Building resilient cities in Africa: lessons learned from ODI’s mini-grant projects

Fri Dec 15, 2017
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Following the conclusion of the mini-grant programme, hear from three projects bringing citizens and governments together to improve Africa’s cities, with £6,000 and support from the ODI

Following the conclusion of the mini-grant programme, hear from three projects bringing citizens and governments together to improve Africa’s cities, with £6,000 and support from the ODI

By Gillian Whitworth

In September, the ODI, through the support of IDRC and the Open Data for Development (OD4D) Network, launched its mini-grant programme, which supported three civil society organisations implementing innovative data projects across Africa. Over 12 weeks, the project teams used £6,000, and support from the ODI and mentors from the Africa Open Data Network (AODN), to harness technology and data to help build more resilient cities.

At the end of November, we caught up with the project leads on the lessons they had learned and their plans for the future.

What were the projects?

Selected from an open call in June, which attracted 80 applications, the three mini-grant finalists all addressed ways in which data can be used to improve Africa’s cities.

All three straddle the divide between citizens and government, aiming to share data and information with those who need it, to create strong, reliable public services.

The three projects were:

Durban Answers, South Africa, @durbananswers

Durban Answers is a search engine with a difference. The online platform and mobile app allows Durban’s residents to find information about their public services – such as how to register a business or pay a parking fine.

The team used the mini-grant to take a more targeted approach to crowdsourcing questions and answers, working with selected partners with specialist knowledge. They launched a beta version of the Durban Answers app at Durban’s Innovate Festival and formed a ‘Brain’s Trust’ of former and current government employees to verify answers on the platform. The project have also established a strong relationship with the city that may enable potential government usage in future.

TransGov, Ghana, @transgov

TransGov is an online platform and app for citizens of the Ghana’s capital Accra to report issues and see them resolved efficiently by public agencies. The tool lets citizens take a picture of a problem, send it to the appropriate agency, and track progress until the issue is resolved.

During the 12-week period, TransGov launched their app and partnered with two government institutions, the Ghana Water Agency and Accra Metropolitan Assembly, to trial the system. In the month since the app’s launch, TransGov has received 30 reported issues: over half of these have already been solved, with an average response time of three days to fix water issues.

Anti-Delestron, Burkina Faso, @openburkina

The Anti-Delestron team addressed the problem of unpredictable power cuts in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, by creating a real-time map of electricity outages around the city. The map has the technical infrastructure to draw from the electricity company’s plan for load-shedding and data drawn from sensors around the city, to show residents when and where power cuts happen. The map will be available online over the next few weeks.

With the mini-grant, the team were able to create this technical infrastructure and prepare to place sensors in locations around the city. They have also raised awareness of the service through a launch event, and convened stakeholders to organise a 3-day hackathon around opening up the country’s geographic data.

Lessons learned

While reflecting on their experience of delivering the mini-grant projects, the project leads shared some lessons they had learned. These may help others who are looking to innovate with data, in Africa and across the globe.

Navigating institutional bureaucracy takes time

All three project leads mentioned difficulties in navigating the bureaucracy of government and other institutions.

TransGov co-founders Jerry Akanyi-King and Kennedy Anyinatoe commented: ‘we wanted to move very quickly and get to the destination, but it takes a long time with government.’ Such long timescales impacted on the team’s ability to engage government; Jerry mentioned that the project had to engage new people over time as their old contacts moved to other municipalities. Overcoming these issues meant accepting that ‘the nature of government and how they operate’ and factoring government turnover and a slower pace into project timelines.

Likewise, Teg-Wende Idriss Tinto of Anti-Delestron discovered similar issues in Burkina Faso, finding that collaborating with government bureaucracy meant that ‘achieving a project in 3 months was ambitious’. The difference in pace between the mini-grant project and government meant the team needed to adjust their expectations for what they could achieve in the time period.

Bureaucracy is not just confined to government: projects may also have to navigate the power structures of other institutions. While working on Durban Answers in South Africa, Sophie McManus discovered the difficulties of working with large institutions where individuals may not have the power to make decisions. As a small project with limited time and resources, Durban Answers had to make difficult decisions about who to engage, and understand that institutional hierarchies mean people ‘may err on the side of caution’ in supporting innovation and change. Projects must find a way to negotiate these concerns.

Know your partners: their problems, motivations and goals

Project teams in all three cities discovered the importance of understanding your stakeholders’ motivations in order to gain support for activities.

For Ghanaian project TransGov, stakeholder mapping helped them engage partners by understanding their interests. The team then invested time in building strong relationships with these partners. While this approach meant narrowing the scope of government partners from four to two, it also enabled the team to form ‘really strong connections’ with the Ghana Water Agency, the Accra Metropolitan Assembly (AMA), and a network of district managers at water sub-stations. As a result of understanding the needs of their institutional partners, TransGov have attracted interest from a government agency in paying for the platform.

In Burkina Faso, Anti-Delestron leader Tinto found ‘it was hard to get universities involved as it was a problem motivating students who didn’t have much free time’. Likewise, Durban Answers discovered that targeted engagement through workshops was more successful for generating content for the platform than general public events; ‘we are still such a small organisation that we don’t have that critical mass for a huge event’, Sophie explains. Both projects plan to overcome this issue in future by engaging partners and audiences on a smaller, more targeted scale, to ensure that they are working with specific partners with similar motivations and goals.

