Experimentation and civic tech: what we’ve learnt from eviction data from the COVID-19 era

How can civic tech tools help improve tenants’ access to justice when they are facing an eviction?

Since the South African government declared a national state of disaster and took the country into lockdown in response to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the ability of landlords to legally evict tenants has been curtailed. The exact extent of the curtailment has varied slightly as the government has switched between different lockdown alert levels in terms of the regulations made under the Disaster Management Act. Under all alert levels save for level five, however, the default position has essentially been that courts have retained the power to issue eviction orders, but that the execution of any eviction orders issued should be stayed or suspended until after the state of disaster has come to an end.

Against this backdrop, the data we have gathered through the evictions.org.za site is cause for alarm. Amongst other things, the site contains an online eviction guide, the point of which is to help users facing an imminent eviction understand what their rights are as tenants and to provide some guidance as to how to exercise those rights. What concerns us is that the number of users that visited the site since the lockdown regulations were put into place has skyrocketed.

Let’s spend a little bit of time unpacking this trend.

The site was launched in August 2019. Between then and the declaration of the state of disaster in March 2020, the site had an average of around 250 users per month. By May 2020, this number had exploded to more than 4500 monthly users, before climbing slightly further in June 2020. As the chart below shows, moreover, the average number of monthly users since March 2020 has been in excess of 3250. Some of the increase is attributable to users visiting the site’s page specifically pertaining to COVID-19 regulations, which has become one of the site’s most popular pages, but we have also seen a significant increase in the number of visits to pages containing basic information on a person’s rights when faced with an imminent eviction.

While it is true that this chart provokes more questions than it provides answers, it is also true that we are now able to ask better questions. For example, has the site attracted more than 1200% more users since March 2020 because tenants seeking help with respect to an imminent eviction have not been able to physically attend law clinics? Or is it simply the case that the number of people facing eviction in South Africa has grown massively since the onset of the pandemic? And, if so, do the figures suggest that more eviction proceedings have been launched in courts? To what extent have courts been issuing eviction orders? And, importantly, to what extent have these orders been suspended or stayed? Regardless of the answers, what seems fairly clear to us is that the pandemic has had a significant impact on those seeking help in relation to evictions.

What the above example also makes fairly clear is the potential of the kinds of experimentation that civic tech tools enable. OpenUp’s mission includes developing tools and supporting projects that inform, empower and/or activate citizens through the adoption of technological tools. The ways that we use and think about technology – which is inspired by concepts such as Agile, the lean startup and/or design thinking – is often experimental. Experiments are not always successful, but we have found that regardless of the exact outcome of our experiments they almost always provide us with new ways of thinking about and investigating pressing social issues.

Shaun Russell (Product Owner of the Evictions Project or “EP”) describes how we have adopted this kind of experimental approach as the EP has run its course:

“You can look at it as an experiment in trying to answer that question. It's an opportunity to use our processes and our methodologies, our team and our skills to attack a specific problem, but then to also answer the question of does civic technology actually help to solve problems. So in a way the eviction project is one of the ways in which we are testing our own methodology, testing our own processes to see if civic technology actually can make a difference.”

But as Shaun further points out, what distinguishes civic tech experiments from tech experiments more broadly is their focus:

“Technology and data is not going to change the world. They're just tools, you still need people to take those tools, you know, a hammer doesn't build a house, you still need a builder to use the tools to make the house, and that's the same thing with social problems. What technology can do is it can create better tools that we can leverage to get things done quicker or better so having access to data can mean that people who now need to take action can take better action and make better decisions because they have that data.”

What further distinguishes good civic tech experiments from bad civic tech experiments is the ability of a project or tool to respond to the needs of its users. OpenUp’s approach to civic tech thus relies heavily on understanding who our users are and what they are actually trying to achieve in tangible terms. With this in mind, we view technology as something which enables us to collect information, feedback and data from the people that use our tools as systematically as possible. We then use what our users tell us in our attempts to improve our tools ‒ in a manner which seeks to improve their experience with the tool.

It is this sort of approach that distinguishes a proper deployment of civic tech principles from the practices adopted by tech firms, on the one hand, and civil society actors which do not leverage technology to their advantage, on the other. Whereas a conventional tech firm may apply a similar kind of thinking, they typically wouldn’t do so in order to conceive of new ways of thinking about ‒ and ultimately solving ‒ pressing social issues. Conventional civil society actors which do not leverage technology to their advantage may look to deal with pressing social issues, but they do not use the power of technology to improve their way of working.

