Why you should care

People and government won’t change for the better without tools to do it. Could apps do the trick?

It started out as a nice idea that made a sharp left turn and then took a whole new direction. A 22-year-old Kenyan developer, getting the idea from a class at Strathmore University in Nairobi, wanted to create an app to help drivers avoid bad traffic and accidents. But when he learned that a friend had just been stopped by police at an alcohol Breathalyzer checkpoint, he decided to turn it into an app that would warn drivers about checkpoints — and it took off.

Fifty people downloaded it the first day. Three days later, 2,500. Then 5,000.

But the fun didn’t last. The police soon took notice, and Brian Osoro says an officer called him to try to persuade him to take the app down. “A friend of mine who’s doing law told me this was obstruction of justice,” he says. “In my conscience, I thought, ‘This is bad.’” He read about a drunk driver — of a bus carrying students — who lost control of the vehicle and crashed. No one died, but “I thought to myself, this could be my cousin, one of my brothers. This could get them killed.” Ultimately he took it down, and today he has a much different and successful app that helps … lawyers.

“I wanted to do something that would help people obey the law,” he says. He discovered that Kenya’s constitution is both lengthy and complex. What he came up with is incredibly simple — just a digital, searchable and visually appealing version of Kenya’s law of the land. Called Kenyan Constitution, it’s been downloaded more than 20,000 times and is being used by lawyers both in class and in their professional practices.

You wouldn’t have to be a lawyer to keep people from taking advantage of you.

 

Now, Osoro is toying with the idea of expanding Kenyan Constitution to include more routine laws like traffic ordinances. In a country where corrupt police routinely invent infractions, Osoro envisions an app that would not only help everyday citizens defend themselves against extortion but also help change the cops’ behavior by forcing them to enforce the law. “You wouldn’t have to be a lawyer to keep people from taking advantage of you,” he says.

All of which is a long but colorful tale that demonstrates an exciting trend in Kenya and just beyond its border: the surprisingly powerful influence both apps and websites are having over people and government. Across East Africa, civic-minded developers are working to hold officials and institutions more accountable to the general public. The website Kenya Open Data publishes maps of water sources that help people keep an eye on government spending in the water sector, and the website’s data on class size, attendance and graduation rates at public schools help parents make more informed decisions about where to enroll their kids. Another group is using crowdsourcing to correct rumors and mistruths in real time as they spread across the Internet.

In Kenya, governments are slowly adopting mobile technology. Nairobi’s City Council recently introduced electronic mobile payments for parking passes. Osoro says it’s not hard to imagine a future in which Kenyan traffic police use their cellphones to enter citation information into a motorist’s permanent driving record, similar to what’s done in most developed countries. That way police can write tickets for multiple offenders and create a permanent record for drivers who would have otherwise, for a bribe, gotten away scot-free.

Ending large-scale corruption is trickier, but the need is even greater: Earlier this year, Kenya’s National Social Security Fund was accused of inflating the cost of a sewage construction project by millions of dollars, then passing the bill to area landowners, some of whom now face eviction because they can’t afford to pay. Now, Kenya’s government stands accused of illegally tendering a $3.8 billion project to modernize its historic railway in a secret deal. “That kind of information is supposed to be open,” says Osoro. “If the tendering process were automated, we can know company A, B or C said this, and we chose company B.”

Why this corner of the world is so app-happy isn’t entirely clear. It may have something to do with the early, outlier success of mobile payments in Kenya: Well before the advent of Apple Pay, in 2013 some 7 in 10 Kenyan cellphone owners reported regularly using their phones to make payments. Nairobi incubators like iHub, which counts thousands of young entrepreneurs as members, jump-started the tech scene, and tech giants like Google and Intel have based their African operations there. All this has conspired to make the “Silicon Savannah” a healthy tech ecosystem.

The basic idea is to make people responsible. We need more responsible citizens.

 

South of Kenya in Tanzania, Donald Kasongi returned to his hometown after studying governance to help modernize how citizens interact with their local government. To that end, the 55-year-old is developing a public website that reveals how responsive a given official is to constituents. Under the Mwanza Public Service Brokering Program, Kasongi’s team will distribute smartphones free to local leaders — with the catch that the program tracks how they use them. The platform “shows how many calls they’ve made, emails they’ve responded to on a weekly basis.”

Still, the allure of a free smartphone might not be enough to persuade all the local leaders to buy in. “People fear that they’ll be held accountable. It’s a cultural thing we are struggling with,” says Kasongi. And that, he says, is precisely what Africa’s developers must disrupt.

“The basic idea is to make people responsible. We need more responsible citizens,” he says, and governments too. Indeed, technologies that prove effective have a shot at being adopted by governments themselves. Tanzania and Kenya recently passed ordinances requiring public transit vehicles be outfitted with speed limiters or detectors that police can check at roadside stops to see whether the driver’s been speeding. Next in the pipeline, says Kasongi, is a gadget that would use GPS to track speed remotely.

Be it governments or their citizens, “when they’re not being held accountable, they forget about their obligations,” Kasongi says. When used correctly, creative technology can be the tool to remind them. “It won’t end corruption,” says Osoro. But “I think technology will help.”

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