Civic tech community excelling in helping to handle the pandemic

As the coronavirus ravages one country after another an unprecedented rise in the number of digital solutions and innovations has emerged globally.

Researchers, entrepreneurs, start-ups, companies and policymakers are devising solutions for everything from medical supply shortages to ways to lower the infection risks for front-line workers and provide alternatives for overburdened hospitals.

Policymakers, businesses and citizens are working together and have focused their energies on the existential threat facing humanity. In Mumbai rival politicians came together to provide food and shelter to thousands of migrant workers. When there was a growing shortage of ventilators, engineering students from Nigeria and India developed low-cost ventilators using locally available materials, while a professor in Italy developed open-source intensive-care units built from recycled shipping containers.

In SA, business and citizens have also come forward and are working with the government. Telkom, SA’s largest telecommunications company, began working with the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) to develop a Covid-19 track-and-trace solution. Telkom used multiple data sources, including the geographic information system (GIS), to track infected people’s movements to determine who they may have exposed to the virus.

“The citizens responsible for first detecting and responding to the virus were a community of activists, coders and hackers, so-called civic tech activists”

In addition, the SA National Space Agency is using image data generated by satellites to study how neighbourhoods can be dedensified, and how water can be provided to informal settlements, including using the data to gauge the distance of communities from essential services such as retail and medical facilities.

For the first time in many countries, governments are directly engaging with citizens to assist them in their efforts to ease the effects of the pandemic. And for the first time on such a grand scale citizens are engaging with governments and businesses to contribute to a collective response to the pandemic.

The solutions and innovations that have emerged during the pandemic demonstrate how citizens, business and governments are using existing resources, tools, methodologies and repurposing data, information and skills to respond to the pandemic.

Many may be aware that Taiwan’s response to the pandemic has been among the world’s most laudable: it has had fewer than 600 infections, and deaths in the single digits. The citizens responsible for first detecting and responding to the virus were a community of activists, coders and hackers, so-called civic tech hactivists. They not only used tech and data-driven insights to detect and trace the spread of the virus very early on, but ensured the availability of critical supplies.

Globally, the civic tech community felt an obligation to play a key role in fighting the pandemic: they designed mobile-enabled platforms or citizen-engagement portals that offered two-way communication between citizens and governments; apps that measured social distancing and provided critical health information; data visualisation platforms such as mapping availability of beds and medical practitioners in various hospitals and health centres; and used data and design to streamline voting lines.

President Cyril Ramaphosa was quick to recognise the importance of using technology to fight the effects of Covid. He invited a tech community in SA that developed a “vulnerability map” to work with the government. The map is helping the state in its response to the crisis using publicly available data to identify vulnerable communities.

Amid every crisis lies great opportunity, it is said. At a civic tech innovators meeting at the Wits School of Governance, Adi Eyal and Adrian Kearns from OpenUp, an SA-based open data initiative, said: “This couldn’t have been a more opportune time for the civic tech community as engagement with the government has become easier.” They observed that during the pandemic there had been an uptake in governments’ use of digital technology to engage with citizens. Open Up is working with the government to track its Covid spending.

Service delivery

The crisis-driven solutions and innovations that emerged, including for service delivery, are making companies and governments realise the value of digital on an almost unheard-of scale. Numerous solutions and digital innovations that have emerged during the pandemic have not only accelerated the proof of concept for service delivery but hastened the adoption of digital technologies by governments. Governments worldwide are working to scale their public services and make information and data more readily accessible to the public.

The pandemic has demonstrated that digital technology has become a de facto component in how businesses, governments and citizens engage with each other. Digitisation is the way forward for every business that wants to survive and every government that wants to improve citizen engagement and provide better service delivery.

Science fiction writer Arthur C Clarke was right when he said the only way to discover the limits of the possible is to go beyond them into the impossible. Only a few months ago it may have seemed an impossible task to get the government, with only a few exceptions, to directly engage with citizens and use information and data access to improve service delivery. The pandemic has fast-forwarded that.

Those who do not adapt and move in the emerging space, be it business or the government, may not survive the crisis.

This article was originally published by Business Live 

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Integrity Idol names and celebrates public servants

Public servants often get a bad reputation in South Africa but one organisation is working hard to change unfair perceptions

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Integrity Idol names and celebrates public servants

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Covid-19: How Civic techies are stepping up to aid the fight in Africa

The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic has seen a number of African civic tech initiatives support efforts to help citizens, governments, businesses and communities respond to the global health crisis that’s affecting every part of our lives. Civic tech has enabled government, citizens and companies to track and slow the spread of COVID-19 across different African countries.

According to the Civic Tech Innovation Network, there are at least 140 civic tech initiatives in Africa.

