Tech allows communities to act together

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Local non-governmental organisation (NGO) Grassroot is making use of technology to enable participatory democracy in SA.

Founded in 2015, Grassroot says it creates solutions that enable communities and individuals to act together with more endurance, skill and independence.

"Grassroot is an NGO enabling communities on the ground to effect participatory democracy by providing them with the technology to organise themselves," says Luke Jordan, founder of Grassroot.

"We were founded in late 2015 and have to date reached over half a million people. As well as working with communities on the ground, we also provide other NGOs and partners the ability to reach audiences otherwise left out of the national conversation.

"For example, we helped the Big Debate run polls during its shows this season over USSD, allowing people not on social media to have their opinion counted, and worked with Health-e News to provide information on local clinics and support services to survivors of gender-based violence who might not have smartphones or data."

Jordan says Grassroot's set of simple tools, available through any type of phone, allows community members to interact with government, organisations or even other stakeholders.

This includes the arrangement of large-scale meetings, identification of volunteers and even taking community votes, he adds.

According to Jordan, currently the platform has over 300 000 users and a few thousand activities run through it per month with a team of three people.

"In order to manage this workload, Grassroot was born in the AWS [Amazon Web Services] cloud. At the core of the application is Amazon EC2 and Amazon RDS stack providing the necessary storage power.

"We run a modern Web application on the AWS cloud, built on open source frameworks and tools. For security and privacy, we use a variety of firewalls and standard vulnerability checks."

He explains the platform has allowed community members to take collective action more frequently, reaching more people, more persistently over time.

"It also allowed people to participate in national conversations, access information and register their voice, in ways that otherwise they couldn't."

Jordan notes technology can help communities to overcome challenges in distributing information and getting people together.

"As one example, prior to Grassroot, if someone wanted to call a community gathering, they had to hire a guy to go around on a bakkie the whole morning with a megaphone telling people about the meeting. A WhatsApp group wouldn't work because still about half of people in informal settlements don't have smartphones, or are usually out of data, and WhatsApp groups have size limits. So either you exclude people, or you have to incur the costs of the bakkie and the fuel and so on, and still if someone isn't home when the bakkie drives past, they won't know about the meeting."

He points out that with Grassroot, all of that is reduced to a 30-second menu flow on USSD, and thousands of people get notified.

"So the time and money that would have been used can be put into other more productive uses, and also it means people call gatherings much more frequently, so issues are discussed more openly and frequently."

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