What do the informal settlement of Khayelitsha, the hugely affluent Joburg suburb of Parkhurst and the Capetonian township of Gugulethu – internationally known as the site of Anni Dewani’s murder in 2010 – have in common?

Not – at first glance – an awful lot. Yet the three are all being targeted as prime spots for the launch of a new mobile app and web tool that will promote civic engagement, help maintain metropolitan infrastructure and build peaceful and well adjusted communities who come together out of love for their neighbourhood and the quest for a good bargain.

Welcome to OurHood, a tool which the developers hope will make life better for everyone who uses it, wherever they are in South Africa.

OurHood is, first and foremost, an app designed to make it easy for neighbourhoods and suburbs to connect online and share information privately with others in the area. It takes its cue from initiatives in ‘hyperlocalism‘ across the world – the belief that as the internet takes news and communities global, it’s all the more important to create ‘new media’ ways to connect people on a local level.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

People love their homes

OurHood is the brainchild of Capetonians Bruce Good and Will Mellor, and I caught up with Good to find out more.

While studying in London and New York through the mid-to-late 2000s, Good says, he observed that South African metropolitan areas lack the same sense of identity that other urban spaces have. With the exception of some few places like Braamfontein and Woodstock, which have had considerable resources ploughed into them as part of regeneration projects, neighbourhoods in our cities tend to be useful for geographical description, but little else.

“One thing I love about New York is that it has these very defined neighbourhoods,” Good explains, “Tribeca, SoHo, Chinatown… People are very proud of living there.”

Upon returning to Cape Town, Good says he sat down with urban planning experts to find out if there were shortcuts to developing the same sense of place here. The result was NameYourHood.

“It was 2010, and just after the Dewani murder,” says Good, “And I heard on the radio that her body was found at NY115. No-one even knew what the NY stood for – I asked around and it means ‘Native Yard’.”

Good realised that not only do many apartheid-era names remain in place, but where they have been changed it’s always a top-down process. Government (rightly) decides to honour Albertina Sisulu, and it’s goodbye Market Street. Locals and residents are almost never consulted about how they want their area to be redefined, and what characteristics it has that should be commemorated in the first place.

So he started NameYourHood, an online program to give the people of Gugulethu the opportunity to suggest and vote for their own ideas for new street names. With backing from Vodacom, he began a door-to-door campaign to ask residents what they thought of living in a vaguely offensive acronym, and would they like to do something about it – like sign a petition to change its name.

“We tried to get one new name put through a month,” Good says, “And we traced the history places back to pre-colonisation, using names rather than acronyms.”

Universal access

NameYourHood naturally attracted the attention of the City of Cape Town, which put out a tender for managing the road renaming process in Gugulethu which Good won. He and his team spoke to around 40 000 people, and created what he says is the most successful renaming process so far in South Africa.

CapeTownHoods, as the project has now become, encompasses both campaigns for road renaming as well as community-created newsfeeds and information services from councillors to ward members.

Good wants people to think of Cape Town like this - a network of well known and recognisable neighbourhoods.
Good wants people to think of Cape Town like this – a network of well-known and recognisable neighbourhoods.

Despite being ostensibly based online, however, Good reckons that 90% of the work his team does is still manual, because while digital tools are all well and good, there’s still no replacement for visiting people, knocking on doors, talking to them about how the free flow of information can help create the kind of area they want to live in. It’s not, he says, because of lack of technology – Gugulethu may be poor but smartphones and connectivity are far from unusual. The same techniques are being used in affluent Green Point and Woodstock to set up ‘hoods’ there too.

It is, however, the difference between CapeTownHoods and projects like LookLocal, the attempt by Caxton to set up a network of hyperlocal news sites around South Africa some years ago which does little more than function as a gateway to its own network of papers.

“People are more accepting if they’re personally part of the process,” Good says.

And then he reveals his bold masterplan.

Taking the local to national

Hyperlocalism is a term which has been bandied around in journalistic circles for a long time. The theory is that while the internet has been radical at transforming global communities and bringing together people with similar interests from all over the world – people who like cat photos, for example, or have particularly obscure sexual fetishes – it has a largely unrealised potential to do the same for local communities too. Modern life is terribly antisocial for humanity – often we don’t know other people on our street, and in modern South Africa many live behind high walls that isolates them from direct contact with their next-door neighbours, leading to fragmentation of communities. Hyperlocal enthusiasts argue that the very tools that break down the barriers of distance between us and strangers on a gaming or photo forum in Europe can also be used to peer over the electric fence and say “Hi, can I borrow a cup of sugar”.