Civic tech during COVID-19 in Africa

Across the continent, civic tech initiatives have been actively using their innovations to respond to the pandemic — showing the potential and shortcomings of technology during a pandemic. Indeed, COVID-19 is an unprecedented opportunity to reimagine how technology can shape society. Although there are many civic tech initiatives stepping up to the fight against COVID-19, this blog post focuses on just eight initiatives. Here is how eight African civic tech initiatives are responding and helping during the COVID-19 crisis:

Amandla.mobi-South Africa

The independent, community advocacy organisation Amandla.mobi seeks to build a more just and people-powered South Africa and has been campaigning on COVID-19 related issues. With a membership of over 600,000 people, Amandla’s recent COVID-19 related campaigns include: Make schools safe before they re-openStop the late payment of social grants, families are struggling enough. Demand Minister of Social Development and Sassa CEO actCoronavirus, here’s what mobile networks should doAll these campaigns focus on daily issues that South Africans are facing.

The campaigns are run based on Amandla.mobi’s founding principle — turning every mobile phone into a democracy building tool so that no matter where South Africans live; the language they speak or issues they care about, they can take action with others.

Budgit-Nigeria

The Nigerian innovative enterprise focuses on simplifying the national budget and public data, making it accessible to the general public to aid participatory governance. Budgit in partnership with Civic Hive have been tracking COVID-19 funds and allocations through the COVIDFUND Tracka portal. It tracks COVID-19 donations given to the federal and state governments of Nigeria ranging from private and public, local and international organizations. According to Budgit the CovidFund Tracka portal enables them to monitor resources and give reports of palliatives being given to citizens. The platform lists the COVID-19 donations and it allows citizens to search through the datasheet by state, donor, name, donation details, donation type and more, currently COVIDFUND Tracka has tracked down 294 donations by private and public, local and international organizations. It follows up this effort through social media by sharing the news of donations.

Through the COVIDFUND Tracka platform, they also have a built-in COVID-19 dashboard which provides COVID-19 information such as the number of tests, confirmed cases, active cases, recovered cases and deaths.

According to Budgit’s media & communications lead, Damilola Ogundipe civic tech has to play the important role of advocating for accountability, citizen engagement, and information, monitoring government response to all citizens including persons with disabilities during COVID-19.

Code for Africa-Africa (CfA)

Code for Africa, one of the largest, if not the largest civic tech organisation in Africa has been using technology and data to build digital democracies and empower citizens with actionable information.

In response to the pandemic Code for Africa started working on multiple initiatives, including:

  • To digitise and publish local Africa-specific data and scientific research to help planners better understand which specific communities, infrastructure and/or services are most vulnerable to COVID-19, and what countermeasures might be most effective;
  • To debunk the most harmful misinformation and quackery, that has become a tsunami or ‘infodemic’ on social media and that is blunting public efforts to tackle COVID-19. The partners will do this by fact-checking misleading memes and claims, as part of a wider CfA partnership with Facebook and WhatsApp, while simultaneously amplifying the voices of credible African scientific researchers, and empowering African newsrooms and social media influencers to fight misinformation with facts and compelling storytelling;
  • This initiative aims to connect African researchers and experts to change-makers in government, the media and at development, to help improve the appropriateness and relevance of plans or interventions, as well as to bolster evidence-based public discourse.

Govchat-South Africa

Govchat, the official citizen engagement platform in South Africa. It enables the government and citizens to connect directly, at no cost. In response to the COVID-19 crisis, the initiative has deployed COVID-19 related functionalities to support the government’s efforts. The new features allow citizens to use GovChat on WhatsApp for COVID-19 screening, facility searches, and status reports.

Govchat has also been providing information, guidelines, resource tools for businesses, communities, citizens and enhancing public communication and engagement and action. The information and resources focus on how WhatsApp can help people connect with those who matter most.

Govchat COVID-19 Pre screening feature, UNATHI GovChat, was born out of a partnership with the Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs (CoGTA). UNATHIi is a COVID-19 pre-screening and early warning digital interface.

UNATHI is an accessible ChatBot available over both WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger and assists both:

  • South Africans, in providing COVID-19 testing details and pre-screening information, and
  • The South African Government, in collating and reporting real-time citizen COVID19- related activity and symptoms.

Govchat says through UNATHIi’s easy natural language-guided questions, citizens are able to anonymously:

  • Indicate their location,
  • Report COVID-19 symptoms presenting in themselves, family or household members,
  • Find their closest public or private testing facility,
  • Report their test activity and results, and
  • Receive health tips and information.

UNATHI IS accessed through WhatsApp, people just add the number 082 046 8553 to their devices.

GovChat’s CEO Eldrid Jordaan says the platform has 3 million active users monthly.