An example of this is the civil society actor that develops a booklet or a guide and then prints tons of copies to distribute to the communities in which they operate, but stops there. One step better is publishing the resource on their website, which enables more people to find it ‒ if they know about it or stumble upon it. Better still is to make use of processes such as search engine optimisation (SEO) to help those interested in using the booklet or guide to find it when using their search engine of choice. Regardless of how many copies of the resource are printed, whether the resource is published on a website or to what extent an actor resorts to SEO and similar processes, one of the true powers of technology lies in the ways in which it can be used to gather systematic feedback. Once feedback is collected, it can then be used to close important loops which enable us to judge whether our experiment was a success (or not) and how the next iteration of the tool we are developing can be a little bit better (from the perspective of our users) than the current iteration.

Importantly, however, we should also be mindful of the fact that our tools often act as backstops and are unlikely to solve larger systemic problems. This colours how users view our interventions. In the context of the EP, first best for a user may well entail simple and immediate access to a good lawyer, which is something we are unable to provide. As such, users may not respond particularly well to our attempts to make the next iteration of a given tool a little bit better than the last. Our hope, of course, is that our tools fill important gaps in an imperfect world and that making them better progressively is a worthwhile endeavour. Even if we succeed, however, users may still feel like their needs are not being met. Self awareness and empathy are key in situations like these. Capacity constraints aside, we should always do our best to ensure that our users feel recognised, especially in cases when they draw attention to the fact that our tools do not quite do the trick.

Much of this applies to our experimentation with the EP. The idea to build the site came from conventional information booklets which aimed to inform tenants about their rights in relation to evictions. The aim of the site was not only to serve as an information resource, but also to direct tenants to actionable steps they could take when they were faced with an imminent eviction or in order to prevent an eviction process from getting underway in the first place. Tools such as the Affidavit Assistant app were later added in order to make it easier for users to take these steps.

Next, in order to determine whether our experiment was a success, we collected data from the site and from our users. This has enabled us to get a better sense of who is using the EP tools and what they hope to achieve by doing so. This, in turn, has brought us to a point where we can better assess where to take the EP next with the needs of our users in mind and which stakeholders to bring on board in order to ensure the success of the next iteration of EP tools. We are cautiously optimistic that our processes will enable us to further develop our tools in ways that empower tenants and improve their access to justice.

Are you a lawyer or law clinic working to prevent unlawful evictions?

We are currently in the process of reviewing the EP’s tools with a view to expanding our anti-eviction network. If you’re interested in partnering with us or contributing in any way, please get in touch by emailing evictions@openup.org.za or shaun@openup.org.za.

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How can civic tech tools help improve tenants’ access to justice when they are facing an eviction?

Since the South African government declared a national state of disaster and took the country into lockdown in response to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the ability of landlords to legally evict tenants has been curtailed. The exact extent of the curtailment has varied slightly as the government has switched between different lockdown alert levels in terms of the regulations made under the Disaster Management Act. Under all alert levels save for level five, however, the default position has essentially been that courts have retained the power to issue eviction orders, but that the execution of any eviction orders issued should be stayed or suspended until after the state of disaster has come to an end.

Against this backdrop, the data we have gathered through the evictions.org.za site is cause for alarm. Amongst other things, the site contains an online eviction guide, the point of which is to help users facing an imminent eviction understand what their rights are as tenants and to provide some guidance as to how to exercise those rights. What concerns us is that the number of users that visited the site since the lockdown regulations were put into place has skyrocketed.

Let’s spend a little bit of time unpacking this trend.

The site was launched in August 2019. Between then and the declaration of the state of disaster in March 2020, the site had an average of around 250 users per month. By May 2020, this number had exploded to more than 4500 monthly users, before climbing slightly further in June 2020. As the chart below shows, moreover, the average number of monthly users since March 2020 has been in excess of 3250. Some of the increase is attributable to users visiting the site’s page specifically pertaining to COVID-19 regulations, which has become one of the site’s most popular pages, but we have also seen a significant increase in the number of visits to pages containing basic information on a person’s rights when faced with an imminent eviction.

While it is true that this chart provokes more questions than it provides answers, it is also true that we are now able to ask better questions. For example, has the site attracted more than 1200% more users since March 2020 because tenants seeking help with respect to an imminent eviction have not been able to physically attend law clinics? Or is it simply the case that the number of people facing eviction in South Africa has grown massively since the onset of the pandemic? And, if so, do the figures suggest that more eviction proceedings have been launched in courts? To what extent have courts been issuing eviction orders? And, importantly, to what extent have these orders been suspended or stayed? Regardless of the answers, what seems fairly clear to us is that the pandemic has had a significant impact on those seeking help in relation to evictions.

