We work to build inclusion and participatory democracy in cities and urban spaces through empowering citizens, building trust and accountability in civic space, and capacitating government.
We empower citizens to know their rights and understand the data, knowledge, mechanisms and processes they can use to make their lives, and those of their communities, better. ‘Better’ means more inclusive and participative, both in ‘hard’ topics such as service delivery and built environment, as well as social cohesion, dignity, place making, and community building.
We work proactively with the government to build capacity for informed decision-making and evidence based policy and planning, with a focus on areas where this can uplift vulnerable and excluded communities. We enable co-design of existing and new processes and mechanisms for including citizens in decision-making, including sharing and opening data and information, and ‘crowding-in’ of intelligence and insight.
We work with key actors including communities, the media, academia, and government to build accountability and trust in civic space. This includes fair and independent media, monitoring and transparent oversight of power, such as state-owned enterprises, and increasingly, the use of AI and machine learning in areas that affect privacy and democracy.
“We believe that through empowering citizens, building trust and accountability in civic space, and building capacity with government, we will enable participation in decision-making, evidence-based urban intervention, and inclusive co-design that will improve the lives of residents in urban spaces.”
Open Cities Lab is a non-profit open and non-partisan organisation that combines the use of action research, co-design, data science, and technology with civic engagement, to enable the development of inclusive cities and urban spaces.
We are headquartered in Glenwood, Durban, South Africa where the majority of our team is, along with a smaller office in Rosebank, Johannesburg South Africa.
We have been operating for over five years, fuelled by the support of partners, donors and other supporters. Currently, we have national reach through our projects in South African cities and urban spaces and a global presence in knowledge creation. You can find out more about our work and impact in our case studies below.
& Data Science
Tech & Data Literacy
& Capacity Building
We have been incredibly fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with some inspiring people, partners and donors in trying to achieve impact through our open cities and civic data science labs. Here are some of the projects we have worked on and the learnings from them.
Specific communities in Durban suffer from poor air quality disproportionately more than others. These communities are often former townships, which historically were located close by to industry or highways. Especially in informal communities with limited access to electricity and other forms of energy, citizens resort to using paraffin for cooking which gives off harmful gases inside the residents' home. Unfortunately, there aren't accessible ways for citizens to measure, analyse and act on this data, especially those directly affected. The Citizen Science Journalism project is an attempt to make measuring real-time air quality data more accessible to citizens, and especially journalists who are at the forefront of uncovering issues and sharing them with the rest of the public. We have focussed on schools and teaching learners to build arduino driven weather stations, as well as teaching them the data science and storytelling skills to interpret the data and create articles about it .This project also provides the city with micro weather data, which can then be used to build city resilience and disaster response.
Our process has involved engaging with schools, designing a young-learner friendly curriculum and sessions to teach students about air quality concepts, why it is important to know about the air quality around them, and how to read air quality data. We have also built low-cost air quality sensors that we will install on the schools and are in the process of building a subsequent data platform so the students will be able to access and analyse real-time local air quality data.
Our learnings for this project are mainly related to what it takes to run projects in schools, but also what it takes to build partnerships and an ecosystem to scale. We're learning what it takes to design for younger users, and teach data science lessons at this level. We are also learning how to tap into local universities and university students and build programmes around their achieving impact but also build the change agents of future generations. Get in touch with us if you would like to know more about the detailed impact of this project, or if you'd like to collaborate on a similar initiative in your city or community!
Durban Answers is an accountability tool that seeks to support inclusiveness in cities through providing important information to citizens about how to live, work, play, learn and be in a city. It comes from a recognition that cities are often place where vulnerable citizens are not able to access their rights and take part in the democracy of the city in the same way the more affluent and powerful can. Although there are some very big challenges in addressing access, social fabric and inclusivity that will take a long time to solve, access to information does not need to be one of these. In addition, government websites are critical pathways to getting information about city services, but many government websites are clunky, difficult to navigate, incomplete or inaccurate, and not up to date, and government call channels are often overloaded. Durban Answers is an attempt to fill these information gaps, and make government information more accessible for all citizens to know how to live, work, play, and be in the city, with the ultimate aim of realising a city that is vibrant, people-driven, and inclusive.
