South Africa is a hugely interesting place to work in at the moment. Its constitution and policies are strong and its economy is growing. At the same time, the country faces major obstacles as it rises out of its murky past as a nascent democracy. There are huge economic inequalities. Poverty and challenges in delivering services remain high and many organisations highlight a need to increase citizen participation/agency to increase accountability.
Tech needs to be viewed in a different context here as smart phone penetration is higher than in most countries on the continent and rapidly growing. Even by Africa’s standards, data costs are still prohibitively high. Developers are largely focusing on the commercial sector and top of the pyramid. Few people are developing for SMS or USSD due to cost and bureaucracy and this seems to be a lost opportunity. Nonetheless, developing for smart phones should not be ruled out here as government is more open to contribute to this space and penetration is low but rapidly expanding.
The Tech for transparency space is still in its infancy though there’s been a recent surge of activity in the governance space. Here’s a brief description of some of the fantastic organisations which I met working in this space.
The Open Data and Democracy Initiative (ODADI) has recently been established in Cape Town. They have 160 members and are comprised of members from civil society, donors and techies aiming to make use of Open Data and explore how to use tech to strengthen democracy. They recently hosted a democracy and open data focused Hackathon and were involved in the Africa News Innovation Challenge in Tanzania which explored innovative ways to share news. It was through this initiative that I met Gabi Razzano from the Open Democracy Advice Centre (ODAC). They are building a website which will enable citizens to make freedom of information requests and which will act as a data repository for incoming information. We have since funded this project and you can read more here.
Another member of ODADI is Osiame Molefe from Will of The People, a social start-up. He will soon be working with Parliamentary Monitoring Group and mySociety to create a platform which enables South Africans to find out critical information about their MPs, rank them, send in comments to them and access parliamentary proceedings. We’ll be writing more on this soon.
Kurt Appolis has been developing MiGox at RLab, a Mxit based application which targets township dwellers. He realised that these communities could rarely access government info as they have limited access to their websites or the documents which are mainly in PDF format. They have 3 community writers who are distilling government info from their websites and newspapers such as grant announcements, policy changes, debates in parliament which will stimulate debate about education and employment and stimulating discussions around them. Users can rate, follow, like, dislike and share stories. See more here.
It’s exciting to see such a wide range of interventions in the tech for transparency space and I look forward to seeing how this space evolves at such a critical stage in South Africa.