The wrong side of the digital divide
Digital citizen engagement, inclusion and access to justice.
The term digital divide describes a gap in terms of access to and usage of Information and Communication Technology (ICT). It traditionally described those that had or did not have access to technology. More recently, however, with a global mobile phone penetration of over 95% and a mobile penetration of 92% in South Africa, it is becoming a relative inequality between those who have more and less bandwidth and more or fewer digital skills. This article discusses how we account for the digital divide in our digital citizen engagement work in our Eviction project.
According to the World Bank Group’s (WBG) citizen engagement is the two-way interaction between citizens and government or the private sector (and civil society) which enable citizens to have a stake in decision-making to improve intermediate and final development outcomes. Building on this understanding of citizen engagement, the WBG defines digital citizen engagement as:
the use of new media/digital information and communication technologies (ICTs) to create or enhance the communication channels which facilitate the interaction between citizens and governments or the private sector.
Our Accountability Stack Eviction project was chosen as a case study for Code For All’s (CfAll) Digital Citizen Engagement Initiative. Using the above definitions as a frame, our Eviction project can be understood as leveraging digital and non-digital tools to support tenants, by enhancing their access to information about the eviction process, which facilitate the tenant’s interaction with law centres and the judicial system.
Reflecting on our eviction project as DCE initiative brought into focus the question — how are we working to migrate the “relative inequality between those who have more and less bandwidth and more or fewer digital skills” across the digital divide?
In this article, I’ll be exploring the answer to this question through the WBG’s five lenses of Objective, Control, Participation, Technology and Effect highlighted in the Evaluating Digital Citizen Engagement: A Practical Guide.
Why does this matter to us?
Micheal Sandel has noted that we have lived through a quiet revolution in which we have drifted almost without realizing it from having a market economy to becoming market societies. A market economy is a valuable and effective tool for organizing productive activity. In contrast, a market society is a place where almost everything is up for sale.
Why worry about our becoming market societies? The more things money can buy, the more affluence, or the lack of it, matters. If the only thing that money determined was access to yachts or fancy vacations or BMWs, then inequality wouldn’t matter very much. But when money comes increasingly to govern access to the essentials of the good life — decent health care, access to the best education, political voice and influence in campaigns — when money comes to govern all of those things, inequality matters a great deal. And so the marketization of everything sharpens the sting of inequality and its social and civic consequence.- Michael Sandel
In creating a tool that is accessible to low-income tenants, we are able to make the eviction process more accessible and inclusive. In doing so opens up access to one of the essentials of the good life — justice.
What is the program objective?
- Mapping the processes and blockages that occur when tenants go through an eviction. We want to understand the process and collect learnings and tacit knowledge about how the process works. We like to think of this work as creating the “missing manual for government”.
- Deploying tools to assist tenants to navigate the eviction process themselves.
- To capture measurements through the tools about the process. For example, how long do certain stages take? What are the most common challenges?
Who owns, controls, and influences the digital engagement process?
OpenUp along with our partners who are domain experts -Ndifuna Ukwazi is an authority on urban land justice and RTC is housing movement- control this process, particularly the accessibility of the information. We curate the content, create and implement the designs. We have created several avenues to incorporate tenant knowledge and experience into this work.
- In the mapping stage of this project, we interviewed 14 tenants who had been through or were going through an eviction. We leveraged their insights and experiences to understand the process.
- Our court monitors collect observational data and introduce tenants to the tools in court, comprise of both university student volunteers and members of Reclaim the City — a movement of tenants and workers campaigning to stop their displacement from well-located areas and to secure access to decent affordable housing.
- The member of our team who does the distribution to law centres around Cape Town, to Advice Assemblies and in public places has also gone through an eviction.
Who participates and how?
The core participants are tenants who are at risk of eviction. If you go to evictions.org.za you will see that the eviction guide has a section on meaningful engagement. This is indicative of our target group as we are trying to help tenants resolve issues with their landlord before a court process.
Tenants can participate by visiting the website and getting the information and actionable steps they need from the guide. The website also allows tenants to register on the website for support. This could include assistance via the WhatsApp helpline, Reclaim the City support or being directed to an Advice Assembly.
The second group of participants are intermediary supporters of tenants — law centres, housing activist groups, NGOs and Courts. This group participates in this DCE initiative by directing tenants to the platform and providing direct support.
We have been sharing these tools directly at the Cape Town Magistrates’ Court and the Wynberg Magistrates’ Courts. The Cape Town court has responded positively to our work and the presence of our court monitors (who gather observational data about the process and distribute guides), and we have noticed some important shifts that bring the practice of the court closer to what is envisaged in the Constitution. In the Wynberg Magistrates’ Court, we have encountered hostility to our presence which has limited our ability to share our tools. You can read more about this here.
How effective and appropriate is the choice and delivery of the technology?
Our tool in the project was an offline eviction guide. We created it as a how-to-manual. It shared information and actionable steps tenants could take. There are currently 370 guides in circulation this year distributed through law centres and NGOs, Advice Assemblies, Court, and public spaces (such as the train station). Having the guides offline meant that tenants could access it through places they would already need to go to (courts/lawyers) or where they frequent (train stations).
The second product we created was an app called the Affidavit Assistant. We saw this as a way of reducing the time tenant spent in private lawyer’s consultation which can be expensive and a way of reducing time pro-bono lawyers spent with tenants. Also, tenants can use this in an emergency in court if they are unrepresented as it provides the court with key information about who they are and their housing situation.
This is currently being tested in Cape Town and Stellenbosch.
While developing the Affidavit Assistant and distributing the Eviction Guide, we sought to take the offline guide online. We saw this as a way to scale the impact of the booklet and it allowed us to create an interactive website for tenants. It was critical for the team that the Eviction Website and the Affidavit Assistant be data-lite and have a clear display on a range of mobile phones because we knew the data and mobile constraints low-income tenants have.
All the products we have created are in English, however, we tried to replace jargon with plain language without losing the essence of what law we needed to convey. In this way, we took into account the English reading ability of low-income tenants.
What effects and impact do citizens have on processes and outcomes?
OpenUp’s approach is to inform, empower, and activate citizens.
Informing citizens is about giving them access to data, knowledge, and information, which is available, accessible and understandable. In this project, we have provided this through the online and offline guide. This enables tenants to make informed decisions about their eviction.
Empowering citizens means they have technological or analogous tools that allow them to take action to improve their life or that of their community. As our guide is a how-to manual for the process, it along with the Affidavit Assistant empowers citizens to take action by improving their ability to take action and lowering the threshold to do so. For example, the Affidavit Assistant makes it easier for tenants to collect the information their lawyer’s need.
Activating citizens means they take action that improves their life or that of their community and promote further action. Actions such as going to court? Ask for a postponement? Seeking legal representation?
In these ways, tenants can be informed, prepared and in a better position to go through the eviction process. However, the current housing climate in South Africa is particularly harsh for low-income tenants. Housing is scarce and along with urbanisation and gentrification, contribute to increased rentals which tenants can’t keep up with. Therefore, their ability to impact the outcome is constrained by the current housing climate. They can, however, impact their eviction process.
Disclaimer: I have only selected a handful of decisions and strategies that our project team has employed to mitigate some of the impacts of the digital divide in the technology we create. The single most important way the project achieved this was through focusing on the user — in this case — the low-income tenant.