Our process focuses on identifying vulnerable groups and engaging with them to understand what their biggest challenges are with regard to information about how to be an active resident in the city. This means they are able to find out where they can work, get healthcare, education, civic and government structures and processes, and much more! We do this engagement through focus group sessions with CBOs or CSOs to tap into their deep insights gained from working directly with communities. From these groups we derive the questions these citizens have, and what topic or area they relate to. We then set up a events with other citizen groups called "write-a-thons" where answers are crowdsourced, or we research and answer the questions ourselves. One of the more exciting elements of the project is the way we verify answers. We have established a project Brains Trust consisting of experts with domain knowledge in the city. Brains Trust members are often retired local government officials. They check through the answers provided, and edit, correct and verify them. Once this process has happened, we publish the answers on the Durban Answers webapp, in printed content guides, and are at the moment exploring whatsapp as another channel for citizens to access Answers
Our main learnings for Durban Answers have been related to meeting people where they are and making the concept of Durban Answers relatable to citizens' everyday challenges. From an engagement point of view, this means not leading with tech when we talk to people, but rather asking questions like "what challenges do you experience in your community?" "what government information do you have trouble accessing?" or "what processes or services do you experience frustrations or challenges with?" and letting the answers to this lead us to generate relevant and useful content on Durban Answers. Get in touch with us if you would like to know more about the detailed impact of this project, or if you'd like to collaborate on a similar initiative in your city or community!
This project aims to archive street art, while also offering a platform for artists to connect with each other across the city. As a research project initiated by the Gauteng City Region Observatory, we were also interested in the insight this could generate on how public art, street art and graffiti interacts with place making and planning. Considering the vibrant graffiti community in Durban, we agreed to test this idea in our city by engaging with street artists and graffiti artists on this concept. The response we received was encouraging and positive.
Our process right now has involved conducting informal chats with graffiti artists in Durban we are friends with. We pitched the concept to them, chatted broadly about what social change this tool could bring, and asked them if we were on the right track. We then held a design session, bringing many of these artists into the same room and had a discussion about the tool, what we need to be careful of, and even were able to show them some designs. Our next steps will be to adopt their design comments, and start to build out some of the content needed to launch a prototype.
The learnings for Graffiti App have been about engaging with a group of people with a very particular set of needs and challenges, and designing with those in mind. This process has been very collaborative and co-designed, so we are really excited to see this project unfold. Get in touch with us if you would like to know more about the detailed impact of this project, or if you'd like to collaborate on a similar initiative in your city or community!
Intact is a project that comes out of National Treasury's City Support Programme that aims to build a body of knowledge, tools and resources to support metros to establish Open Data policies, understand how to adopt smart governance approaches to the South African context, and to understand the role that technology can play in providing better service to citizens and streamline government processes. We got involved because of the opportunity to help South African metros unpack how open data, technology and smart governance can be adopted in the South African context, and to take part in an innovative project that could be scaled across to other cities both in South Africa and globally.
In order to provide South African cities with guidance on how to implement smart governance, we looked to international example of cities and projects where open data, smart governance, civic technology and other similar innovation was occurring, and research the impact, and successes and failures of the initiatives and programmes. We collated this research in a series of case studies and innovation briefs. In addition we recognised that there was not a lot of localised guidance on how to implement smart governance and open data for the context of a South Africa, global south city, and so we development a Open Data Toolkit which drew on the experience and knowledge of a number of cities and organisations, and contextualises implementing open cities for a South African context. The broader Intact project, led by the National Treasury's City Support Programme, conducted a self assessment process around integrity, social accountability, transparency, and technology with three metros in the first phase. The self assessment approach enabled local government to frame their own issues and co-design the intervention, which proved to generate good buy in.
There was a very good response to the outcomes of the project in this first phase, culminating in a conference with the cities in July 2018. It appears the project has developed or aided momentum for open data within the metros. We have been approached to aid two metros with open data as a result of the toolkit. Get in touch with us if you would like to know more about the detailed impact of this project, or if you'd like to collaborate on a similar initiative in your city or community!
