Hack Your Way To Open Data Systems

2012-08-08 18:01

What comes to mind when you think of a ‘hacker’?

Probably you picture a shabby-looking guy spotting skewed spectacles, biting tightly on his lower lip while goggling without a twitch at his computer for hours on end.

Or maybe at the mention of the word itself your mind falls into some sort of a trance, and all you see is millions of figures, words, digits and shapes of all forms rolling out in front of your eyes. Maybe the Matrix comes to mind, who knows?

I have to say I always associated the word with a ‘loner’ sitting in a dark room with numerable computer screens in front of him, cabling strewn all over the place, and empty snack packages and energy drink cans piling up in a corner.

We all have our acuity, and it’s probably one that associates hackers with ‘erroneous’ things. At times I can’t help but think maybe the guy I saw sitting in the coffee shop yesterday, typing frenetically on his laptop, infallibly oblivious of his environment, was probably decoding tons of classified information from a database stored in the building across the road. Well, isn’t that what hackers do, you would think.

Well, this past weekend I had an opportunity to join a bunch of people I would like to call the ‘Data Liberation Army’, courtesy to one of the team members who jokingly tossed the name to the table, during one of the discussion sessions at the convention. Needless to say I wasn’t as awash as I had hoped for with ‘hacking’ skills by the time I left the event. It felt like I was trying to read ‘maths’, instead of working out the solutions. Only time a simple ‘ / ’ meant something more than being a forward slash to somebody else.

This group of young people, with support from a different number of organisations, both international and local, has come together to form a coalition known as Open Data & Democracy Initiative (ODADI), which aims to make available to everyone the kind of information that for so many years has been termed ‘classified’.

I would like to believe the society or communities as whole lack the kind of people who are passion-driven, and who possess a firm kind of austerity that changes attitudes, let alone lives.

In simple terms, all they are doing is implementing their skills in computer technology, programming, software-web development, graphic designing and statistics to put together databases and applications that will not only be accessible online, but on mobile devices too. These applications will be able to instantly give ordinary citizens the kind of information that would, if pursued using ancient techniques, devour hours and hours of spreadsheet analysis. Although this is also on condition that one would have gone through all their connections on their contact list, then tossed from pole to post, before getting their hands on this kind of information.

What does this mean for ordinary South Africans?

Well, in a time where scepticism and ambiguity lingers on the borders of people’s minds, in terms of what the future holds for the country, and where corruption and political instability has been pin-pointed as some of the major causes, information that deserves to be public knowledge should never be shielded from the public eye, according to ODADI’s master minds.

Many a times information about health, major government projects, budget breakdown, and details of their leaders; be it councillors, local government officials and political heads is hidden from them. Since they are public figures, does the public have the right to these details? Yes is the answer, maintains ODADI.

Government Projects...

One of the benefits that these applications, if developed, will be able to do is empower citizens with the ability to monitor their own leaders, without the help of a ‘middle-man’. Instead of waiting for media to inform you what your councillor owns, owes or what he has done over the past few years, a click of a button will retrieve all this information straight to your phone.

Another great one, if put together and programmed, will help ordinary citizens report mishaps in their communities. A mere picture of a pothole, a half-done project, or issue that hasn’t been addressed, with the name of the responsible councillor in that Ward or Constituency, all those will be tagged with his name, crushing his or her immunity to criticism. It will give you information about their salaries too, which will help you know when one is merely misusing public funds to fatten their own pockets.

How about an application that will empower all the school-going age-group with the ability to report different issues in their schools? Currently there have been ongoing issues of textbook dumping in the country, which only surfaced almost half way through the year. What if students were able to report these irregularities, anonymously, from their mobile devices? A lot of students have cell phones, and such issues could be brought to light in a blink of an eye.

How about these service delivery protests, that have killed, harmed and left multitudes in distress? Mobile device applications that citizens can use to send their complaints on services that are not being met in their communities. Be it police corruption, electricity faults and no access to it thereof, these could be easily mapped and forwarded from the comfort of your home, or community, and media houses will be able to pick it up or all those responsible for these areas will be answerable. It’s to empower citizens to report their own stories and not be reported for, through the open data platforms.

How about parents at home?

Imagine an application that can give you all the information about your child’s school, from pass rate, condition or access to ablution facilities for your child, availability of a library, school’s drop-out rate, and quality of education? All this can be put together on to one platform, thanks to this group of young people who have set out to change the dynamics of access to information in South Africa.

At times we are left in the dark in terms of what is really happening to tax payers’ money. One minute projects are being put up, the next they are being cancelled, and there is no one to explain to you what happened.

Even if there is, it will probably be a politician perched on a podium, and who, before coming up on stage, carefully composed a lexicon of English words amassed ever since the language itself came into existence, and merely dump them in your ears. You go home more confused than ever before.

I believe these kinds of initiatives will go a long way in giving people in society and communities an opportunity to do their own monitoring and reporting on issues that affect them. The world is changing rapidly due to technology and information technologies, and there is no better way of re-addressing socio-economic issues than to include the majority of the people in the fight, who are actually the ones who matter the most.

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