The Civic Tech Innovation Forum (CTIF) and Jamfest festival, themed #DIYAFRICA kicked off with an opening plenary on Monday, 13 September. The opening plenary, as the first session of the five-day festival, explored the role of power in the civic tech arena. While the discussion focused on the potential of data and technology in bringing change, it also touched on the importance of tech and data needing to be in the hands of those who it intends to benefit.
What does our future look like as Africans and how do we co-create this vision together? That was the burning question at the opening plenary, a session that aimed to reflect on solutions to challenges that surround us and our African communities. The opening plenary was a fitting introduction to the #DIYAfrica theme for the CTIF21 and Jamfest 2021.
“Civic tech and media innovators are using digital innovation to address a wide range of societal issues,” says Professor Zeblon Vilakazi, Vice-chancellor of the University of Witwatersrand who gave the opening address. Prof Vilakazi highlighted how these communities are contributing to digital transformation, particularly as the world moves into the fourth industrial revolution.
He was also joined by Neema Iyer, founder of Pollicy, Abdul Noormohamed, director for Luminate Africa, Vandita Morarka, founder and CEO of One Future Collective, and Bright Simons, President at mPedigree.
Challenging power dynamics and inherent bias
“Globally there have been significant advances in how data is used and, as time progresses, those who have data tend to have more power,” says Neema Iyer. Iyer says that in terms of access to data and harnessing it for the public good, the African continent is “lagging behind”. She also notes that access to data, connectivity, and infrastructure is needed. “Against this backdrop, foreign technology companies are able to come into African markets and dominate in different ways”.
“Data has the power to bring about change”, said Iyer. She further noted that “when I think about the African context, I think, yes, we may have missed some industrial revolutions, but what’s important is that we play a part in determining what our data future looks like. And in order to do that, we [Africans] have to come together as a collective and figure out what we want, and what we don’t want”.
“The theme of DIY stood out for me because a lot of the work I do in the field of human rights and social justice is centred on the idea of communities and thinking about how to design and [how] data can be decolonized, can be made more just, can have intersectional feminist principles embedded in the way we do things and not just in final products or services”, says Morarka.
She says that “any form of technological innovation has to centre around the communities that it is meant to serve”. She warns that when this does not happen, it often leads to more harm or unintended consequences that have not been accounted for. Morarka adds that people who design or develop these innovations do not have the lived experiences and are unable to understand the unintended consequences. She notes that data needs to be ethically sourced and decolonised.
Meanwhile, Noormohamed, providing a funder’s perspective, said that at Luminate “they have observed that the voices of underrepresented groups are not being heard or are being actively silenced in these dialogues because they have unequal access to technology, but also because of the historical suppression of their perspectives for the benefit of those holding power”. He agrees with Iyer and adds that “technology seems to be amplifying the power of those who already have it”.
Noormohamed says that the type of civic tech organisations that Luminate invests in are the ones whose technologies can enable governments to serve people better and others that empower people to have a voice in decision-making.
“What are we at Luminate doing, holding this space going forward? Our affirmative vision has always been one where we seek just and fair societies for all and to make progress towards this vision. We realise the power must be equitably distributed and exercised, the rights of those who have been disempowered or marginalised must be defended, and they must have greater power to participate in the shaping of democratic outcomes”.
Simons echoed the sentiments of the other panelists regarding control of data and how technological innovations are controlled by Western powers. He said that in addition to power, there are two other dynamics: passion and knowledge.
“If you have a lot of knowledge and passion in a subject, you can become a digital innovator and don’t have to have access the capitalist resources; and the overarching monopoly of capitalist structures have reduced because of the availability of new technologies,” says Simons. He adds that those with “knowledge and passion are increasingly entering a space where they are innovators”.
#DIYAFRICA was a week-long festival that included dialogues, roundtable discussions and exhibitions focused on exploring the African civic tech landscape and the ways in which the civic tech space can continue to grow and develop in Africa.