Mobile apps – empowering local Government, solving real social challenges

Marc Fletcher, Manager: Marketing & Business Development at Intervate, a T-Systems company
Marc Fletcher, Manager: Marketing & Business Development at Intervate, a T-Systems company
Marc Fletcher, Manager: Marketing & Business Development at Intervate, a T-Systems company

The start of 2017 saw many of South Africa’s provinces hit by a deluge of rain as typhoon Dineo ravaged the northerly parts of the country, and the effects of La Nina continue to dump millions of litres of water from the sky.

It may be a welcome relief from the drought of 2016, but it wreaks havoc with our daily commute: motorists are forced to navigate broken traffic lights and potholes appearing overnight, and many roads turn into concrete rivers. Ironically, while this was happening, the Western Cape continued to battle sustained drought, with wildfires raging, and emergency teams on constant high-alert.

Devastating though these natural world crises may be, they do give us an opportunity to apply our ideas and our technology to solve some of society’s most pressing issues: from disaster management to service delivery, from crime prevention to social grant payments, and much more.

Yes, Candy Crush and Angry Birds may be fun apps, but how can we leverage the power of millions of connected smartphones, ‘Connected Citizens’, to address the real problems of our nation?

First teetering steps

In the economic heartland of Johannesburg, the first signs of this are already appearing. We now have mobile apps for motorists to report faults on the city’s 7000 kilometres of road, instantly report crimes and suspicious activity, check for scheduled power cuts, find bus routes and schedules, and see upcoming public events.

The Johannesburg Road Agency’s ‘Find ‘n Fix’ app, built on Intervate’s Smart Citizen product, allows motorists to point out any problems with the roads infrastructure via a few taps of their smartphone. The app automatically geo-locates the issue, creates a ticket for the maintenance team, and funnels the request into the JRA’s workflow systems.

With Find ‘n Fix, we’ve proven the success of such a tool – but now we can start imagining the broader possibilities. Citizens could quickly and easily report fires breaking out, overflowing refuse bins, burst water pipes, fallen trees and debris swept onto roads after a storm.

We could start reporting crimes or suspicious activity, capturing camera footage and GPS coordinates that aid investigators in solving crimes. It’s an unfortunate reality that high crime levels always feature prominently in the national agenda – and each of us has a vested interest, and a responsibility, to play our part in tackling the endemic.

By leveraging an army of citizens on the ground, City officials can literally borrow the eyes and ears of everyone around them.

The Smart City Vision

The concept of ‘Smart Cities’ entails using new technology to connect and enhance many of the City’s basic services: like electricity, water, transportation, road networks, waste management, crime prevention, local government voting, billing services, general information, and more.

Travel to Singapore today and you will see the true essence of the so-called ‘Smart City’ vision. You’ll see connected sensors that dynamically control traffic, solar power integrated into smart energy grids, sensor-enabled intelligent lighting across large parts of the city, and literally thousands of WiFi access points.

Singapore may have the unique dynamics of severe space constraints and highly-evolved technology systems, but it is certainly a window on the urban world of the future.

It contains fantastic lessons for urban areas in Africa. Consider that by 2050, it’s expected that 80% of South Africans will be living in urban areas.

And if that prediction sounds startling, elsewhere on the continent it gets more dramatic. A recent report from BusinessInsider* included both Lagos and Kinshasa on its list of the 10 biggest cities in the world by 2050 – at more than 30 million residents each (that’s half of SA’s total current population!)

But to truly realise the Smart City vision, our thinking needs to evolve, to embrace the concept of ‘Smart Citizens’. Millions of urban residents must start adopting new digital and mobile eGovernment solutions, and start positively engaging with officials, government departments, and the broader urban community.

As with the introduction of any new technology, the catalyst for adoption is always the end-user. It’s only through widespread adoption that City authorities can start benefiting from those ‘eyes and ears on the ground’.

Crucial pieces to the puzzle

So, just what’s needed for us to create ‘Smart’ African cities, and truly harness the power of millions of connected citizens – reporting issues, contributing information, crowdsourcing solutions, and participating meaningfully in their local environment?

Let’s look at five key areas of technology development:

End-to-end digitisation of City services… Having sleek digital interfaces on the surface must be accompanied by transformed and digitised operational processes at the core of any government department or service. For instance, you may create an app that allows you to request title deeds to a property by mapping your location, scanning transfer papers and ID books, but unless that app connects to modern services within the Deeds Office, the effect will be muted.

Connectivity… Connected IP surveillance cameras and traffic sensors are simply impossible without a strong connectivity backbone serving government departments and citizens. From fibre, to DSL, to new forms of lightning-fast mobile broadband, if we want urban residents to contribute to our shared Smart City goals, connectivity is a prerequisite.

The Internet of Things… Of the astonishing 20 billion connected devices that Gartner predicts by 2020, a vast number of these will be deployed in the service of local governments – tracking everything from the movement of trains on the railway tracks, to the levels of power-loss on the electricity lines. Sensor-based information can be merged with the data being streamed by citizens, to give city officials deep visibility into key aspects of urban infrastructure and services.

Predictive Analytics… Of course, all this data needs to be processed by analytics engines – to reveal meaningful insights. As our intelligence engines grow in sophistication, we’re able to start predicting when certain faults or incidents might happen, based on things like the surrounding conditions or the average lifespan for certain infrastructure components. For instance, crews could be despatched to electricity lines before they suffer an impending fault.

Great user services… The Johannesburg Road Agency’s Find ‘n Fix app touched a nerve among the city’s motorists, and quickly became a runaway success. The consumer apps and digital services that we choose to develop need to address these ‘hot topics’, and quickly enable the user to get involved and start to help in solving the problem.

The example of the Find ‘n Fix app has shown that when we’re empowered with the tools to engage more meaningfully with local government, we will indeed make the effort to contribute to the greater good.

Let’s see how far that kind of nation-building culture can carry us. Let’s see the results when we can quite literally pull on the insights from millions of those eyes and ears on the ground.

By Marc Fletcher, Manager: Marketing & Business Development at Intervate, a T-Systems company