Narratives of Home is a research project of DUT's Urban Futures Centre with two objectives. On the one side, it asks how citizens create homes and a sense of community in state delivered housing; and on the other side, it asks if raw narrative data can be consolidated and compared to create meaningful learnings for policy and housing delivery, and shared in innovative platforms. We are 1 of several other teams on this project, and we were interested in both the research topic and the opportunity to be involved in creating a platform for the consolidated learnings to be shared.
Our process has involved a strong focus on community engagement and building a relationship with the community. We have attempted using a number of different methodologies but what we have found that works the best is conducting informal interviews using snowball participant sampling. From these interviews, our plan is to produce a podcast documenting what we've learned so far about the history of this community, sharing that back with the community to get their feedback and input, and contributing to the larger body of work being produced by the other teams.
The learnings from the Narrative Project have been never ending, but are mainly related to learning how to build a relationship with a community in a meaningful way, especially when conducting academic research. From shifting methodologies, to shifting parts of the project we initially thought were very important, this project has taught us to be prepared for everything in the field, but flexible enough to let methodologies emerge as they are appropriate. It has also taught us that consistency and trust in that consistency in engagement is critical to building relationships in communities. Get in touch with us if you would like to know more about the detailed impact of this project, or if you'd like to collaborate on a similar initiative in your city or community!
Isandla Institute has identified a need to develop a 'policy tracker' which measures and critically assesses eight South African cities' response to national targets set to upgrade 750,000 out of the total 1.2 million informal households to standards outlined in stages 2 and 3 of the Upgrading of Informal Settlements Programme (UISP), part 3 of the National Housing Code. These cities are: Buffalo City, City of Cape Town, City of Joburg, City of Tshwane, Mangaung, eThekwini, Ekurhuleni, and Nelson Mandela Bay Metro. Open Data Durban partnered with Isandla Institute to create this living tracker that enables journalists, researchers, local government, communities, and many other user groups assess where each South African metro is at in terms of housing provision and upgrading informal settlements, supporting evidence-based decision making for city housing policy.
We met with the Isandla Institute team and co-designed the platform, and encouraged user testing session where the designed could be refined. The platform was launched after cycling through problem-definition, wireframe design and user testing for a couple of rounds. The platform is live, and about to recieve its 2018/19 results update.
Get in touch with us if you would like to know more about the detailed impact of this project, or if you'd like to collaborate on a similar initiative in your city or community!
The Tapestry seeks to unpack the complex social challenges facing modern South Africa, where these are often exacerbated by Apartheid-era municipal planning and community design. We got involved as this project works at an exciting interface of human engagement, advanced data science, and geospatial analysis; while also allowing us to work with a super cool partner, Social Surveys Africa (SSA).
Working with the SSA team we defined a description system for communities, using National Census data at the small-area layer (SAL) geospatial level. We then employed some machine-learning to identify distinct community types that can be visualized geographically and then enhanced through the layering of other available datasets. Our next steps will be to design a holistic data environment to enable the SSA team and their partners to investigate the underlying issues and concerns of at-risk communities.
A data-driven framework to unpack societal challenges and engage with at-risk communities. Get in touch with us if you would like to know more about the detailed impact of this project, or if you'd like to collaborate on a similar initiative!
A free and fair media is critical in a healthy democracy, though while the data age has dramatically enhanced our ability to generate and share news, it has similarly enabled the rise of fake news, programmatic agendas, and media echo-chambers. The Dexter project seeks to leverage modern computational paradigms to monitor and analyze Southern Africa's digital media so as to enable Media Monitoring Africa to drive accountability and equal representation. We got involved as it presented an opportunity to contribute to and protect South Africa's powerfully free media, to work with a rockstar partner, and to develop powerful machine learning and analytical methodologies that actually mean something.
Dexter automatically processes ~1500 articles a day from digital news sources, followed by the extraction of sources, entities and utterances via online natural language processing engines. These processed articles, along with associated extracted data, are then stored in a database that can be queried to perform analyses into the freedom of the media, the presence of agenda / bias, the degree of equal representation in terms of sources, and the identification of key players.
A powerful media analytics system and, hopefully, a more free and fair media. Get in touch with us if you would like to know more about the detailed impact of this project, or if you'd like to collaborate on a similar initiative!
