Civic Tech Q&A: SmartCape’s Thurlo Cicero

This ambitious project aims to bring Cape Town’s citizenry online and promote digital literacy

How do you extend online access and promote digital literacy in a deeply unequal society?

This is the mammoth task Cape Town’s SmartCape initiative set itself. Senior online producer for the City of Cape Town Thurlo Cicero takes us through their growth into one of Africa’s largest digital inclusion projects, and the lessons they learned along the way.

Q. Tell us about the start of SmartCape and how it has grown?

SmartCape started in 2002 with a pilot project in just six municipal libraries. We knew that we needed to give citizens access to the internet, and this was the seed of the idea. In 2003 we applied for and won funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation that allowed us to scale up the operation. Today we now provide limited daily internet access from PCs across all of the City’s 104 libraries. Several of the locations also have WiFi zones too.

This has evolved into a broader digital inclusion project that is part of the City and Mayor’s vision for Cape Town. SmartCape is the platform through which we are up-skilling people and promoting e-literacy. It is also a means to accessing the City’s e-services. Today there are over 450 000 registered users who can get 45-min free internet use per session per day, across 670 computers. The users of the wifi spots can access up to 500 MB a month.

Q. What data do you collect from your users and how do you inform them of this data usage?

We collect a lot of demographic information through the sign up process — all the typical stuff. We also provide the privacy policy during the registration. Users can also access this at any point from the footer menu at the bottom of our website. In addition, we also capture where people log on from, what kinds of applications they use. Our privacy policy was approved by the City’s legal department and we believe it is PoPI-compliant, and promotes informed consent.

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