To give a bit of background to my journey, I worked as a development economist for 8 years with both public and private clients in the municipal, provincial, and national spheres. During that time I saw many research projects get sidelined or indefinitely delayed by institutional barriers. I grew especially frustrated with the static mechanism by which development is delivered. I really battle to see how long written reports and plans are going to effectively lead to change with the kind of frequency and trajectory needed in our South African context. I have always been comfortable (if desperately untrained formally) with technology and, as my career progressed, I became more and more interested in data science and technology as tools for evidence-based decision making, as well as knowledge and information transfer between the sectors of society. This led me to the Open Data / Civic Technology movement and, quite importantly, to a key coffee with Code for South Africa founder, Adi Eyal last April.
Code for South Africa is responsible for driving the civic technology movement in South Africa and creating amazing open data tools such as Wazimap and OpenByLaws. I had, the day before, registered a number of domains around the Open Data Durban theme and thereafter started to think about what I could actually do with it. Adi suggested holding a meet up to gauge whether there was interest in civic technology in Durban, and that we could take it from there. I duly set up the meetup at The Green Door(which has since become our home) expecting three people. Seventeen came along, and there was such an energy and excitement in the room that I realised we may be onto something.
The story of this organisation is similar to that of our first meetup: there had been more interest and more energy than I ever would have expected and too many coincidences that have driven us onward and upward.
Since that first meetup there have been a number of streams that have built Open Data Durban into what it is now, and importantly given us our path and mission. I realised that I alone could not build an organisation that wanted to enact change and have an impact in the city, and so we set up a steering committee to drive us to sustainability. Since August 2015, the steering committee has guided the organisation by creating (and debating and editing and re-editing) our constitution and founding principles, assisting with events, and providing guidance on key strategic decisions. I cannot express how grateful I am for this amazing group of people who volunteered their time and know-how to establish the rock-solid base on which we are building this organisation.
We have held consistent meetups and are now incorporating events to grow the civic technology movement in Durban, including dataquests (is our name for hackathons but have some key differences), workshops, and recently a citizen technology lab. A real highlight for us in the early months was being a part of the development of the National Open Data Portal. We ran Open Government Fellowships which were made possible by Code For Africa. Our three fellows were responsible for finding and uploading most of the datasets onto the portal. We then hosted a three-city dataquest in Durban (with Code for South Africa in Cape Town and Geekulcha in Pretoria) to launch the national portal.
This video of the event gives insight into what a dataquest looks like. It was a privilege to be a part of this initiative so early in our existence, and it was especially rewarding to be able to offer paid fellowships to liberate data and build capacity and skills.
Another highlight was being invited to the African Open Data Conference by Code for Africa whose founder, Justin Arenstein, has been an invaluable source of guidance for ODD and who has supported us substantially in our startup phase.
As is the case with most conferences, a majority of the work was done outside of the formal sessions over coffee or in the evenings. It was great to get an understanding of the civic technology network across the continent and all of the organisations and role-players involved in this world. Major takeaways from the conference were:
- There are amazing people and organisations doing incredible things all over Africa and we have a lot to learn (and that South Africa is not necessarily leading the charge as we always presume).
- The change will come from us as Africans. There are a lot of international multilaterals, funders, and donors that are keen to be involved in civic technology in Africa but they will only be useful in a support role as directed by us. Problems occur when they try to take the lead because they will never understand the problems and users in the depth that we will.
This year we have already had a number of significant developments such as growing a core team, having our membership and constitution finalised, and electing a board of directors. We have been working a lot with eThekwini Municipality and other partners in some interesting core projects (to be covered in depth in later blog posts) and we have a number of concepts we are developing further.
We held our first meetup and dataquest of the year around OpenByLaws and recently held another collaborative event with Code4SA for International Open Data Day. The 2016 event calendar is starting to build nicely.
Our mission statement is as follows:
“We aim to build powerful and insightful tools to understand the city and bring about positive social change.”
The way we see positive social change happening is through building an actively engaged community around implementing open data and civic technology in areas of real need, as described below:
I am frankly blown away at the progress we have made to date as an organisation and a community. We are excited to be building this organisation and we look forward to partnering with you, enjoying a beer with you at a meetup, and getting down and dirty opening data and building amazing civic technology at one of our dataquests or labs!
Richard Gevers is the founder of Open Data Durban and brews beer in his spare time.