible. It shares the most detailed data possible without compromising confidentiality. The importance of datasets is increasingly being recognised to the extent that universities are looking at formalising support structures for researchers, so that they can learn how to preserve their data for future researchers to use.


The work being celebrated would have been lost without the collaboration that took place between DataFirst and NALSU.