Why our work matters

Occasionally I wonder why our work matters. How does it make our lives easier and promote better engagement with government. I have a sad tale to tell about a garden that I planted which was subsequently destroyed by the council and how I plan to get to the bottom of it.

[Update 04 October 2015] Finally, after quite some time, we developed a tool that helps users find their ward councillor. This replaces the old one mentioned in the blog below (which no longer works). You can find it here. The ward councillor tool is pretty neat because you can embed it into your website and it also covers the entire country.

Occasionally I wonder why our work matters. How does it make our lives easier and promote better engagement with government. I have a sad tale to tell about a garden that I planted which was subsequently destroyed by the council and how I plan to get to the bottom of it.

Guerilla Gardening

I coordinate a group called Guerilla Gardening. We are a group of nutters who meet up on the weekend with picks and spades and plant gardens in neglected public spaces. We replace building rubble with soil and compost, plant indigenous plants and create outside spaces, complete with sitting areas from which you can stare out at rush hour traffic or gaze at the ducks in the Black River:

The first question to ask is, are we allowed to do it? Don’t you need council permission to do it? This is a Pareto improvement which hurts no-one and benefits everyone, surely it’s ok? To make sure, I used Open by-laws to check. Before Open by-laws, it would have been quite a job to find, download and search through each law (many of them are images and cannot be searched). Greg Kempe, the Code for South Africa fellow responsible for the site, made this process simple. A quick search for “public spaces” returns a number of results showing which by-laws include that term. In this case By-Law Relating to Streets, Public Places and the Prevention of Noise Nuisances, 2007, Graffiti By-law, 2010, 2010 FIFA World Cup By-law, Events By-law, Public Parks By-law, 2010 and a few other insignificant ones. Reading through each of these bylaws, it seems that the only time that it was illegal to create a guerilla garden was during the 2010 soccer world cup, see section 18c. This bylaw was only relevant for the duration of the World Cup which means that guerilla gardening doesn’t seem to contravene any specific laws (assuming that I’m not missing something).

Yay! There’s no reason for us to stop our gardening. Without Open Bylaws, I would probably not even bothered to look this up, nor could I so easily write about it and refer you to the relevant sections.

Disaster

It was predictable, but frustrating nonetheless. The garden that we planted last Saturday was destroyed.

This is what it looked like before:
and this is what it looked like two days later:

After speaking with one of the local Rastas, it turns out a Council truck came along, destroyed our garden and then dumped a bunch of waste on top of it.

What to do? I want to contact the relevant ward councillor to find out who is responsible for “maintaining” this area so that we can find out what happened, why, and how to prevent it from happening again. The problem is, who is the ward councillor for this spot? The list of wards is available on the City of Cape Town’s website. Wards have descriptions such as:

Claremont (South of Keurboom Road, Belvedere Road and Alcoyne Road, west of Kromboom Parkway, north of Doncaster Road and Bell Road, East Worcester Street and Palmyra Road) - Harfield Village - Kenilworth - Mowbray - Rondebosch - Rosebank

That doesn’t make it very easy to figure out who the ward councillor is. Thankfully, just by chance, we’re developing a demo site that deals with this problem exactly - [side note, that url really is an interim url and will change]. Unfortunately, I can’t hyperlink to exactly the correct spot on the map but in principle you can click on an area and find out who the ward councillor is as well as his or her contact details. Awesome. This particular spot is on the border between to wards so it’s not exactly clear who to contact. I emailed them both.

Conclusion

I don’t know what is going to happen with our poor garden but it’s comforting to know that the tools that we are building have some practical applications. Despite the fact that data might be publicly available, it isn’t useful until someone is able to massage it into a format that is relevant to the end user. Without these tools, I would probably have bemoaned the destruction of my garden and certainly wouldn’t know my rights regarding the City’s by-laws. It also gives me real confidence that the work that we are doing has the potential to deliver real value.