The team at Durban Answers also learned the importance of refining their pitch. As Sophie explains: ‘engagement is not just meeting people and talking about your project…you have to deliver your message. Knowing your audience is incredibly important’. This involved understanding the right language to use for your audience, and overcoming previous assumptions about civic projects: as Sophie says, ‘although it’s a social impact project, you still have to sell it at the end of the day’.

Sharing successes helps build trust and legitimacy

Sitting between government and citizens means the projects also had to engage citizens to encourage use of their services. This involved building trust between governments and citizens: a difficult task to accomplish in 12 weeks.

‘The main issue was time’, Jerry and Kennedy from TransGov commented. ‘It takes time to build trust on the side of citizens [and] we didn’t have much time to build that legitimacy [so] people would believe in it’. The team found that sharing successes was key to building this trust: the pair shared a story of someone who reported a pipe which had been burst for a month on TransGov, and saw it fixed within three days: ‘she was so happy, she went on Facebook and said something nice, encouraging others to use the app. We share these successes far and wide’.

The team recognise that this process of building trust will take time: ‘we’re hopeful that as time goes on more people will have trust that when they report problems, the government will fix them’, say Jerry and Kennedy.

Focus on the process, and have a plan B

For several of the projects, the mini-grant provided time and space to innovate and test processes to find out what works (and what doesn’t work).

For Durban Answers, the biggest success was ‘honing some of the project’s processes … testing the Brain’s Trust model and different methods of engagement’. This gave the team the opportunity to get feedback on the project’s direction and understand how it could scale in future. The project also got the chance to focus on back-end development and map out processes, including the lifecycle of an article. ‘We’ve been able to take steps that we weren’t able to take before’, Sophie explains.

Anti-Delestron leader Tinto found success in working with the Geographical Institute in Burkina Faso’s capital Ouagadougou. The institute have now given data to the city for use in creating the map on the Anti-Delestron platform, but the team ‘want to find ways to open [the data] up for others to use’, as Tinto explains. In order to encourage this, the team are trialling a hackathon around geographic data, due to take place this weekend (15–17th). Tinto hopes that the convening stakeholders involved, which include the Geographic Institute, the government open data initiative and startup incubators, ‘will get the community talking about the reuse of geographical data’.

However, the challenges of engaging government and citizens in a short 12-week period meant that the projects needed to adapt and react to events, and try new methods when old ones fail. Being resilient in the face of change was an important lesson learned for Sophie at Durban Answers, who realised the importance for planning ahead: ‘If there’s a critical path that depends on someone else cooperating, then you have to plan for what happens if it doesn’t work out’. Likewise, the Anti-Delestron team in Burkina Faso were surprised by verbal agreements with senior leaders in government which fell through; Tinto shared that next time, the team would ensure senior buy-in is reflected through the organisation.

Strengthen the wider ecosystem

Lastly, the projects learned that strengthening the wider data and technology ecosystem was vital, especially where areas were under resourced and did not have access to technology.

TransGov addressed these difficulties with technology during the mini-grant project by encouraging reporting of citizen problems through Whatsapp. This helped address issues around internet connectivity and access the app. However, as Jerry and Kennedy explained: ‘you cannot perform data analysis [in Whatsapp]. With the app, we can categorise where issues are coming from and identify hotspots’ where infrastructure issues are common. Consequently, future iterations of the project may need to consider how to overcome this issue.

For Tinto, difficulties in implementing Anti-Delestron’s planned activities meant that the team ‘needed a plan C: to strengthen the open data community in general’. He expands: ‘we need to involve people from civil society, as well as their counterparts in city and government agencies…to access and strengthen the ecosystem’. Creating this network outside government was also important to Sophie and Durban Answers, who plan to build up connections through workshops with individual institutions and user groups, such as universities and students.

Strengthening the wider tech and data ecosystem is also about learning from one another. As well as encouraging the mini-grants to share ideas and successes with one another, the ODI also coordinated an African Open Data Leaders Network in July to build capacity and encourage the development of an open data network across Africa. Organisations like the Africa Open Data Network are spearheading this work; initiatives like these are likely to grow exponentially over the next few years.

Looking to the future

All three project leads are optimistic about what the future holds for their initiatives.

‘We want to become an integral part of government organisations so that the criticism that government is unresponsive will change [and] people begin to trust the government’, Jerry and Kennedy say. The TransGov team plan to work with the Ministry of Planning, who are responsible for envisioning Ghanaian cities in the future. In the meantime, they plan to building trust with citizens by ensuring government is responsive to citizen needs.

In Burkina Faso, Tinto and the Anti-Delestron team will continue to press government to open up geographic data about the country’s regions and cities, so that it can be used by all. Tinto plans to implement their lessons learned from this project, working with select partners that share similar goals to that of the project.

Lastly by the end of 2018, Durban Answers plan to expand their activities through targeted engagement with government and other institutions, and become an independent organisation. Particularly important to Sophie is deepening the project’s involvement with sizakala centres, who are designed to be a ‘one-stop shop’ for government services but are under-resourced and under-utilised. These centres are particularly critical for those who do not have guaranteed access to technology, who are often those who require this information the most.

In Sophie’s words: ‘Durban Answers could be another platform for people who have access to technology – that is an easy win. We want to actually bring information to those who fundamentally don’t have access to this information. If we can figure that out, that is the real win’.

_The mini-grant programme has now finished. To learn more about the projects we supported, follow the links below: Durban Answers – @durbananswers TransGov – @transgov Anti-Delestron –

If you have ideas or experience in open data that you’d like to share, pitch us a blog or tweet us at @ODIHQ.

Image: TransGov’s Cofounder Kennedy Anyinatoe on a field visit to inspect a resident’s report