By Wendy Trott

Building inclusion and participatory democracy in cities and urban spaces

Q&A with Open Cities Lab

Luminate’s Civic Empowerment work supports the use of technology to enable people to participate more effectively in the governance of their societies. But we have also learned that technology is not the silver bullet to fixing declining civic participation around the world. Instead, it must be combined with human connection and offline organising in order to make democratic systems work.

Open Cities Lab (previously Open Data Durban) combines the use of technology with offline organising to drive participatory democracy. It defines channels through which people can use technology and data to participate in decision-making, while also leveraging human systems and capacity-building so that government, the private sector, and the media can listen and engage with the public effectively. Luminate is supporting this work with a $240,000 grant to enable Open Cities Lab to scale its successfully tested participation projects and to continue experimenting with new ones over the next two years. 

We spoke with Richard Gevers, Director at Open Cities Lab, about the challenges and successes of the organisation‘s efforts to make city government work better for people. 

Can you tell us about Open Cities Lab’s work and projects? 

Open Cities Lab works through three main programmes: Citizen Empowerment, Trust and Accountability in Civic Space, and Building Government Capacity. 

One of the projects in our Trust and Accountability in Civic Space programme is Dexter, a machine learning platform built for, and in collaboration with, Media Monitoring Africa (MMA). It ingests news media from over 130 local, regional, and international news sources every day and runs this through machine learning to empower MMA (as well as ourselves) to monitor the news for bias, political agenda, and topic analyses such as the treatment of women and children in the news. This insight and analysis can then be used in a variety of ways to help build a fair, transparent, and accountable news media. 

In terms of our work in Building Government Capacity, we have built the SA Cities Open Data Almanac (SCODA) with South African Cities Network (SACN). SCODA is a city-platform that acts as an open data portal that crowds-in city building intelligence and insight through data narratives and open analysis. This mechanism has been modularised, and we are now implementing city versions with various South African metros, the first being the EDGE platform with eThekwini Municipality. The real value of the project is the data literacy, capacity, and data governance and culture it implements within local government, while building partnerships between local government, other government agencies, CSOs, and academia around informed decision making, and understanding the nature and needs of citizens within our cities.

How do you integrate learning into your work to avoid some of the pitfalls common in civic tech?     

We have learned a lot from trying things that didn’t work and use iterative and agile practices and learning. We have developed a problem - and people - focussed approach where we have adapted user-centred design principles to make sure we go at the speed of the user and focus on their needs, rather than building something shiny for the sake of it. This means we start with a base of existing research and knowledge and take an experimental approach to see what works within our context and what seems to end up reflecting the need being met sustainably.

An example is Durban Answers. We developed a knowledge base and web-app, but as we started to test with people in the city, we realised it was not going to create the inclusive mechanism we hoped for. So, we paused development and moved into an engagement and action research model to look for channels and forums to engage with residents to understand what it would take to build the appropriate interfaces for something inclusive and transformative. This process led to many learnings, partnerships, and intermediate outputs.

What are some of the critical components or principles that you’ve seen work in making cities more open, responsive, and accountable to residents? What lessons would you share with others working in the space?

One of the hardest and most critical components is that legitimate, internalised, and sustainable change takes time – often years, not months. We have seen certain initiatives we thought dead in the water come alive after three or five years, often because of the political term and shocks that can happen inside a city. 

Another reality of working within the local government (or central government) space is that there has to be leadership buy-in and an internal champion for a project or initiative to have a chance of succeeding. This also means there has to be an honest assessment of what you are asking the champion to do, and what capacity exists within their team, department, or organisation to give to the project. We would rather deliver something smaller that has impact and sustains, than something that falls down the minute assistance and funding dries up.

Capacity throughout the intended initiative value chain is also critical. We understand that increasing the volume of citizen voice on a particular issue or building more access and understanding of rights often does not lead to systemic change. So rather than building the civic tech platform as the output, if built it should be a process- and user-validated channel that clearly fits with each step of the decision-making or action chain, both through citizens to CSOs (where relevant) to government and back. This also needs to find a home in these institutional places and not be perpetually supported by a civic tech non-profit forever, given the battling-to-be-sustainable nature of this type of organisation. 

As we have experienced locally, and seen globally, political terms and values are intrinsically linked to an intervention. An administration that values openness changes the nature of what is possible as does one that drives fear around privacy in citizens. For example, if the political priority is smart cities, the approach might be to try to build in a strategy that focuses on what a resident-centred smart city is about and how emphasising people over technology might lead to a more motivated and active citizenry. 

It is also important to understand the context your project will work within, including people, processes, departments, and organisations. Some people may be gatekeepers, some might hold a critical element that the initiative needs, some might be jaded by previous similar failed attempts. Is there a KPI or KPA of a local government employee that could be aligned or met better by what you are proposing? Is there an ongoing project or initiative with momentum that you can partner with? Are there career progression opportunities that could be realised through capacity building in the project, or giving someone who is a champion a platform?

In terms of principles, probably the most simple and important one is that you have to be human-centred. A data portal, app, analysis, toolkit, framework or any other technical output is not actually the solution. A solution is whatever solves a problem. If a problem is framed by the user case, is co-designed by them, and is measured and validated by them, then that is what matters.