Leveraging Civic Tech to Empower and Support Citizens

Written by Amy Mutua

Leveraging Civic Tech to Empower and Support Citizens

“It is an exciting time for civic tech in Africa as the government and its people are starting to realise the potential that civic tech [has]… The pandemic has caused the world’s economies to diverge, governments are getting poorer, populations are still increasing and climate change is getting worse. Technology cannot solve these problems alone, but it can help the government in becoming more resilient, efficient, and cost minimising. Digital solutions can assist with scaling government services and citizen’s input on how to prioritise spending which can lead to effective collaboration. A rise in interest and investment could be transformative for civic tech as it will help citizens access their rights and spark economic and creative activity in a time that is so uncertain.”

Open Cities Lab

Open Cities Lab (OCL) is a non-profit organisation that creates tools and interventions that strengthen capacity within government, empower citizens and improve trust and accountability in the civic space. OCL is all about ‘big civic’ and ‘small tech’, meaning they are more focused on people and the impact of their projects on them rather than the technological solution. OCL prioritises transparency in government which is why open data (data that is freely available to everyone) is so important to them. It allows for decision-makers in government to be targeted and policy influenced to affect positive change. OCL does  this by offering expertise in data strategy, data science, machine learning, technology development, UX/UI design, engagement, and action research. OCL’s products include data portals, analytics, dashboards, data pipeline mapping, automation, and most importantly, data capacity building. 

OCL was born out of a desire to implement dynamic, living solutions to problems faced by urban communities in South Africa, and to contribute to developing a vibrant, inclusive society where all residents and stakeholders have an active role in decision-making and implementing positive social change. The founding committee observed that residents in South African cities have lost trust in public processes, and often do not have access to critical information, and forums or structures to be involved in decision-making. OCL sought to move plans and interventions out of the static and inefficient long reports that gather digital dust on officials’ shelves, and into problem-focused, user-centred interventions that are crafted in such a way that acknowledges vulnerability and builds in inclusion and sustainability. 

At CTIF2022, attendees will get the opportunity to interact with OCL and the tools that they have developed to help users, residents, and citizens engage decision makers. There will be live demos, learning videos and even a sneak peek at OCL’s brand new website!  There will also be opportunities for city employees and citizens to see how civic tech applies to them through real-life examples, learning videos and posters. Funders will also get to see what OCL is working on and how they can support.

Black Box – Crisis Map

Black Box’s Crisis Map is a tool that allows users to log a need or a resource on a map and allow others to reach out and help. In April 2022, Kwa-Zulu Natal, South Africa experienced heavy rainfall that led to deadly floods with hundreds of confirmed fatalities, thousands of people missing and the widespread destruction of homes and infrastructure. By Monday, the 11th of April, the storm had reached its pinnacle and Black Box and PISTA joined forces to workshop an intervention in a very short time period. Ayanda Nene, the lead developer, coded for 20 hours non-stop and in a total turnaround of 36 hours, the Durban Crisis Map was launched on Thursday, the 14th of April. In the ensuing four weeks, 30 000 people used the platform.  Read more about the journey to create Crisis Map and its impact here.

Callum Oberholzer, the founder of Black Box and chief architect of the Durban Crisis Map says, “the success of this technology intervention was building it from a posture of hope and not a posture of trepidation”. The execution of this initiative is attributed to a network of devoted and capable partnerships: a talented and dedicated civic tech team, the role of Nkululeko Mthembu (PISTA) for the disseminating the tool to the highest levels of provincial and national government as well as his initial research and insights into crisis response and a suite of highly talented, experienced and caring partners who are invested in seeing Durban (and South Africa) flourish. At CTIF 2022, you can expect to hear the stories of people who were impacted by Crisis Map and more about the potential future and evolution of this tool. 

Open Up – CaseFile

Open Up is an organisation that builds tools and provides data training which supports active citizenry and helps communities and governments work better together. CaseFile is one example of these tools. It is a digital Case Management System that aims to make it easier for Community Advice Caseworkers to manage large amounts of information, track clients, and make paralegals more efficient and effective. This, in turn, will have a significant impact on access to justice for poor rural South Africans who cannot  access private legal services. This digital system will replace the current paper-based system allowing caseworkers to access their cases from anywhere, not just in the office. It also means that their files are safer than if they were stored at an office. Lastly, going digital means that metadata about cases and case offices can be created so that Community Advice Case Offices South Africa (CAOSA) can have better oversight and make evidence-based decisions when it comes to resourcing their offices. At CTIF 2022, Open Up will give a live demonstration on how to use the system.

This system was created to make case workers’ jobs easier and more impactful as well as provide CAOSA and their Community Advice Offices with access to better data for better decision-making and resourcing. Currently the system is used by CAOSA caseworkers at 10 pilot advice offices however, Open Up wants to scale to 200 more CAOSA advice offices and then into other partners and possibly across the continent. While developing this tool, it became clear that there are still a lot of challenges around access as the pilot user group had very bad internet connectivity and a lack of access to computers which slowed the process. 

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