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Covid-19: How Civic techies are stepping up to aid the fight in Africa

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Data can help cities respond to COVID-19

Some South African cities share how they are using data to respond to COVID-19

The South African Cities Network through its South African Council for City Data (SACCD) supported by National Treasury Cities Support Programme (CSP) recently hosted a webinar where a few city participants from the City of Johannesburg, City of eThekwini, City of Ekurhuleni and City of Cape Town shared their internal data responses to the pandemic with reference to their outcomes achieved, processes undertaken, and challenges experienced.
Here are some key takeaways from the webinar

City of Cape Town

Delyno Du Toit from the City of Cape Town (CoCT) says the CoCT has been using data to respond to COVID-19 through the collection of data related to the pandemic around business continuity, finance, the impact on HR as well as data around COVID-19 worldwide. CoCT has also been using data to try and understand the state of health in the city. “We have put this data on a dashboard for a broader audience in the city, CoCT is also part of a data team within the COVID-19 response Unit. To fully implement the use of data against COVID-19, CoCT has put together a data workgroup with the Western Cape province,” explains Du Toit.

The city of Cape Town has augmented current resources by reaching out to universities and other entities to access data. Du Toit says before COVID-19, the city had already started gathering data, but now it has focused around COVID-19 crisis. “The City of Cape Town is trying to use data to assist with operational processes, we have also requested for other data custodians to assist with the process.”

City of Johannesburg

Monique Griffith from the City of Johannesburg (CoJ) says the city has been collating data on partnerships for example, for donating and manufacturing PPE required by workers. They are also collecting other data on the number of tests being conducted and the number of cases, hospitalizations and deaths to understand COVID-19 hotspots.

Griffith says CoJ does not intend to not penalize people when they are trying to access food, so the city is enabling food banks to deliver food house to house to reduce exposure to the virus. She further shares that CoJ is developing a future-oriented disaster management plan and creation of a long-term commitment that operates with a vastly faster turn around times to ensure faster service delivery during and after COVID-19.

The city also has a “war room” collecting data for short term response as well as long-term transformation. They need to establish a “war kit” within risk dept and revising the disaster plan based on Covid-19 data. The city’s data is coming from ward councillors, police, health services and water services because access to water is a key factor in mitigating the spread.
The city is also in the process of collating data into one system. City of Johannesburg permits needed for businesses are providing the city with business data on where the business spread is and the profile of businesses, this data can be used to understand what business relief is needed.

City of eThekwini

Tshegang Chipeya from the City of eThekwini says eThekwini has prepared a presentation on the impact on the economy that relied on COVID-19 data to understand the most vulnerable areas of the economy and society to develop a response plan. She says eThekwini is also developing COVID-19 economic recovery plan which was presented by the mayor and used data to support certain interventions. eThekwini is also using local and global dashboards to communicate information about assistance packages which are available to businesses and citizens as well as Covid-19 figures specifically in Durban context.

The city eThekwini has collected data through external sources mostly as well as internal data through the EDGE platform. eThekwini has also conducted a business survey to profile different businesses. eThekwini’s next step is to collate city data such as water, electricity, etc.

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Data can help cities respond to COVID-19

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How #DataMustFall

We need to focus on why the poor are paying more for data

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How #DataMustFall

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Lessons from an African civic tech budget platform

Collaboration is key for the success of civic tech in Africa.

Interview with Esohe Osinoiki, Monitoring and Evaluation Manager BudgIT & Tracka Nigeria

What do your organisations, BudgIT and Tracka do in Nigeria?

BudgIT is a civic organization that applies technology to intersect citizen engagement with institutional improvement, to facilitate societal change. We do this by way of simplifying and making the budget accessible to everyone irrespective of their literacy level. Capital projects (captured in budget documents) give a sense of belonging to the citizens given the fact that those projects if executed, bring about development in the country. However, the constant recurrence of project abandonment and/or fake execution gave birth to a tool known as Tracka.

Launched in 2014 by BudgIT, Tracka is a social platform of/for active citizens who are interested in monitoring public projects in their communities thus enhancing budget performance across the country. This platform, layered on open data and integrated with existing social media tools, galvanises people of common interests together to share photos, videos, documents and also post comments on existing projects.

How does your organisation/platforms work?

Using grassroots monitors and also partners for projects located across the federation, this approach explores the use of technology to track budgets and also report to the responsible authorities from the executive and legislature. We use social media to amplify discussions on projects. Thanks to the internet, mobile web, apps, and SMS, citizens now have a focal point of tracking public projects and report on-the-ground performance to institutions. This allows them to reach out to the exact institution that is responsible for the project. Citizens are able to provide feedback on the platform while our tracking officers (in all states where Tracka currently operates), verify those comments and reach out to public institutions for necessary action.

