Municipal data needs a good hack

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Paul Berkowitz, business development consultant for Citydex, talks about the potential uses for municipal data at Jozihub, Saturday 15 June

No one would say that Johannesburg’s municipal services work the best they possibly could. One needs to only think of the ongoing billing nightmare that is still plaguing so many of the city’s electricity users. But every so often municipalities are open to help and furthermore that help often comes in the form of a private enterprise which not only believes service delivery can be efficient while keeping the processes open and accessible, but also profitable. 
 
Enter Citydex, a division of Empowerdex (Pty) Ltd, with the mission of improving basic service delivery at local government level. While their main areas of focus are training and consulting, in this case, at JoziHub at 44 Stanley, they have sought the input of an unlikely group of both hacks and hackers to tackle one of the most pressing issues of our times - service delivery in a rapidly expanding metropolis with a multitude of social problems and an inadequate record keeping process. Enter Johannesburg and its numbers. 
 
Paul Berkowitz, business development consultant for Citydex, and data hacker by trade who does have some experience in crunching numbers and says quite definitely, “mistrust the numbers”, is nevertheless tapping into the Johannesburg branch of the global hack/hackers group, a loose knit collection of journalists and coders interested in crunching data for stories and visualisation, to do just that - find patterns and stories in the numbers that is our municipal data. 
 
The point of the gathering on Saturday 15 June wasn’t so much to have some finished product on the table that could crunch the increasing load of data available for consumers but really to find out what would be the most viable approach to what we have moving forward. The keynote address from Berkowitz was ‘Municipal data - gaps in the data and gaps in our knowledge’.
 
Berkowitz explains that one of the cornerstone purposes of this kind of arrangement is to create more integrated communities. One whereby any citizen can access any relevant information about their ward, about their community and any bits of that information that are relevant to them as an individual or a household easily. For example, their electricity bill and how that bill is generated - can I see my usage in real time? 
 
Berkowitz says those are the kinds of systems that we want to see active, at least in the major urban areas.
 
Service delivery - water, electricity, sanitation, rubbish removal - is the point here. Berkowitz says, “We want to drive delivery, we want greater public engagement. We do this through data sharing”. 
 
“We want to create an app or service to strengthen project management, create a pool of town planning engineers and of course, options to create our own private data capacity.”
 
One of the sticking points to taking this step in service delivery is whether this data is actually available and accessible to the public. Berkowitz is a bit of an activist for holding municipalities accountable for their data. All this information should be available and ideally having as Berkowitz lovingly says, “One database to bind them.”
 
By the close of the day there was no finished product on the table but organisers said they are setting down some clear goals and timelines moving forward. Before too long it is feasible to expect that you or I could access our own personal municipal data as well as that of our ward from an app on your phone.