GovChat site for sale – but there are some strings attached

The government’s official social media platform is for sale, probably to a foreign-owned multinational company.

But, first, the company will have to show it can predict when and where protests are likely to break out so that the police can be better prepared and, perhaps, supply the names and co-ordinates of the malcontents behind the demonstrations.

And the new owner will have to figure out how to turn a profit from analysing the data generated by citizens interacting with the government, while also rolling out the network around the continent.

That is the plan for GovChat, the almost entirely unknown and unused website, which, according to its marketing material, “is brought to you by the department of government communication and information system (GCIS)”.

In reality the GCIS, which reports to Communications Minister Faith Muthambi, only formally became involved in GovChat when it signed a memorandum of understanding with former government officialEldrid Jordaan in April last year. In terms of that, the government can use GovChat at no cost, but it must use it to convey “relevant information” to the public and encourage all local governments and councillors to use it.

In March this year, Jordaan approached several technology companies with a “request for tender”, which outlines a plan to establish a holding company in Mauritius to take control of GovChat in South Africa with a stake of at least 74%. In turn, control of the holding company will be sold to “a multinational partner … with existing technology readily available”, according to the tender document.

The buyer will not necessarily be foreign, Jordaan said this week, adding that many South African technology companies had already formally expressed an intent to bid.

“We have chosen the best of the best technology companies that have got the technology that can take GovChat to the next level and to ensure that we hold government to account, because I don’t have the technology,” he said. “I took it to where I could take it to from a technology point of view and to understand whether there is appetite from government, and whether there is appetite from communities.”

Jordaan insists the results have been positive and that there is a proven need for GovChat’s core function — to allow residents to contact their ward councillors, to lodge community complaints, and to interact with their councillors (and citizens who feel the same way) using photos, video, blog posts, likes, emoticons, and all the other accoutrements of social media.

The numbers suggest otherwise. The site has been running for at least six months but, according to the website, it had a total of 3 671 registered members by mid-week, giving it a population representation of less than 0.007%.

“We experienced delays due to training and onboarding of councillors, and prototyping to improve the user interface based on citizen feedback,” the GCIS head, Donald Liphoko, said about the numbers. The key to success, he said, was now to “massify the platform to reach more citizens”.

Much of the site has been dormant for a month or more, and its section for discussion is populated by ghost groups such as the “higher education and training” group, which, when the #FeesMustFall movement drew international attention last year, attracted a total of 14 members who generated no discussion at all. None of them seems to have noticed that the group lists its website as that of the department of health.

Jordaan said the user numbers were not a concern because GovChat had not been actively marketed since its “soft launch” six months ago.

In December, GovChat sponsored an inaugural GCIS “humanitarian award for leadership”, which was given to the presumed presidential contender and then still outgoing African Union Commission chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.

In its tender document, GovChat also details efforts by the GCIS and the South African Local Government Association to promote its service.

GovChat’s technology platform compares poorly with other social networks and many amateur websites. Some sections of the website do not exist, they malfunction when accessed, or they have significant problems, such as a news feed that advertises pirate video streams of United States sporting events.

Much of the site is a thinly customised implementation of BuddyPress, a ready-to-use plugin that describes itself as “a social network in a box”. One of the software plugins used to enhance the BuddyPress functionality comes with its own embedded advertising, which can be turned off by paying a $48 annual fee.

The company’s advertising policy is a slightly modified version of the Facebook advertising policy, complete with a ban on using Facebook trademarks.

“The current technology that is being used is not great technology, and I am the first one to say that, and that is why we are requesting for a technology partner that has existing and phenomenal technology,” Jordaan said.

What he has in mind is indeed eye-popping, and has the makings of a plot for a dystopian science-fiction novel.

“GovChat data is expected to be used for image recognition, traffic forecasts, protest patterns, citizen satisfaction, government responsiveness, weather forecasting, citizen engagement and data mining,” the company’s tender request reads.

The “weather forecasting” reference was a typo, Jordaan said, but he did hope to have a system that could learn to put names to faces in photographs, and that would be able to smell unrest before it breaks out.

“Say there is an uprising in a community, we can then link that data to SAPS [the South African Police Service],” Jordaan said. “We want to make them more efficient, better informed … so we can tell them ‘this is what is brewing — let’s be ready just in case something happens’.”

GovChat would share the personal data of disaffected people with the police, Jordaan said, and certainly if it was subpoenaed for the data, although it does not currently have an agreement with the police to volunteer information. But the system does not capture the home addresses of its users, he said, so that data would be of limited value.

He subsequently confirmed that GovChat stores the geolocation data automatically requested from all visitors to the site.

Under more ordinary circumstances, the website is supposed to alert the likes of the presidential hotline to things that include “the likelihood of dissatisfaction”.

How the owner will make money out of the platform while doing all this is entirely up to them, Jordaan said. “The tender makes it clear that we cannot guarantee any commercial value going forward,” he said.

But the tender document does hint that GovChat has identified potential income streams, including “the commercial value of relevant data analytics”.

Asked whether the GCIS was happy with control of GovChat moving offshore, Liphoko said Mauritius had “regional domicile advantages” for rolling out the concept to other African countries.

“We are hoping to invite technology partners from the continent as well as global players who can provide scale,” he said about future ownership.

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