Government departments and civil society organizations are choosing more and more to open their data to the public. While this is certainly a very exciting development, it is sometimes difficult to know that these resources are available, where they are located, and how they can be effectively used by relative newcomers to the open data world. We chose to help build the ODZA platform as it acts as a user-friendly index and linking platform for the excellent work being done across South Africa to provide data to citizens, thereby lowering the barrier to accessing useful information.
We designed a linking repository that makes it easy for users to find the sources of data they are looking for. We did not want to create another portal and try to replicate the good work that has already been done by government departments and CSOs, but sought rather to create an index to direct people to these sources and provide information on how best to utilize them.
An index to multiple data sources. Get in touch with us if you would like to know more about the detailed impact of this project, or if you'd like to collaborate on a similar initiative!
A lot of city-level data and model-driven analytics are generated in South Africa, however, these are seldom shared, even between departments within a municipality. The South African Cities Network seeks to promote the sharing of insights and models to facilitate data-driven decision-making in the metros. We partnered with them to develop their SCODA data platform as we are opposed to the siloing of information and the locking-up of insights in static reports.
We began by building a set of interactive data dashboards to explore 12 indicators from the State of Cities Open Data Almanac. This work was followed by the development of a fully interactive data exploration system and analysis builder, backed by CKAN, that allows users to explore all of SACN's 102 city indicators and then combine this information with data from external sources like Wazimap, Munimoney, and user's own data. We also assisted with the development and hosting of an open population growth model, derived at the small-area layer (SAL) level and augmented with night-light telemetry and voter registration data. As a next step, we are currently updating the UI/UX of the system and enhancing its data-story generation system.
A data-management system and data-story constructor. Get in touch with us if you would like to know more about the detailed impact of this project, or if you'd like to collaborate on a similar initiative!
State-owned enterprises play a significant role in the South African economy, though they are also often the site of governance challenges and unethical business practises. The SABC is no exception, and organizations like the SOS Coalition are working hard to hold them accountable, and to empower politicians to do the same through data-driven journalism. A significant challenge in this endeavour is the processing of many different types of documents, e.g. spreadsheets, PDFs, presentations, news articles, tweets, etc., and the aggregation of the data derived from them to create powerful data-stories. We got involved to help develop a "journalist workbench" that eases the burden of extracting information from diverse sources, analyzing the complicated connections between them, and then producing hard-hitting insights.
We have designed a system with the SOS team that will help with the extraction and organization of data from the myriad sources that the team needs to process. The fundamental unit of the system is a Connection between two Nodes, where the Nodes are entities like people, parties, companies, etc. and the Connections are legal proceedings, personal utterances / promises, payments and financials, and known affiliations between entities. New information sources are added, their connections identified and store, and then the database of Nodes and Connections can be queried to find interesting networks, or to create reports and stories.
A knowledge-management system and journalism workbench that can be leveraged to build similar systems or for other applications. If the platform is found to work well, the approach can easily be adapted to any SoE. Get in touch with us if you would like to know more about the detailed impact of this project, or if you'd like to collaborate on a similar initiative!
In many settlements, municipal administrations may record basic service levels as equal to the number of installed facilities (such as taps and toilets); but, in practice, the functional status and location of those facilities is often an unknown factor. Low-functional service levels of public infrastructure may lead to a severe scarcity of resources which can trigger safety issues relating to health and violence. CheckIT is a flexible, event-based mobile inspection tool designed to improve the delivery of essential services. This ICT4D monitoring tool aims to facilitate and standardise the process of reporting on the status of basic services. By replacing the paper-based system with this mobile technology, higher quality, more accurate and different varieties of data can now be generated and collected by trained community fieldworkers. The tool can be user-customised to report on a wide range of infrastructural and social incidents and events.
We have deployed an ecosystem that includes two established platforms, namely the KoBo Toolbox and Ushahidi, that are then connected through a built-for-purpose middleware system. The middleware handles communication between the two systems and allows for data aggregation and analysis to be performed on the various collections of monitor-submitted data. The location of infrastructure, e.g. toilets and lights, and the current working status of these elements is then inferred from the data aggregate; thereby allowing for monitoring and reporting by interested stakeholders, including, community groups, community members, and municipal staff.
A mobile-friendly data collection system that allows for monitors and community members to submit information, that is then aggregated and analyzed to faciliate reporting and accountability.