Four years ago, I accepted a job at a nonprofit with a tech tool I thought, at the time, was revolutionary.
Wikipedia defines civic technology as “technology that enhances the relationship between the people and government with software for communications, decision-making, service delivery, and political process”. For me, it is the long awaited bridge between people and the powers that be.
Four years ago, I accepted a job at a nonprofit with a tech tool I thought, at the time, was revolutionary. Grassroot was a simple tool designed to support citizens to organise themselves around participatory activities, such as community meetings, petitions, and community leader selection. The tool was operated through the use of cellphones, using mainly USSD and SMS, replacing the need for loudhailers and whistles - popular ways grassroots communities traditionally organise themselves on the ground.
Speaking in hindsight, the technology was revolutionary and lived up to its promise. Over the years, Grassroot was able to reach over a million people with a variety of applications being used to solicit participation from among tens of thousands of people in signing petitions, attending meetings where community-wide decisions could be made, and through “The Big Debate”: the biggest politically-themed youth television show in 2019, which utilised the Grassroot USSD platform to capture and convey the views of over one hundred thousand people by integrating the use of polling to connect with viewers after each episode.
However, despite all that Grassroot managed to achieve, there was a very big elephant in the room staring back at us: an empowered and active society whose participation was not met with transformative results that improved their day to day lives. Petitions were being submitted, public participation forums were being attended, and communities were keeping a record of each encounter between community members and authorities. Yet the residents of Mzondi Informal Settlement in Tembisa, Ekurhuleni, remained without enough toilets for their 400+ households in the informal settlement. Residents of Mnandini, west of Johannesburg were still waiting for houses that the then government promised them 21 years prior. It became abundantly clear that a) the service that Grassroot provided was for a niche market, mainly composed of people in the city outskirts where development was yet to reach, and b) there was no political will to action on the citizen’s demands.
That brings me to the present moment: with seasoned experience in the development and maintenance of communities around civic tech under my belt, how I eventually landed up at OpenUp was the result of a few considerations stemming from learnings I had acquired during my time in the civil society space, and a desire to find a resolution to some of the questions left unanswered:
Is the “us versus them mentality” that is still all too common among civil society necessary?
Prior to working at Grassroot, I was an activist with the Right2Know Campaign. The vision was an end to government secrecy and toward a system of governance that operated with transparency. In our work we faced major push back from authorities, contributing to the cultivation of a negative perception of the government as enemies of progress. However, after researching which organisation to work with next, what stood out the most was that the civic tech platforms showcased on OpenUp’s website had various levels of government listed as project partners: a reality I had yet to encounter during my work in civil society and civic tech.
When can we start being honest about being experimental?
The worst thing one can do is present themselves as an expert. Civic tech is fairly new in South Africa and it is not exempt from teething problems. The first major lesson we learnt at Grassroot was that it was not about the marvelous ideas we had in our heads. Some of the ideas we thought were ingenious proved to be practically useless when presented to our communities. The work we do should revolve around the recipient or the beneficiary. According to management and consultancy firm, McKinsley and Company's website, among the trademarks of the agile working environment is the acceleration of digitization and democratization of information, a user knows best, and the client determines what is most useful. Thus what is critical is a product that works. And often the final product is often one that reaches beyond what a funder envisioned and an organisation initially set out to do. If clients and beneficiaries, such as communities and partners, find the tech to be relevant and user-friendly, while the government is able to turn the data into actionable items, then what we have on our hands is something useful.
One man’s trash is another man’s treasure: How can we structure our workflow better to document our learnings in order to fully realise the opportunities that developing with open source lends us?
One of the best aspects about civic tech is that a majority of it is developed in the open. More often than not, we don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Rivalry has no space in improving the lives of people. And we should always look for ways in which we can integrate our ideas into the technology already in existence, and especially into those platforms and tools which are actively being used. However, in order to bring efficiency to this ideal, we need to design the processes, cultivate the mindset, and establish the support structures within our day to day workflow, to document our experiences. We need to be able to describe why some experiments failed and others were successful. Documenting our code is not sufficient, project histories, partnerships, and thought leadership are necessary ingredients that are longed for. American poet Maya Angelou once phrased it perfectly, “if you don't know where you've come from, you don't know where you're going.” According to web hosting service, “Hosting Tribunal”, computer processing speed supposedly doubles every 18 months, and artificial intelligence keeps evolving at an unprecedented rate. Let’s keep in mind that some ideas can be quite useful and practical, but also be ahead of their time.
So what’s next?
I would like to contribute to a reality where none of the technology that we have built is still relevant, because we live in an open and transparent society that requires no external monitoring. And although our intention is not to act as watchdogs, what we as the tech savvy generation can provide with ease, is automation. The will and skills to relieve officials of bookkeeping and record keeping in a manner that will be updated for public consumption in real time, is currently available.
That is where community development comes into the picture: people gravitate towards what they think works. If your objective is to build the technology that is meant to revolutionize how people organise and solve problems then you have to spend time with the people figuring out ways to achieve that end. “Oh my gosh, not another app” is a popular phrase among ordinary citizens such as myself who are not trying to go through the tedious task of figuring out what platform is used for which purpose. Thus not one line of code should be written until it is determined that there is no other way to achieve that objective with the tools that are already in existence, or alternatively, with low-tech to no-tech solutions and interventions.
I have spent the better part of the last year with Grassroot fine-tuning a method to make WhatsApp work as an online learning platform. 10 cohorts and 2 courses later, the rest of the world is learning for the first time the best way to reach people is to engage them on then platforms that they are on. Leverage the tools that are already in circulation to create systems and mechanisms that improve civic engagement, advocacy, data collection, and stimulate usage when possible, because most likely those activities, that data, and the motivation for participation is already taking place in some form or other.
How can I do this at OpenUp?
I have purposely dedicated my first few months at OpenUp in the role of Community Development Lead to listening. Listening to the stakeholders involved in the project that I have been assigned to, Codebridge Youth. Listening to the young people that serve as community champions. Listening to the community based organizations that do the real legwork when it comes to mobilizing the youth. And listening to the designated liaison officers on the side of the municipalities. And although synergies already exist among the various stakeholders, we find that objectives are often misaligned and efforts are being duplicated despite holding a shared vision for a cooperative, functional, and mutually-beneficial society. The biggest achievement that we can have as an organisation, or at least as contributing partners in this project, is to have a system that provides a way to achieve the goals that these stakeholders collectively share with specific KPIs, and a means to measure the effectiveness of an idea through to its implementation, and uncover which interventions, tech or non-tech, are actually needed for progress.
We will have to go through a lot of trial and error to get it right but if there is one thing that we should be doing as a sector on a regular basis, it is checking whether what we are doing is still beneficial to the people, and rerouting resources towards what is. If a project or a product isn’t gaining traction then it should either be repurposed or scrapped. This means letting go of some of the ideas that we thought were revolutionary and game changing for what is practical and not being afraid to present a train of thought that may stand in contradiction to what we originally identified as pertinent, especially if what we truly care about is change.