What can happen when technology meets the human desire for social and administrative change?

"Civic tech" is a term that defines itself in service to a public, for the attainment of a public good. And in recent years this tech has played out in myriad ways. 

Initiatives like amandla.mobi (a petition and campaign organiser) and municipalmoney.gov.za (the National Treasury’s extensive budget data portal) are classic examples of how technology can be used to empower people or support a cause.

Openup is an NGO that produces tools to these ends — it is the tech team behind municipalmoney.gov.za, for example — and many of its initiatives transform data sources for more open interrogation.

Examples of these efforts include opengazettes.org.za and openbylaws.org.za.

By broadening access to data, civic tech is also opening up the data audience and supporting previously excluded groups.

Code for Africa’s Gender Gap Africa has taken publicly available income data (drawn from the World Economic Forum’s "Global Gender Gap Report 2018") and provided a visual means of illustrating the pay gap in African countries.

The report found (and the tool reveals) that in SA, for example, men make 72% more than women. On a salary of R20,000, that amounts to a difference of R14,434.

The next page of the Gender Gap Africa online calculator also ranks African countries according to this pay gap, showing that SA has the sixth-largest gap in Africa — miles behind Cameroon (most equal), Liberia (fourth-most equal), and Rwanda (12th-most equal). It’s a simple but startling illustration of data we’ve likely all heard before.

Something about the visual transformation and personalisation (users can enter their own salary) gives the tool significant impact.

In these ways, civic tech is "democratising" goods like data and resources; it is a way to disrupt power.

Another application of this is representation: what people are represented, and how they are represented. This can be particularly powerful where this overlaps with media.

Kathy Magrobi is the founder of Quote This Woman+, a new project aimed at increasing the representation of women in SA media.

She believes gender will become a growing subset of civic tech projects and research, aimed at unpacking and countering "conscious and unconscious gender biases". Part of the reason for this, she says, is the relatively low barriers to entry — these projects have low start-up and input costs and are inherently scalable. What is required — at least to start — is time, willingness and a degree of technical expertise.

She points to the outcome of a recent project by data journalism project the Media Hack Collective, which created a programme to "analyse RSS feeds from major newspaper groups and pull out from these how well they were doing in terms of gender parity related to election coverage".

Magrobi says: "As it turns out, not well at all. It analysed over 500 election-related stories and in these, four out of every five people quoted were men.

"As a media consumer, I was increasingly aware of the disconnect between the world I inhabited, and the people whose stories were getting prominence in the news. It’s one of those things that you can remain happily unconscious of for years and years, but when you wake up to it, you can’t ignore it.

"SA is not over 80% male, urban, affluent and degreed, but if you follow whose voices are mainstreamed in the news, you’d think it was."

The realisation soon led to action on her part.

"If I wasn’t going to accept the status quo, I had to do something about it," she says.

Magrobi started with a low-tech step ("basic googling") which revealed gender mainstreaming projects in the UK, Europe and the US "that curated details of women experts, and voices from other marginalised groups".

It is her intention for Quote This Woman+ to offer something similar for SA. It has compiled a database of women experts that journalists can call on, and wants to take this one crucial step further: "What we’re trying to do differently, however, is that we’re not just sitting back and waiting for journalists to approach us when they’re looking for people to quote.

"We’re looking at what’s happening in journalism — retrenchments, shrinking budgets, a proliferation of new media channels — and we’re saying to journalists: ‘We get that it’s hard to get great quotes when you’re fighting deadlines and multiplatform reporting. Let us help you find the quotes that you need, in time to meet your deadlines — we’ll just make sure that they’re quotes from women.’"

Finally, she also wants to interrupt the socialisation bias that holds women back from putting themselves forward as experts. For now, the project is run by Magrobi and a small band of volunteers. They are seeking funding in order to grow the project.