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22 September 2019
Public Engagement: Crowdsourcing pilot at the University of Fort Hare Print
Thursday, 22 January 2015 12:51

The University of Fort Hare has taken an innovative approach to public engagement. Using crowd sourcing the research project involves citizens in gathering data on public safety issues, thereby contributing to the research and promoting Research Uptake.

In a project aimed at researching the potential to enhance public safety in urban areas, the University of Fort Hare (UFH) launched a research project that uses citizen participation and technology to gather data on public-safety issues in East London, a city on the south-eastern seaboard of South Africa.

The Public Safety Smart City Project is a research project jointly undertaken by UFS and technology innovation company, IBM. While still in exploratory stages, the long-term developmental objective of the project – lead by Prof. Stephen Flowerday of the Department of Information Systems in the Faculty of Management – is to contribute towards improving the lives of the city’s residents, and to assist with the management of an influx of people to East London, which is expected to continue until 2050.


Project Ambition

The project designers postulate that by reporting non-emergency and public safety observations, city residents can assist in building crucial situation awareness to help authorities and city management to take quicker and smarter action to prevent crime and other public safety incidents that endanger residents’ security and safety

“city residents can assist in building crucial situation awareness to help authorities and city management to take quicker and smarter action to prevent crime and other public safety incidents”

How it worked

City citizens in East London were crowdsourced (i.e. sourced by means of an open call for willing citizen participation) through distribution of leaflets to city households, which asked residents to contribute to gathering research that could potentially be used to contribute to the proactive management of public safety in the area. Residents were asked to register as a participant via website or mobile app, and incentivized to so by the possibility of winning airtime.

Once registered, these citizens were asked to be proactive about reporting on anything they observed in the environment that could potentially be detrimental to public safety. Such observations might include crime, suspicious activity, anti-social behavior, potentially threatening circumstances such as fires, flooding, low-hanging or exposed power cables after a storm, burst pipes, vandalism or any other problem that could have a negative impact.

Such reporting was done either by making a phone call and following voice prompts, or via a dedicated mobisite, with these methods chosen due to their alleged suitability to a low-middle income society.


Potential benefits

In the context of public safety, the idea is that data collected from proactive citizen reporting on potential safety threats in their environment could be analysed to anticipate public safety issues and, where possible, to attend to these before they escalate. While citizens are given an opportunity to contribute to creating a safer environment, the authorities are provided with data that gives them a better chance to curb or prevent public safety problems, and, when needed, to optimize the capacity and time efficiency of emergency services provided by the community.

The citizen-reporting phase of this research project included exploration of a variety of issues with regards to community participation, including adoption barriers, motivation factors, trust factors and usability issues of the service. As such, participants were briefed to always notify the police or public services needed to respond to any situations first, before submitting data for the research activity.

The citizen-reporting phase of the project…has yielded rich data, which could potentially enhance public safety in the city

Where things are at now

The citizen-reporting phase of the project is now over and has yielded rich data, which could potentially enhance public safety in the city. Further information from those who participated is being gathered with the incentive of a chance of winning an Ipad if they do so.



ICT for Development (ICT4D) is a method that aims to use emerging ICT technologies to promote and support development, particularly in rural areas. However ICT can also be used to help run cities more efficiently and effectively. Thus the term ‘ICT4Cities’, as Prof. Flowerday calls it.

In high-income countries these kinds of projects largely use thousands of sensors, including data gathered from sensors on citizens’ cell phones, in the collection of data (called crowdsensing). Predictive analytics are then applied to data in order to generate useful information.

Prof Flowerday notes that “While in Europe many Smart City projects have chosen crowdsensing, I don’t believe we have the infrastructure for this in East London. Crowdsourcing uses people (rather than technological infrastructure) who report rich qualitative data on matters they see or experience in the City, which is actively gathered.”


Potential scope

Potentially, this participatory crowdsourcing model could be used to generate useful data on anything from transport, natural disasters caused by say global warming and climate change, to health and even energy or electricity usage. By using crowdsourcing citizens are able to influence the direction of priorities and policies related to public safety.



Bhana, B., & Flowerday S.V., Satt, A. (2013): Using Participatory Crowdsourcing in South Africa to Create a Safer Living Environment. International Journal of Distributed Sensor Networks, Article ID 907196, 13 pages.


Prof. Flowerday can be contacted on


Barbara Manning is a Communications Consultant at the University of Fort Hare