Turning ‘Civic Data’ Into Tools Ordinary Citizens Can Actually Use

Participants, trainers and mentors at the Sierra Leone’s 1st ever #dBootcamp, in Freetown.

I witnessed a small coup this week. A group of Sierra Leonean hacktivists (many of them women) banded together to claim ownership of the local #OpenData and #CivicTech movements from ‘Northern’ consultants and international NGOs.

The hacktivists found each other at the country’s first ever d|Bootcamp, where they created teams that started building data-driven tools to improve citizen oversight of Parliament, as well as tools to help citizens combat cholera and find safe water, improve disaster response to floods and other public emergencies, and ensure that citizens are not being overcharged for medicines or preyed on by quacks.

“Often, in developing countries, open data and open government boils down to what some foreign technocrat or “specialist” decides citizens should have, rather than hearing from the citizens directly about what they think would work in their communities,” says Code4Salone programme manager Usman Khaliq. “If we want to create solutions that tackle real issues that citizens are facing, we need to empower the people at grassroots who leverage the data and digital technologies in their communities.”

Code4Salone and Sensi Hub co-hosted the 4-day d|Bootcamp alongside a series of strategic d|Roundtables with local data curators last week, with input from the Right to Access of Information Commission (RAIC), to help nurture local collaboration and to kickstart a local civic technology ecosystem.

“Digital innovation is really taking off in Sierra Leone, with lots of new initiatives. So, it was good to get everyone in a room to figure out how we can collaborate across organisations and industries,” says SensiHub founder, Morris Marah. “But, talk-shops alone are meaningless. That’s why the best collaborative projects conceived at the meetings will get six months of support.”

The $25,000 support programme is funded by the World Bank, with strategic support from the Code for Africa (CfAfrica) federation of civic tech labs across the continent. Participants will receive small cash grants, as seed funding, along with technology and business development mentorship, space in local tech hubs, and access to specialist pan-African communities such Hacks/Hackers and the African Network of Centers for Investigative Reporting (ANCIR).

“We’re trying to avoid the problem that hit & run workshops always have, where a bunch of consultants parachute in for a week and then disappear. Everyone gets really excited, but quickly finds out that their new skills aren’t mature enough to actually build anything meaningful after the experts leave,” explains CfAfrica technologist Andrew Kamau. “Our d|Bootcamp model tackles this by guaranteeing six months of intensive support, so that you can actually launch a major tool or service.”

The five projects selected at the d|Bootcamp to receive support are:

  1. Memba-O! will serve as a parliamentary watchdog, to give citizens better insight into whether their local elected representatives are working or not.
  2. mWash map all public water points in the country, to warn citizens about contaminated water and to help communities alert government about sanitation issues.
  3. Mbate Konli (Solve Cholera) will use geo-location features on mobile phones to help citizens find the best local medical assistance during the country’s regular cholera outbreaks.
  4. Hazard Map will map which areas in Freetown are prone to flooding and other natural disasters to help citizens improve the way they select where to live and work. The project will also explore ways to build early warning systems for residents who already in flood prone areas.
  5. Health Finder will help restore citizens’ trust in the Free Health Care system by helping users expose quacks (fake doctors), check medicine availability, and hospital ratings.

Temi Adeoye, from Code for Nigeria, stresses teams will base their tools on credible official data and will re-use existing open source code wherever possible. Teams will also be careful not to duplicate similar work already available in Sierra Leone.

“Other African countries have very similar problems and local innovators have built very similar solutions. We definitely don’t want to waste money or time by reinventing the wheel unnecessarily. Teams will therefore find ways to build on top of the foundations of existing projects, using open source technologies,” Adeoye explains. “We’ll also try build initiatives with multiple partners, for the widest impact possible.”

This will include possible synergies with the local Missing Maps Project (which was showcased at the d|Bootcamp by the brilliant Nick Allen & Rupert Allan of Médecins Sans Frontières).

The teams will blog about their experience, warts and all, to help share insights and crowdsource input for their initiatives.

“The biggest challenge is to channel all this excitement into long-term, meaningful projects, rather than merely well-intentioned but eventually meaningless PR photo-shoots,” says Code4Salone founder Salton Massally. “Being transparent is one way of keeping us all honest.”

The d|Bootcamp in Sierra Leone was based on a Code for Africa model first pioneered in Kenya in 2012 that has since been adopted across the world, with 32 bootcamps hosted in 27 countries. The Freetown event follows Code for Africa’s earlier pioneering work in Sierra Leone, where it partnered with the World Bank to help kickstart data scraperthons during a 6-week Open Data Festival 2016 in March 2016. You can read about the scraperthons here.

Code for Africa (CfAfrica) is the continent’s largest independent open data and civic technology initiative. We seek to build digital democracies that give citizens timely and unfettered access to actionable information that empowers them to make informed decisions and that strengthens civic engagement for improved public governance and accountability. CfAfrica operates as a federation of autonomous country-based digital innovation organisations that support ‘citizen labs’ in nine countries and major projects in a further 15 countries. There are CfAfrica affiliate labs in Cameroon, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Tanzania, and Uganda. CfAfrica runs Africa’s OpenGov Fellowships and also embeds Innovation Fellows into newsrooms and social justice organisations to help liberate data of public interest, or to build tools that help empower citizens. In addition to fellowships and citizen labs, CfAfrica runs the $1 million per year#innovateAFRICA fund plus the $500,000/year #impactAFRICA fund and the $500,000/year Sandbox Fund which all award seed grants to civic pioneers for experiments with everything from camera drones and environmental sensors, to encryption for whistleblowers and data-driven semantic analysis tools for investigative watchdogs. CfAfrica also curates continental resources such as the africanSPENDING portal of budget transparency resources, the openAFRICA data portal, the sourceAFRICA document repository, and the connectedAFRICA transparency toolkit for tracking the often hidden social networks and economic interests in politics. CfAfrica is furthermore custodian of the continental 30,000 strong Hacks/Hackers community, and incubates the continent’s largest investigative journalism initiative, the African Network of Centers for Investigating Reporting (which spearheaded the #PanamaPapers investigations on the continent).