Creating change through technology isn’t a shiny new concept. Organisations and groups have been hacking solutions that drive the greater good for many years. They’ve looked into corners, examined legacy issues and set themselves the goals of overcoming these challenges through the inventive use of technology. Today, hacking may be weighed down by the negative image of black hats sliding behind security back doors to enter systems and destroy organisations, but these hacking projects are taking the term and turning it towards transformation and change.
Hack the environment
The University of the Western Cape has several sassy hacking initiatives on the boil at the moment, and two that stand out are CodeJam and UDUBS-it. Both offer students an opportunity to use technology for the betterment of their environment and society, and both are seeing impressive results.
CodeJam was developed to boost eSkills competence, with a focus on young, local talent. The objectives of the programme include the growth of skills in mobile application development, social innovation, the development of local mobile apps for local needs, and the development of skills to design mobile apps that address local socioe-conomic challenges.
“CodeJam is linked to social innovation, where we identified challenges in the immediate environment and instead of asking people to just come up with ideas, we gave them definite problems within their environments and asked them to develop targeted solutions,” says Dr Leonora Craffert, director: CoLab for eInclusion and Social Innovation, University of the Western Cape. “We have sponsors who evaluate the outcomes and select those ideas they think are the most worthwhile, and these are then taken to the prototype stage.”
UDUBS-it, on the other hand, comes with a very shiny acronym-driven name and some pretty impressive credentials. It stands for a collaborative initiative between the University of the Western Cape, University of Ghent, The Vrije University of Brussels and Mzumbe University in Tanzania.
“It’s a mobile campus application that allows for location-based, goal-oriented exchanges within trusted communities,” says Craffert. “It allows users to visualise and find campus-related events, advertisements and notices. The underlying principles are community-building and sustainability of knowledge through active participation.”
Craffert believes it’s important to develop local talent as it has its own voice, a voice that needs to be heard as it shouts about issues that are relevant to South Africa.
“We need to address local challenges – these are not the same as in other countries – and we need to use technology to really address our context in a way that is relevant to us,” she says. “We must also show young people that there are opportunities for them to instigate change within their communities.”
Hack the Constitution
“South Africa has a model Constitution, but few citizens have read the text, and even the president has shown misunderstanding of its detail,” says Debbie Schultz, founding member, Hack the Constitution. “There are no resources for interpreting the Constitution – certainly nothing modern and interactive.”
What the team from Hack the Constitution plans to do is make the South African Constitution accessible and engaging for journalists, activists, teachers and citizens on a platform that is annotated and mobile-first. The project is driven by Hacks/Hackers Johannesburg and TEDxJoburg and is open to anyone who wants to participate.
“Hack the Constitution came about as a result of the work of the ConCourt,” says Adam Oxford, founding member, Hack the Constitution. “In the space of a few months, it had passed judgement on housing issues, the Vodacom Please Call Me case, and Thuli Madonsela’s Nklandla report. It dawned on us that few people – including the journalists writing about it – really understood its mandate. Why was Please Call Me a constitutional issue? And, more worryingly, it became apparent that a lot of people would like to change the Constitution if they could.”
The worrying thing is not that the Constitution could be amended. In its short 20-year lifespan, it's has been amended more times than the 240-year-old US Constitution. Updates are not, per se, a bad thing, Oxford says. But when changes to the fundamental law of the land are made, they should be made from an informed position. And right now, the tools to be informed don’t exist.
Oxford adds: “After the end of aparthied, the authors of the Constitution wanted to create a document that guaranteed the horrors of that period could not ever happen again. It is thorough, it is not overly dense in terms of legal language and it absolutely guarantees that everyone is entitled to the same rights and considerations before the law. It has allowed South Africa to be a world leader in the fields of equality (like gay marriage) and is used almost daily to win rights for those who need its protection most.”
Hack the Constitution has set itself the giddy goal of creating a resource where people can search the text of the Constitution and find helpful annotations that explain the jargon, the charters, the roles and the law. It is to be available in all 11 languages and, ultimately, will hopefully spread its wings to include other areas such as the Cybercrimes Bill or the Film & Publications Board Amendment Bill.
Hack the information
Information is power. With it, people can make informed decisions about their lives and the choices they need to make. They can understand more about the people who lead them, and the organisations they opt to work with. It is also the theme that underpins work done by Code4SA, a non-profit civic technology lab that uses data and technology to drive informed decision-making and social change.
“People always talk about information being power, but I experienced this first-hand in a project that promoted access to medicines in South Africa,” says Adi Eyal, founder, Code4SA. “We compared public sector procurement prices of medicines across 14 SADC member states. There were massive differences in prices paid across borders. In one example, Botswana was paying ten times what the South African government was paying on one medicine, which resulted in them renegotiating terms with the supplier. They ended up saving $1.5m annually on that one medicine.”
Access to information can be more effective than anything else. Code4SA has developed several tools that drive this and help people in making informed decisions. Its mpr.code4sa.org tool offers price comparisons on medication – people type in the name of the medication and can see the maximum price a pharmacist is allowed to legally charge. It also helps people find lower priced generic alternatives.
“We have also created the wardcandidates.code4sa.org tool, which helps voters find out who was contesting their wards in the recent government elections,” says Eyal. “Often the first time people find out about most of the candidates is at the voting booth and we wanted to make this information available ahead of time for more informed voting.”
Code4SA also liberates data that it feels should be accessible to South Africans, but isn’t. It has created sites that open up valuable information to anyone with a connection and a mobile device. These include: http://www.wazimap.co.za, which provides easy access to census and elections data, http://municipalmoney.gov.za, which reveals how well a municipality is managing its money, and http://openbylaws.org.za, which makes South Africa’s by-laws available for free in an easy to read format.