Hyperlocalism has had a checkered history, however, and there’s a tough road ahead for OurHood. AOL, for example, pumped millions of dollars into trying to create a network of newsrooms not dissimilar to the OurHood vision, and ended up selling the company – Patch – off earlier this year. Primarily, it’s very difficult to monetise hyperlocal sites – ad supported sites need millions of visitors to be worthwhile, not the few dozen who live in a hood. So successful hyperlocals remain largely the realm of volunteer community groups who may not be terribly au fait with technology.

Speaking personally, however, there are big issues with this. I know that in my area there’s a very active and very successful community group which organises neighbourhood crime awareness programs, fun days and blanket drives. As good as it is, however, its sole form of communication are PDF newsletters delivered by email. Very traditional, relatively hard to access (open email, download PDF), very top down and unlikely to spur much local debate outside of the tight knit committee which meets in person.

Other common ways of organising local communities have similar drawbacks. Facebook groups encourage a very ephemeral interaction, forums tend to be dominated by a few outspoken types. Some neighbourhood groups even organise via WhatsApp – innovative, but not particularly effective at encouraging new members or sharing important details like when the water is going to be cut off.

The mobile app interface for OurHood.
The mobile app interface for OurHood.

And communication is vital. In my own complex, two of our security guards are currently looking a bit ashen. The third member of their team has gone away for a month, but because the residents complain when a temporary member of staff that they don’t recognise is on the gate, the security company no longer provides holiday cover. Instead, it forces the two remaining guards to rotate on 12 hour shifts, seven days a week when one is away.

I understand – even if I don’t share – the paranoia. This is a ‘safe’ area, but it wasn’t always so. Surely, however, there has to be a reliable and trustworthy way to contact every resident with a simple message not to worry, perhaps with a photo of the temporary guy attached?

That’s the kind of thing that a good hyperlocal – a newsfeed so geographically specific it doesn’t even extend to the main road – could affect.

It’s the sort of issue that Good’s next project is likely to solve. CapeTownHoods has evolved into OurHood, an all-encompassing news app which combines an outward feed with interactivity from those who use it.

Good says that its design was inspired by the likes of Nate Silver’s liveability index drawn up for New York Magazine – an interactive data analysis tool which will recommend New York suburbs for prospective buyers – and NextDoor.com, a meta collection of private social networks only accessible to those who live in a particular area.

OurHood – South Africans sharing for good?

The final shape of OurHood, then, is part social network, part hyperlocal news service, part civic engagement and digital democracy app, part crime reporting app, part enabler of collective consumption, part shopping site. It’s all hugely ambitious and potentially – if enough people adopt it – an enormously powerful tool for change in South Africa.

The key to its success, says Good, will be trust. He’s big on data protection and privacy because he believes that people won’t use OurHood unless they trust it. Consequently, sign-ups are explicitly geographical and by invite only – there are discussion boards built in for people to share information like concerns about empty housing and who’s looking for a housesitter while they go on holiday. It’s the kind of detail which could tip off criminals if shared on an open platform like Facebook – and Good wants people to feel safe enough to talk about them.

Consequently, he also commits to making the app free forever and never selling on personal information it stores.

“It’s not worth it,” he explains, “If people think you’re giving all that data away, they won’t sign up.”

By restricting access to local information and discussions, Good says, OurHood can insist on ‘real name’ use and not allow anonymous access or forum posting. That way, he’s hoping, people will trust what’s published and be accountable for what they say – helping to keep things civil. It also means that if someone has access who shouldn’t have – a potential criminal who doesn’t live in the area, for example – they can be quickly spotted and concerns raised. Right now, access to an areas pages is essentially “invite only”.

As well as using the noticeboards to post, well, notices, one way to get people using OurHood, says Good, is to encourage ‘collaborative consumption’ – a phrase currently buzzing in the US and Europe whereby locals use noticeboards to find out if neighbours have power tools or ladders they can borrow rather than going out and buying new ones. The ‘sharing economy’ is frequently cited in stern capitalist literature like The Economist as an emerging force – away from big name apps like AirBnB and Freecycle, the most famous example often given is electric drills.

bruce good
Bruce Good and Katie Engelbrecht. Engelbrecht is helping to launch OurHood in Johannesburg this month.

The founder of AirBnB – a site which lets you ‘share’ your house by renting it to strangers – claims that there are 80 million electric drills in the US, and the average total lifetime use of a drill is 13 minutes. It’s not entirely clear where the claim comes from – other claims range from seven minutes to 15 – but other collaborative consumption sites like Peerby.com reckon that drills are their most shared domestic item.

As well as saving money by not buying stuff, OurHood is also geared up to help you save money when you shop. Local ads and deal vouchers are the primary planned source of revenue for the future, and Good is confident that by laser targeting sales he can both make money and encourage people to use local shops.

