The power of the #hashtag

Many residents have to read small type on notices pinned to fences and trees if they want to find out about developments in their neighbourhood. Photo: Fiona Macleod

At an Editors’ Lab Hackathon back in September 2013, an Oxpeckers team put together an innovative plan: to build a mobile app that would alert residents to developments happening in their back yard.

The problem, they said, was that although South Africa has laws and processes in place for public participation, people affected by local change usually struggle to access critical information about what is happening.

The team’s solution was to build an app based on data sets from environmental impact assessments (EIAs) that would enable users to search for developments in their area, give inputs where appropriate, and register to receive alerts whenever new information became available.

This was the start of #GreenAlert , an open-source web and mobi platform that provides citizens with a simple tool to track EIAs and other land use change notices, and that aims to stimulate public engagement and debate around new developments.

#GreenAlert built on a pilot project in Ghana, ‘Where My Money Dey?’, designed to improve public accountability and civic engagement through active citizenry, and was developed by the tech team at Code for Kenya on behalf of Oxpeckers.

#MineAlert was inspired by the #GreenAlert prototype developed by Oxpeckers in 2015 with the aim of tracking environmental impact assessments

Based on the #GreenAlert project, Oxpeckers went on to build a similar initiative in the mining sector. Called #MineAlert, this app is a centralised platform for users to access, track and share information and documents on mining applications and licences.

Both tools are citizen-focused web-based apps that aim to promote transparency and informed citizenry. Using location-based alerts for development applications, they provide access to important documents such as water use licences, environmental authorisations and mining social & labour plans.

The first iteration of #MineAlert was developed by ScienceLink and was launched in April 2016.

We are proud to report that by the end of 2017 we have not only become the talk of the town, grown our user and partnership base, but have also successfully managed to make mining-affected communities and other interested and affected parties part of the mining conversation.

We have secured 3,000-plus mining-related documents and data entries on the platform. Our users range from lawyers, activists, mining-affected communities and policy makers to journalists who, through our investigations, are able to review the effectiveness of mining regulations and policies.

One of the highlights of 2017 was winning an SAB EnviroMedia Award for our data-based investigations into financial provisions for mine closures and rehabilitation. This level of recognition proved that we are on the right path to rooting out maladministration in the extractives industry.

Changing law

A few weeks later we learnt that the government is amending the regulations pertaining to Financial Provision for Prospecting, Exploration, Mining or Productions Operations. The revised regulations will repeal and replace the Financial Provisioning Regulations of 2015, and include changes in the calculation of financial provisions.

Being asked to present this work at a session on “Digging into Extractives” at the Global Investigative Journalism Conference in November 2017 was another achievement.

#MineAlert manager Tholakele Nene talks about the award-winning mine closures investigations at the Global Investigative Journalism Conference in Johannesburg. Photo: Alan Wallis/OSF-SA

#MineAlert is wrapping up 2017 on a high note, and has ambitious plans for expansion in 2018. Watch this space.

#MineAlert is being pioneered by Oxpeckers Investigative Environmental Journalism, with support from the Open Society Foundation for South Africa and Code for Africa

Meanwhile, updating the data inputs on #GreenAlert have been put on hold. In 2016 we formed a partnership with Open Data Durban as part of the alertME project in order to produce an API that would automatically populate the platform with data from the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA). After months of meetings, this proposal was unsuccessful.

We then launched processes under the Promotion of Access to Information Act to obtain the data in spreadsheet form, as we did when we originally built the platform. We were informed by the national office of DEA that we would have to do these requests to each of the nine separate provincial offices of the department. In early 2017 data inputs on #GreenAlert were interrupted because we did not have the resources to undertake this mammoth data-gathering process. As our experience on #MineAlert has shown, gathering data from provincial offices is time-consuming and costly.

We are still hopeful that we will find a sponsor in future to turn #GreenAlert into a successful platform, similar to the #MineAlert platform. Watch this space.

Oxpeckers’ hard work uncovering environmental crimes across Southern Africa costs time and money. A donation of as little as R20 can help keep our reporters on the case, and keep the pressure on those looking to exploit our natural resources for personal gain. You too can support Oxpeckers and tools such as #MineAlert here.