Why we invested: Civic Tech Innovation Network

The civic tech sector is still nascent in South Africa; there is a need to build on existing foundations by developing a community of learning to support the growth of new innovations for civic engagement.  This is one of the reasons the Civic Tech Innovation Network (CTIN) was born.  CTIN is a community of tech innovators in civil society, the private sector and the public sector in South Africa who communicate and collaborate to share learnings that help them tackle similar problems from different perspectives.  CTIN focuses particularly on how to improve the effective use of technologies for public services, governance, accountability, and transparency.

Some of the questions CTIN seeks to answer include how to make civic tech relevant in contexts where digital divides still exist, how to think about context and user design, and finally how to avoid the assumption that all technology can be effective in addressing civic issues.  Through a mix of online engagement and regular in person-meetings, CTIN encourages participants to investigate these questions, share their lessons and challenges, and document progress to move the field forward.

CTIN grew out of Making All Voices Count (MAVC), a global program that sought to facilitate innovation, scaling-up, and research of new technologies to enable citizen engagement and government responsiveness as well as from learning networks in government.  MAVC ran from 2013 to 2017 and set up a learning program for its South African stakeholders.  What began as an informal network between MAVC participants has now evolved into an established community of practice with wider participation.  In September of last year, around 40 of the participants from all over the country met for a workshop in Johannesburg, and took the decision to further develop and formalize the learning network. Representatives from civil society, tech, and all three levels of government participated. They agreed that many civic tech initiatives in SA, where the industry remains small, but growing, are constrained by conventional or unsuitable design processes and implementation, and a lack of models and support.  CTIN was devised to extend and improve how the experiences and ideas of participants are shared, to distribute research, and to strengthen the links between innovators, researchers, and others to make innovations work better and spread further.

This community of practice has successfully contributed to a diverse and engaged network from all sectors, and has contributed to the creation of many new partnerships.  Black Sash, for example, is one of the oldest and most respected civil society organisations in South Africa.  For some time, they had been using paper surveys to gather feedback from community members to do Community-Based Monitoring of government services.  They suspected that technology could be a game-changer for their CBM projects by enabling them to produce survey results that could be used in advocacy much faster than the previous paper-based system, but they had never used such technology before and lacked the in-house capacity to develop it. They linked up with OpenUp, a Luminate investee, who developed an open-source computer-assisted personal interviewing survey technology tailored for their purposes.  Using it on tablets, the CBM surveys enabled Black Sash to identify unauthorised deductions from social security payments, and to successfully advocate for changes in the local offices distributing the social grants to prevent deductions and develop a recourse channel for those affected.

CTIN is based at the Journalism and Media Lab (jamlab) at Tshimologong Digital Innovation Precinct in Johannesburg. Jamlab has produced some of the country's leading research on civic tech. Tshimologong is one of South Africa's leading tech hubs supported by the University of the Witwatersrand, as well as provincial government and the tech industry.

We believe that now is the time to capitalise on successes such as these to institutionalize learning, collaboration, and openness in the civic tech community in South Africa. And so we have provided a grant of $215,000 to CTIN to further develop the community of practice and support participants to better leverage tech for civic engagement and accountability.

Over two years, the grant will support CTIN to:

  • host a series of peer-to-peer learning events structured around relevant themes, e.g. ‘open data,’ ‘procurement innovation,’ or ‘digital security’.
  • continue to publish their online magazine and website to document and share learnings more publicly, ensure regular communication amongst participants, and maintain a sense of community between in-person events.

There are many disparate initiatives in South Africa working on using technology to address civic issues, often from different backgrounds and with different methods. CTIN brings these practitioners together to ensure efforts are not being duplicated, lessons are being shared, and to stimulate productive partnerships.  We are excited about the work they are doing as we look to support communities of practice and individual innovators in civic tech throughout the region.