Cry Me A ‘Brown’ River – Harnessing Social Media to Report River Pollution
We want to develop an online monitoring platform that uses mobile phones to report and map sewage/pollutants entering rivers in Cape Town.
An aspect of rivers is that they are a continuous entity and as a result have the ability to connect diverse land users, from commercial to industrial, and divers income brackets, from high income estates to poor shack dwellings. Consequently, any impact upstream is felt all the way down the rivers length, cumulating in the lower reaches, which is often home to the poorer communities, as is the case in the City of Cape Town (CCT). This in itself poses a major sanitation risk to an already marginalised community who may depend on the flow of water, provided by the river, for a variety of tasks, from washing clothes to the discharge of sewage directly from their home. This coupled with the fact that rivers are used as a channel to drain urban catchments through stormwater drains, which in itself is used for dumping a variety of pollutants and raw sewage, and the result is a hazard to human health. This type of situation, common in a multitude of developing cities within SADC, exponentially increases the risk of surrounding inhabitants to the incidence of water-borne disease like diarrhoea, cholera and hepatitis. Furthermore, due to the nature of a river, these impacts are carried downstream increasing the potential and area of effected communities.
A group called Friends of the Liesbeek (FoL) was formed to monitor and improve the Liesbeek River for the public benefit, and that of the environment. The FoL team (managed by Jason Mingo) have noticed points where pollution enters the Liesbeek River but there is not a central database for recording, mapping and analysing information. This includes incidences of overflow of sewage systems into the river via stormwater outlets and/or leaks.
In order to assist FoL in monitoring pollution along the river, we would like help from techies to develop a platform that the general public (as well as FoL staff) can use to report sewage overflows or illegal dumping of pollutants into stormwater systems. The key here is that the public should not need to download a complicated app, but can use the functionality they already have on their phone. These issues (whether reported by FoL staff, municipal staff or the general public) would be collated – and mapped – on a central database. These types of data will enable the identification of trends and hotspots along the river for pollution incidences, thereby better serving the management and maintenance of the river.
In terms of functionality – we would be happy with the backend resembling crowdmap.com, seeclickfix.com or fixmystreet.com – or any clone of Ushahidi-type systems. However the frontend – and this is important – should allow users to report issues via Mxit, WhatsApp, SMS/MMS, USSD, and Facebook etc. While we are happy to capture any information from the public, we are particular interested in two things: 1) capturing photos of the issues and 2) being able to geo-graphically locate them.
Information can then be presented in a usable fashion and fed to relevant government departments for response – FoL has an excellent relationship, for instance, with the City of Cape Town. The systems could also potentially report other issues such as different point-source pollution, illegal stormwater outfalls, illegal dumping, vagrants, alien vegetation and sections of the river needing attention etc. FoL was chosen because they are a well established and well recognised organisation within the CCT, as mentioned previously. A successful trial run with FoL may help to encourage further participation from various relevant city departments such as Water & Sanitation and Roads & Stormwater. Ultimately, the aim is to see the general public from all suburbs within the City have access to such an application and in doing so, help improve not only their lives and their neighbours’ but of communities connected through our urban rivers.
An application of this nature which, through various social media platforms, engages with the general public on the issues surrounding urban rivers and the potential health risks, will serve to increase their awareness and responsibility. Apart from the positive spin-offs associated with better monitoring and management, this type of system has the ability to hold both City officials and communities accountable in terms of ensuring problems areas are assessed and rectified and that such problems are reported. It is through this mutual relationship that a shift in the general perception of urban watercourses may be born, allowing for a greater appreciation of the fragility of these systems and the ultimate link it has on human health and well-being.