“OurHood will be tell you when your local butcher is having a two-for-one braai pack sale,” he says, “So hopefully you’ll use them rather than the big supermarket.”

Digital democracy

The flip side of the privacy discussion, however, is that OurHood will be collecting data which could be enormously useful if anonymised and published openly. For example, people are encouraged to use OurHood for reporting issues. Whether its potholes, broken streetlamps or petty crimes, the app can photograph and tag neighbourhood problems and mail them off to the right people. He already has arrangements with SAPS for reporting the types of issues that people generally don’t bother the police about – car break-ins, thwarted burglary attempts and so on – and hopes that by encouraging people to report the police will in turn become more aware of the real patterns of crime in an area.

Posting details of what’s been reported and when has been proved to be a powerful way of prompting local politicians in to action overseas – particularly with the Open311 system in the US. Having evidence of how long a pothole has remained unfilled or a children’s play area broken is a great way of holding politicians to account in a very public manner when they don’t deliver.

When it comes to civic reporting there is also competition. The Johannesburg Roads Authority, for example, has just released its own (very good) pothole and traffic light reporting app. If both the JRA and OurHood could be persuaded to commit to the to the principles of open data, there’s no reason they couldn’t both use compatible reporting systems, aiding government response times and transparency.

Still, the fact that the City of Joburg doesn’t yet have a simple method of reporting things like water leaks or broken park benches does present OurHood with an opportunity to become the de facto method if it can become established quickly enough

Finally, and critical to the overall success of OurHood, Good says his team works hard at gaining the support of ward councillors before launching in a new area. Certain data about councillors is in the public domain – they must, by law, publish a telephone number, for example. Activists at Code4SA scrape this data from official lists and make it available to the public via tools like KnowYourHood (no relation, despite the similar nomenclature).

Through OurHood, councillors in Cape Town are both receiving comments from citizens and pushing out local information to the notice boards. In a country where it has traditionally been difficult to find out who your councillor is, let alone speak to them, it could be the sort of kick needed to make politicians more approachable and – ultimately – accountable.

Few people – including Good prior to our interview – are aware that their constituency MP is actually paid a stipend to hold weekly surgeries during which time any voter can visit and discuss issues. Personally, I can see demand for this service skyrocketing (from a base of 0, admittedly) if surgeries are actually advertised in an easy to access place like OurHood.

Secure and safe

There are three principles which stand out as important to good. Simplicity, security and safety. As far as simplicity goes, he’s aiming to keep every action within the webpage or app within one or two clicks – and this could be key to its success. Make the hard to use, Good acknowledges, and people simply won’t use it.

Will Good succeed? Certainly he’s not the only person looking at hyperlocal services in South Africa and given the success of similar initiatives overseas it’s only a matter of time before things get very competitive.

The fact that the vision is broad and very private could also hamper its growth. Good says that it could be as effective at managing a group like the Parkhurst residents who are convening to commission fibre optic broadband in their area as it could be for helping to deal with service delivery issues in Alexandra or Diepsloot. In both cases, the cliché that knowledge is power absolutely applies – and the ability to talk engage ward councillors directly could be something of a revolution in itself.

There is, however, the caveat that if people aren’t immediately clear about what OurHood is for, or haven’t heard of it because it’s effectively a closed and secretive network in each area it launches, then it simply won’t catch on.

Still, according to Good the firm has a decent amount of funding (from South African ex-pat investors) and the support of local authorities.

Technically, however, things seem on a sound footing. It’s a lightweight app that doesn’t require huge amounts of bandwidth or a top end phone, and if it goes offline it’ll store things like photos of potholes until it has a network connection again. Good is also quick to defend the use of a technology which works best on a smartphone or in a web browser as appropriate for South Africa’s poorer areas too. There’s no app for older Blackberrys or Nokia Asha phones, but he says smartphones are rapidly becoming the norm in townships, and with the appearance of R500 handsets like MTN’s Steppa the proliferation will be faster than many realise.

“Our first neighbourhoods are in Khayelitsha and Gugulethu,” he says, “There’s a huge number of smartphones there and free WiFi already. We want to be as far reaching as we can. This is an opportunity to strengthen communities, and we could have a bigger impact in poorer areas than rich ones.”

The plan for expansion of OurHood is also faster than you might think. Good has a handful of Cape Town suburbs up and running already, and aims to have at least 100 communities signed on to OurHood by the end of the year. To that end, he’s already signing up agents in Joburg and Durban to start spreading the word the same way he began – through old-fashioned knocking on doors and canvassing people to their faces.

And that, to me, is the main reason why OurHood may well become a household name.