Power outages by Eskom lead to surge in app downloads
Apps help build community dialogue, solve problems
Digital literacy needed to protect data privacy
By Kim Harrisberg
At the start of each school day, South African teacher Lori Cooperman prepares her lessons, plans students' meals and - most importantly - checks an app to see if there will be electricity.
She is among a growing number of South Africans who say they are using mobile apps to deal with government shortcomings, from finding blackout schedules to filling in potholes or seeking mental health support.
"Because our government is not stepping up, it's nice to know there are people like the founders of these apps that care and are looking for solutions," Cooperman told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"Without these apps, people would be 10 times more frustrated, and anger and resentment would add up."
The ruling African National Congress is losing support as the worst power cuts in more than two years have fuelled public anger and hurt businesses, amid rising prices, poor service delivery, endemic graft and gross inequalities of wealth.
Unemployment hit a record of nearly 35% last year and anger has spilled into violent protests, including last July when more than 300 people were killed in weeks of looting.
The free EskomSePush app used by Cooperman was started in 2015 and scrapes web data from the state utility provider Eskom, mayors and municipalities to tell users when their area will be hit by power cuts.
Today, more than 5 million people have downloaded the app - a number that grows with every round of outages, according to its founders - so that they can plan their meals, household chores and working hours.
"We cannot control the fact that the power cuts out," said Jessica Boyer, an interior designer who works from home.
"But knowing when it will cut out gives us some element of control in this tough situation."
Across the world, people are using tech to access services and opportunities more easily, from Uganda's Market Garden app, which connects vendors with customers, to one that supports Albanian victims of domestic violence.
While apps cannot solve complex problems of governance, developers say local, largely citizen-built, innovations can help address community issues and fight hopelessness.
South Africa's Pothole Patrol app, which allows users to send geolocated reports of holes in the roads to Johannesburg authorities, has led to more than 110,000 repairs since it was created in 2021, said Anneli Retief, one of its founders.
With an upsurge in reports, the potholes are now fixed by a dedicated team of 40 workers who previously were unemployed, said Retief, head of Dialdirect Insurance, one of two insurance firms that funded the app.
"It has reduced pothole-related claims, while simultaneously makes our roads safer for everyone," said Anton Ossip, chief executive of Discovery Insure, the other insurance firm behind the app, which was developed with city authorities.
For those who cannot find an app to fix government services, there is always Panda, which seeks to improve access to mental health support in South Africa.
Official data shows 75% of people in South Africa who suffer from a mental health disorder do not receive any care.
Launched during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2021, Panda offers free, anonymous mental health assessments, access to group discussions, activities and tools to track users' progress.
Panda co-founder Alon Lits said the investors behind the app are focused on making a positive impact - "profit with purpose is one of their investment criteria" - with some sessions, such as one-on-ones with a therapist, as a paid-for service.
Panda saw an uptick in demand in July when electricity cuts - locally called "load-shedding" - rose. It ran group sessions for thousands of participants to manage the stress of navigating the blackouts.
"People were sharing their frustration and anxiety that load-shedding creates," said Lits.
"They were also trying to share proactive ways in which to deal with the power cuts," he said, with speakers discussing the use of battery inverters to run household appliances and finding cafes with generators to work from.
Sessions were also run to support survivors of the KwaZulu-Natal floods that killed over 450 people in April this year.
Because of South Africa's high data costs, Panda's creators have worked to lighten its demands.
"We have tried to design the app in a way that's low on data use, through audio-only group sessions and compressed videos to reduce the data burden on individuals," said Lits.
SENSE OF COMMUNITY
While tech can bring positive changes to South Africa, lawyer Avani Singh worries that other apps may be collecting and sharing people's personal information without their knowledge.
The digital rights specialist highlighted the risks to children who may sign up to an app without understanding what they are consenting to.
"The answer is by no means to shy away from technology and miss out on the opportunities that this offers. Rather, it is about the public having agency over their personal data and being able to make informed decisions," she said.
Meanwhile, EskomSePush's co-founder Herman Maritz believes apps can help build a sense of community among South Africans, who are often separated by high walls and electric fencing to keep out crime.
EskomSePush's new AskMyStreet feature allows neighbours to chat in an open forum about everything from lost pets to water cuts and car sales.
"I guess a sneaky thing that we're trying to do with AskMyStreet is get people to talk to each other," said Maritz.
"We believe with the right tools, people will help each other out."
($1 = 16.5087 rand)
(Reporting by Kim Harrisberg @KimHarrisberg; Editing by Sonia Elks and Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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