Change in Directorship at DataFirst

martin wittenberg


In March 2024 Professor Cally Ardington took over the Directorship of DataFirst, succeeding Professor Martin Wittenberg, who led DataFirst with distinction for 13 years. Martin's tenure was marked by significant contributions that cemented DataFirst's reputation as a trusted source of data for high-quality research.

Martin’s first engagement with DataFirst was in 2006 as research lead on the “Data Quality Project” a joint SALDRU/ DataFirst initiative to tackle the quality of South Africa’s nationally representative datasets. Under the Project Martin ran a series of “National Data Quality workshops” around the comparability and usability of SA data, from 2008 to 2022. The sixth workshop, held in conjunction with DataFirst’s 21st celebrations, highlighted 15 years of the work of the Project, including the extensive research output from the Project.

Martin Wittenberg reflects on the progress of DataFirst under his leadership.
Martin Wittenberg reflects on the progress of DataFirst under his leadership.
Photo: Je'nine May.

Martin took over as Acting Director of DataFirst in 2010 and oversaw the relocation to the new School of Economics building on UCT’s Middle Campus. Under Martin’s guidance, the data repository became a fully virtual service.

In the same year Martin, jointly with SALDRU, won funding from the VC’s strategic fund for DataFirst to begin a process of harmonising South Africa’s labour market information. The harmonised dataset, (PALMS) continues to be a key resource for researchers investigating the SA labour market.

Under Martin’s Directorship DataFirst constituted an Advisory Board in 2013 that includes representatives of world-class data repositories, Major South African universities, and state agencies involved in the data terrain, in particular Statistics South Africa.

2013 Advisory Board
Francis Wilson, Pali Lehohla and Murrary Leiibbrandt at an Advisory Board Meeting.

Martin also made major contributions to DataFirst’s Role of Advancing Quantitative Skills at UCT and beyond. A ten-year statistical capacity building programme, the programme on Survey Data Analysis for Development was signed between SALDRU and Statistics SA at DataFirst’s 10-year anniversary celebrations and Martin developed this programme as a series of short courses and a Post-Graduate Diploma in Survey Data Analysis for Development.

Signing of the Stats SA training programme
The signing of the ten-year statistical capacity building programme.


martin wittenberg

Martin with Prof Francis Wilson at his Inaugural lecture

In June 2012 Martin was appointed as DataFirst’s third director. In August that year, he presented his Inaugural Lecture, on 'Economics and Transformation: Measurement, Models, Maths and Myths'. As DataFirst Director, Martin represented DataFirst in a panel discussion on Research Fundamentals, as well as debated the Adcorp employment index, both on CNBC Africa in 2012. In 2015 Martin was instrumental in DataFirst winning an NRF-ESRC “flagship” international partnership award jointly with the UK Data Archive to investigate big and novel data for development and under the project ran joint DataFirst/UKDA workshops on “Big Data and the Social Sciences” in Cape Town and on rural electrification with the MRC/Wits Rural Public Health and Health Transitions Research Unit in Mpumalanga. Since 2018, DataFirst has served as the “Data hub” of the African Centre of Excellence for Inequality Research (ACEIR). In 2022 ACEIR and DataFirst were tasked with assessing the quality and usefulness of UNU-WIDER’s World Income Inequality Database in the African context.

Under Martin’s directorship, DataFirst won the inaugural Data for Research Award at the 2017 NSTF-South-32 National Science Awards.

Data for Research Award at the 2017 NSTF-South-32 National Science Awards
Martin received the award from Mrs Naledi Pandor and Ms Anita Loots


In 2022 DataFirst celebrated turning 21, with Martin at the helm for 12 years. Professor Francis Wilson, the founding Director of DataFirst and the first chair of the Advisory Board, died in 2022 and in his memory, Martin motivated for the institution of the “Francis Wilson Memorial Prize for data-driven research” through DataFirst, to ensure that socially meaningful research using DataFirst’s open data continues. He also motivated for the establishment of the Francis Wilson Memorial Lecture, a joint SALDRU and DataFirst collaboration. The first speaker was Nobel laureate Sir Angus Deaton.

Martin Wittenberg thanking Professor Angus Deaton
Thanking Sir Angus Deaton.


Martin’s tenure exemplified excellence, with meticulous data scholarship and a dedication to building data research capacity, all underpinned by a deep commitment to ‘getting it right’. His contributions have laid a solid foundation for DataFirst's ongoing success, and we express our gratitude for his invaluable leadership.

“Inequality will be broken only if the next generation is better taught” – Martin Wittenberg (2017)
Photo: Je'nine May.

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