The Open Source Geospatial Foundation has awarded the Free and Open Source Software for Geospatial Conference in 2008 to Cape Town, South Africa.
Cape Town is a gorgeous and vibrant city. It has undergone many changes since the fall of Apartheid and I was quite surprised when I visited several years back to do some consulting on a datum transformation project for PetroSA.
It was during this period, that I met a distinguished professor at the University of Cape Town, Charles Merry. The problem I was sent there to resolve was how to transform the co-ordinates of well, seismic lines, leases, etc. from the Cape Datum to Hartebeesthoek94 Datum (which is based on WGS84). Charles Merry and his colleagues were working on this grid transformation (of which the methodology was based on the Canadian National Transformation V2).
Prior to January 1, 1999, the co-ordinate reference system used in South Africa as the foundation was the Cape Datum. This Datum (similar in the way it was developed to NAD27, which is based on an origin point of Meades Ranch, Kansas and the Clarke 1866 ellipsoid) was referenced to the Modified Clarke 1880 ellipsoid and had its origin point at Buffelsfontein, near Port Elizabeth. The Cape Datum was derived by the work of HM Astronomers, Sir Thomas Maclear, (1833 - 1870), and Sir David Gill, (1879 - 1907). Their initial geodetic objectives were to verify the size and shape of the Earth in the Southern Hemisphere, from which later work would provide geodetic control for topographic maps and navigation charts.
The new datum, has its named derived from the initial point at the Hartebeesthoek Radio Astronomy telescope, near Pretoria. In many ways, South Africa took the lead in establishing that WGS84/Hartebeesthoek94 became a standard.
I look at my work in the U.S. and realize, that even though the technology of GPS was developed in the U.S., most of the mapping as it relates to oil and gas, mining, forestry is still storing their data in NAD27 (though it may be acquired in WGS84 - especially offshore deepwater GOM - Gulf of Mexico).
Companies will not change (using the argument of cost - being related to labour and software), unless they are made to. In the case of South Africa, the South African government realized that they can not be lazy. If companies want to work and explore in South Africa (especially if most the reserves are offshore), they will be using GPS or other satellite methods of locating wells and acquiring data. Therefore it makes sense to use a global co-ordinate system such as WGS84.
My experience has been, where a company can make a significant profit or has a significant stake, they will meet the requirements necessary to work in those countries - but often the leadership for this change has to come from government and not from industry. In the case of South Africa, it took the lead. Because of this lead, it is well respected within the Surveying and Mapping community and shows that we in North America can follow the lead if we have elect the leaders that actually have the will-power to legislate the changes. Many of the Canadian provinces have and it is now becoming mandatory. Hopefully many of the States will follow. Maps and co-ordinates are important in our everyday life and if we have better ways of defining locations, we should use them and expect them to be used. In many ways Google has helped this and may actually help companies and nations move forward to accepting WGS84 as a standard. In the end, the cost of maintaining data in old datums will be more expensive than actually implementing the change now.
Through people, such as Charles Merry, and the involvement and awarding of FOSS4G2008 to Cape Town, we can see South Africa is moving ahead swiftly and contributing to software development and is taking steps to be a leader in its corner of the world.