The very first Open Data and Democracy Initiative Hackathon, South Africa
If knowledge is power then data are the individual watts; one by itself is aesthetically pleasing, but functionally useless. It’s only when we add all the watts together that we produce enough power to move forward. Constitutionally we own this power, but the trickle of information provided to the public is practically useless – and so the Open data and Democracy Initiative was born: Not to fight against government and the private sector, but to aid them in data liberation; something that has helped empower citizens in other African countries.
We came together as a group of concerned technologists, civil society activists, journalists, data analysts and computer programmers; to find a way to open more important data to the public (like SDAs), and also to show what can be done with this open data, because from anecdotal evidence we found that the power of Open Data is lost on the man in the street. By holding a Hackathon and creating software applications that facilitate social change, we could free ourselves from a common South African problem of talking about solutions without acting, and instead create something tangible and therefore more meaningful.
The results of the hackathon far exceeded my expectations and vindicated our faith in the idea of getting people with problems together with people who can solve them using technology.
So what exactly do we have to show for our good intentions? Looking at 3 of the apps that were created you can judge for yourself.
Based on the data of over 85,000 non-profits in South Africa, a mapping application was created allowing users to visit a website with a map of South Africa on which all 85 000 registered NGOs were pinpointed in their geographical location. The app lets users find specific NGOs (they can also be filtered into categories), as well as provide contact information for each, making it easy to quickly find the right organisation according to your need and location.
The real power in mapping datasets, however, lies in cross referencing two or more. If we can combine this map of NGOs with a map of health problems we start to see correlations of data. You could for example find that an area with a high HIV level may have a low number of health NGOs, all because two datasets were married. This same technology framework can be used for hospitals and disease, schools and pass rates etc.
SchoolReport is an app designed to give learners a public platform to report serious issues happening at their school; giving a voice to the voiceless in a crisis ridden education system.
The project started with basic data on schools in the Western Cape, including location, student and teacher numbers, and matriculation results. Departing from their original goal of merely reporting the available data on each individual school, the group incorporated a commenting system where learners can report problems within their school with the view of using this public channel to force positive change in their school. These problems were broken down into different categories (and colour coded for better navigation), namely: buildings, textbooks, corruption, bullying and crime.
SchoolReport is currently in discussions with Equal Education to create a resolution path for the complaints, so that action is taken, instead of just a whole bunch of digital moaning. If successful, SchoolReport could be incorporated into existing social media platforms like Mxit and Facebook, making it easy to report mismanagement of schools and bring about change in areas where it is sorely needed.
ProtestMap is an app designed to show, graphically, the places where service delivery protests have happened. It was conceived through trying to understand the root causes of a spate of service delivery protests in South Africa, and unsurprisingly a brief search yielded no datasets. Without knowing where it would lead, they created their own geocoded dataset from online news reports, then overlaid this with data from the previous census to try give these protests some kind of context.
The obvious problem is that they needed to collect all the data themselves. With an open database created on a data hub, there is an opportunity for journalists (and whoever else can accumulate statistics on protests) can slowly build a more rigorous dataset of protests around service delivery.
The group aims to continue with the project and provide an open resource for researchers, journalists and policy makers to engage this data and better understand the general trends that fuel protests.
It is difficult to understand the outcomes of our inaugural Hackathon without experiencing the actual apps. But what is clear is that there is a group of people in Cape Town (and the rest of South Africa) who have the skills to help large sectors of marginalised South Africa, and more importantly are willing.
The Open Data and Democracy Initiative is still in its infancy and we are holding an open strategy planning meeting this Friday:
ODADI Strategy Planning open meeting
Friday 17th August, 14:00-18:00
Buchanan Square, 160 Sir Lowry (Main) Rd
Woodstock, Cape Town
(secured parking available)