The project tracking officers are tasked with the role of tracking all the projects listed within their state of operation; they also organize town hall meetings with the community members in order to enlighten them about projects contained within their constituencies. These Tracka officers visit different constituencies in order to attend the town hall meetings, listen to the agitation of the community members and assist them in communicating with their constituency representative(s) at all levels in order to get these projects completed.

What advice would you give to other African civic tech startups/projects? Or, put another way, what do you wish you had known when you started?

Collaboration is key. The work is bigger than all of us and we can only achieve our goals when we all work together. Civil Society Organisations in Africa need to do more as a team.

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Lessons from an African civic tech budget platform

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Civic Tech: The Missing Link?

How are digital technologies connecting people and the government?

The field of ‘civic tech’ is growing — in Africa as well as in other parts of the world. More governments, more activist organisations, more development institutions are thinking about opportunities, trying experiments, building new technologies and digitising their processes. According to a research report by the Knight Foundation , technology has the potential to change the way citizens interact with the government and one another, strengthening communities and governance. People, organisations, and the government have started leveraging technology to inform and encourage civic engagement.

Global experts director of Investment at Luminate, Ory Okolloh, Senior Public Sector Specialist, World Bank Governance Global Practice, Tiago Peixoto and Facilitator, Trainer & Movement Builder, Nicole Carty, shared their experiences and thoughts about the current state of civic tech field at the Civic Tech Innovation Forum in November 2018.

Speaking about how technology helps activism, Nicole Carty explained that technology is a way to do activism better. “People have been able to come together because of the internet, online movements, using technology to reach all people. Using technology in activism brings people and resources together on whatever goal they are working towards,” Carty said.

The missing link

Peixoto said that civic tech was the missing link between decision-makers and citizens. Civic tech now makes it easier for citizens to be consulted on their needs and issues they are facing in communities. He, however, wonders if the technology is improving access, providing a voice or if the technology is making issues worse. “The use of technology, mobile or internet is very biased, as opposed to non-online interactions, through technology and online platforms the bias is amplified because the participants are often not the same people who are directly affected,” Peixoto said.

He explained that the bias stems from the development and usage of the technology. For example on Change.org men create more petitions than women but women participate more. Women are extremely successful when they start petitions. “The feedback from petitions is supposed to enforce policy change, so the solution to this issue is when you design a civic tech platform or start a petition, start working with the user, create channels to generate responsiveness,” he said.

To fully mobilise and use technology for citizen engagement or bringing people together the civic tech community has to engage with communities. For instance, if they are putting together a petition, organisers should teach the community about the petition, educate them on the importance of citizen participation. Okolloh also mentioned the importance of engaging citizens and finding out what they have already been working on.

“The idea we are talking about is civic, to fight for whatever issue, anchoring around the civic, not the citizen because we ask too much of the citizen, thinking about the average African citizen, ignoring our privilege, how do we use our privilege to build better civic techs?” Okolloh said.

Carty emphasized the importance of having a strategy and goals for the petition or civic platform. “In some cases, there is no impact because there is no strategy, people don’t know where they are going, no plan leads to things falling apart, the things fail because we are not understanding the matrix of what we are trying to do,” Carty said.

“Building relationships when it comes to petitions is also important because people sign a petition and donate but there is no relationship that’s been built, there has been a drop off responsiveness with petitions.”

Where government responsiveness is concerned, Okolloh said we should think of it in the context of “what is the incentive for the government to report information, understanding government incentives is how you work”. If the government understands the benefits of civic tech, open data and technology in responding to citizens’ needs the government might be open to implementing civic tech.

The civic tech community in Africa is becoming more active and visible however there are many obstacles in the way. “One of the problems of civic tech is that we are not addressing the structural issues that our society is built on which directly affect whichever issue we are mobilising for,” concluded Okolloh.

The Civic Tech Innovation Network Magazine covers innovation stories, interviews with leaders in the field and digests of relevant research. Subscribe Here for more civic tech-related content.

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Civic Tech: The Missing Link?

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Melissa Tsungai Zisengwe

 

African governments should rely on the internet more

African governments should rely on the internet more

Event Blog published on Medium, click link below

African governments should rely on the internet more


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Melissa Tsungai Zisengwe

 

Tool review: What information are parliamentary monitoring websites imparting to citizens?

Digital parliamentary monitoring platforms have become an important vehicle for democracy in the digital age

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Melissa Tsungai Zisengwe

 

How to: Raise awareness for your civic tech platform

Citizen lab has put together a communication guide which provides some of the best practices tips on launching or increasing engagement on your public participation platform

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How to: Raise awareness for your civic tech platform


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Melissa Tsungai Zisengwe