What Is Civic Tech, Really?

By Nkosinathi Mcetywa, Originally published in the Human Rights Pulse

The divide between government and its citizens grows by the day in many parts of the world.

This is for a number of reasons, including mismanagement, a lack of accountability, corruption, and inefficiency. Citizens go unheard and unrecognised because of both physical and perceived distances between them and the country’s leadership. These distances have created knowledge gaps, and have contributed towards a lack of trust in a government’s ability to provide desperately needed services. The poor and uneducated are usually the most affected by this, and as such become more deeply entrenched in anti-government views.

These knowledge gaps, exacerbated by the lack of access to digital technologies, have motivated innovative citizens across the continent to create solutions independent of, and in concert with, government. These innovators are ensuring that citizens are better educated about service delivery and are equipped with the necessary tools to access social services. Africa has many examples of such innovators. 

BACK-TO-BASICS IN TECH 

While most people across the globe associate civic technology (“civic tech”) with the latest and coolest digital innovations, in Africa the focus is often on accessibility and ease of use in technology. Often the innovations in civic tech that have the most impact are those that make the basics easier, particularly in areas where there is still a wide digital gap in access to information. Creators use simple and accessible technology based on their specific knowledge to share this with the public. 

While developed countries have readily available access to civic tech, the Global South faces more challenges. Poor internet connectivity and low bandwidth, along with lack of access to digital devices, are just some of the difficulties in providing technology access to the intended beneficiaries. Initiatives using accessible modes of technology like Unstructured Supplementary Service Data (USSD) tend to have more success, particularly in remote areas. USSD does not require an internet connection, so new civic tech that runs off USSD and not the internet is more widely accessible. While USSD has been around for some time, its simplicity means that all phones can use it without the need for a particular platform such as Android or iOS. The use of inexpensive and accessible technologies throughout Africa means a step towards equal access to information and services. Initiatives such as Grassroots and UX in South Africa and Mozambique, among others, have successfully used USSD as a tool to enable more citizens to participate in their own democratic government system.  

PROMOTION OF EDUCATIONAL TOOLS  

The deployment of civic tech helps with resolving ongoing challenges like digital illiteracy and the lack of civic education. Innovators in the developing world are using civic tech as a tool to close the digital divide and literacy gaps, but also as a tool to educate citizens outside the classroom. Women of Uganda is one example of an initiative using technology to bridge the digital gender divide. Some initiatives focus on making justice accessible to every citizen (e.g Apptornney in Zambia), some focus on health education (e.g Ask Without Shame in Uganda), some focus on making voting easier for every citizen (e.g Digital Rogue Society Experiment Group in Ethiopia), others focus on collaborative processes of city building (e.g Community Atlas in Mozambique).  

In the West African country of Benin, a group of innovators came together to create a platform that promotes citizen participation in public engagements. This application, Bon Citoyenne, was created as a response to what the creators characterise as a lack of participation of citizens in matters of public interest. 

In South Africa, a practising lawyer noticed a growing demand for knowledge about legal processes. She filled this gap by creating a chat function platform called Luma Law that allows users to ask questions about any legal matters they need assistance with. In Mozambique, a social entrepreneur wanted to close the digital literacy gap in his country by using digital tools to educate people in rural areas using his innovative invention called the Community Tablet. These are but a few examples of civic tech being used across the world to help citizens gain access to information where government resources are insufficient.

CIVIC TECH AND BRIDGING SOCIETAL INEQUALITIES

The transformative nature of civic tech has the potential to bridge educational gaps, encourage more civic activism, facilitate productivity and even foster accountability from state figureheads and other relevant government actors. The effectiveness of civic tech is not always immediately quantifiable, especially because civic technologies are often part of the first phase in restoring the persistent inequality in our societies. While civic technology is just one instrument available, its use could be incredibly useful as a way to close knowledge gaps and promote equality all over the world.

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