What the above example also makes fairly clear is the potential of the kinds of experimentation that civic tech tools enable. OpenUp’s mission includes developing tools and supporting projects that inform, empower and/or activate citizens through the adoption of technological tools. The ways that we use and think about technology – which is inspired by concepts such as Agile, the lean startup and/or design thinking – is often experimental. Experiments are not always successful, but we have found that regardless of the exact outcome of our experiments they almost always provide us with new ways of thinking about and investigating pressing social issues.

Shaun Russell (Product Owner of the Evictions Project or “EP”) describes how we have adopted this kind of experimental approach as the EP has run its course:

“You can look at it as an experiment in trying to answer that question. It's an opportunity to use our processes and our methodologies, our team and our skills to attack a specific problem, but then to also answer the question of does civic technology actually help to solve problems. So in a way the eviction project is one of the ways in which we are testing our own methodology, testing our own processes to see if civic technology actually can make a difference.”

But as Shaun further points out, what distinguishes civic tech experiments from tech experiments more broadly is their focus:

“Technology and data is not going to change the world. They're just tools, you still need people to take those tools, you know, a hammer doesn't build a house, you still need a builder to use the tools to make the house, and that's the same thing with social problems. What technology can do is it can create better tools that we can leverage to get things done quicker or better so having access to data can mean that people who now need to take action can take better action and make better decisions because they have that data.”

What further distinguishes good civic tech experiments from bad civic tech experiments is the ability of a project or tool to respond to the needs of its users. OpenUp’s approach to civic tech thus relies heavily on understanding who our users are and what they are actually trying to achieve in tangible terms. With this in mind, we view technology as something which enables us to collect information, feedback and data from the people that use our tools as systematically as possible. We then use what our users tell us in our attempts to improve our tools ‒ in a manner which seeks to improve their experience with the tool.

It is this sort of approach that distinguishes a proper deployment of civic tech principles from the practices adopted by tech firms, on the one hand, and civil society actors which do not leverage technology to their advantage, on the other. Whereas a conventional tech firm may apply a similar kind of thinking, they typically wouldn’t do so in order to conceive of new ways of thinking about ‒ and ultimately solving ‒ pressing social issues. Conventional civil society actors which do not leverage technology to their advantage may look to deal with pressing social issues, but they do not use the power of technology to improve their way of working.

An example of this is the civil society actor that develops a booklet or a guide and then prints tons of copies to distribute to the communities in which they operate, but stops there. One step better is publishing the resource on their website, which enables more people to find it ‒ if they know about it or stumble upon it. Better still is to make use of processes such as search engine optimisation (SEO) to help those interested in using the booklet or guide to find it when using their search engine of choice. Regardless of how many copies of the resource are printed, whether the resource is published on a website or to what extent an actor resorts to SEO and similar processes, one of the true powers of technology lies in the ways in which it can be used to gather systematic feedback. Once feedback is collected, it can then be used to close important loops which enable us to judge whether our experiment was a success (or not) and how the next iteration of the tool we are developing can be a little bit better (from the perspective of our users) than the current iteration.

Importantly, however, we should also be mindful of the fact that our tools often act as backstops and are unlikely to solve larger systemic problems. This colours how users view our interventions. In the context of the EP, first best for a user may well entail simple and immediate access to a good lawyer, which is something we are unable to provide. As such, users may not respond particularly well to our attempts to make the next iteration of a given tool a little bit better than the last. Our hope, of course, is that our tools fill important gaps in an imperfect world and that making them better progressively is a worthwhile endeavour. Even if we succeed, however, users may still feel like their needs are not being met. Self awareness and empathy are key in situations like these. Capacity constraints aside, we should always do our best to ensure that our users feel recognised, especially in cases when they draw attention to the fact that our tools do not quite do the trick.

Much of this applies to our experimentation with the EP. The idea to build the site came from conventional information booklets which aimed to inform tenants about their rights in relation to evictions. The aim of the site was not only to serve as an information resource, but also to direct tenants to actionable steps they could take when they were faced with an imminent eviction or in order to prevent an eviction process from getting underway in the first place. Tools such as the Affidavit Assistant app were later added in order to make it easier for users to take these steps.

Next, in order to determine whether our experiment was a success, we collected data from the site and from our users. This has enabled us to get a better sense of who is using the EP tools and what they hope to achieve by doing so. This, in turn, has brought us to a point where we can better assess where to take the EP next with the needs of our users in mind and which stakeholders to bring on board in order to ensure the success of the next iteration of EP tools. We are cautiously optimistic that our processes will enable us to further develop our tools in ways that empower tenants and improve their access to justice.

Are you a lawyer or law clinic working to prevent unlawful evictions?

We are currently in the process of reviewing the EP’s tools with a view to expanding our anti-eviction network. If you’re interested in partnering with us or contributing in any way, please get in touch by emailing evictions@openup.org.za or shaun@openup.org.za.

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