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Information management expert Wim Hugo leaves behind a valuable legacy

By Johan Pauw, Managing Director, SAEON
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Wim leaves behind a uniquely valuable legacy in South Africa on which SAEON will continue to build


The core team responsible for the BioEnergy Atlas project. From left: Wim Hugo, Dr Rebecca Maserumule (Chief Director for Hydrogen and Energy at the Department of Science and Innovation) and Somila Xosa (DSI)


“I always regarded Wim to be a national resource because of his intellectual capacity and leadership.” – Johan Pauw

Excerpt from my job interview in 2002: “Seeing that you do not have a background in information technology, how would you be able to lead the development of SAEON’s data and information management systems?”

This question was put to me by Professor Robin Crewe, then Dean of the Faculty of Biological and Agricultural Sciences of the University of Pretoria.

I have learnt a lot about the topic since then, but my humble answer at the time was that I would be looking to appoint an expert in the field. I got the job, nonetheless.

SA-ISIS evolves into CO-GIS

At the time the University of Pretoria, the Agricultural Research Council and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) received funding from the Innovation Fund for a project called SA-ISIS (South African Integrated Spatial Information System). SA-ISIS was a web-based development-support system with an initial focus on natural resource management.

The focus of SA-ISIS clearly converged with SAEON’s objectives and soon SAEON became the CSIR’s partner in the further development of the system, then called CO-GIS, a facility shared between the CSIR and SAEON for the storage, linking, discovery and application of information (mostly spatial data). The GO-CIS progressed well and by 2007 needed to be evaluated by an independent technical consultant and systems auditor.

Enter Wim Hugo

Towards the end of 2007 I arrived at a CO-GIS meeting to receive the consultant’s report while bracing myself for two hours of incoherence on my part. To my pleasant surprise I walked out of that meeting with a much-improved understanding of the business of information management.

The reason for my enlightenment: none other than one Wim Hugo, who happened to have been the expert of choice for the task at hand and the expert that SAEON was looking for.

By mid-2009, Wim had joined SAEON on a part-time basis to perform SAEON’s information technology function. He started by working on the SAEON website and portal, the South African Environmental Observation System (SAEOS) and the South African Risk and Vulnerability Atlas.

That year he demonstrated the South African Earth Observation Strategy data portal to the world during the bi-annual Ministerial Meeting of the Group on Earth Observations (GEO) in Washington DC in November. The system raised considerable interest and elicited positive comments at the meeting.

When announcing his full-time appointment to SAEON in 2009, I could announce as follows: “I believe that Hugo is already raising SAEON’s profile internationally as his work was commended in the committee room of ICSU in Paris in October” following my participation in the Strategic Coordinating Committee for Information and Data (SCCID).

Wim subsequently forged ahead in his portfolio that also included governance functions such as “leadership in the development and revision of SAEON’s information management strategy; ensuring that data at the SAEON nodes is accessible through the SAEON portal; and coordinating the procurement and maintenance of information management infrastructure through the organisation”.

Wim has always been a staunch advocate for, and implementer of, open data and he based SAEON’s development work on a set of core open-source technologies. By sharing the intellectual property fundamental to all of this and by involving several partners, significant cost savings were realised on behalf of the South African government.

Subsequently, additional work landed on his desk in the form of the South African BioEnergy Atlas and the South African Spatial Data Infrastructure. His expertise was also sought for the Data Intensive Research Infrastructure of South Africa (DIRISA) and the National Integrated Cyber Infrastructure System (NICIS).

International platform

Wim’s portfolio as Chief Data and Information Officer at SAEON rapidly turned into a significant international platform and he has become a well-known expert in the international world of information systems development and governance. Among other things he was a member and co-chair of the ICSU-World Data System Scientific Committee, and co-chair of the GEO-BON WG8 (Systems and Architecture) and of the collaboration between RDA and WDS on repositories.

Additionally he was active in CoDATA, GEO BON (Group on Earth Observations Biodiversity Observation Network) and GEOSS (Global Earth Observation System of Systems), and a participant in the successful EU-funded SEACRIFOG (Supporting EU-African Cooperation on Research Infrastructures for Food Security and Greenhouse Gas Observations) project. Since 2018 he has been leading the information management subcommittee of the International Long-term Ecological Research Network (ILTER) as its chair.

His international networking and learning were applied within SAEON’s uLwazi Node and to a range of government objectives for the benefit of the South African citizenry and scientific community.

Establishment of the uLwazi Node

Within SAEON Wim not only laid the foundations of the uLwazi Node, but also built up the node to become the environmental data and information systems developer of choice for government departments.

During 2019, Wim successfully established programmes such as the Marine Information Management System (MIMS) and the National Climate Change Information System (NCCIS) for the Department of Environmental Affairs, Fisheries and Forestry. Under his leadership SAEON moreover produced the first Carbon Atlas for South Africa.

As an engineer by training and as SAEON’s Chief Information and Data Officer, Wim contributed to SAEON’s management in a distinctively clear and well-articulated manner. I always regarded Wim to be a national resource because of his intellectual capacity and leadership.

While he has now moved on to do what he does so well at a global scale, he leaves behind a uniquely valuable legacy in South Africa on which SAEON will continue to build.

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