When IT boffs warble on about ‘democratising data’ it can sound like a lot of hooey to the man on the street. But one Durban developer has cut through the crap with a novel scheme to connect divided people and in the process has partnered with someone who many South Africans regard as the embodiment of democracy: Thuli Madonsela.
Callum Oberholzer is a Midlands farmer’s son and the director of a tech company called Black Box that is involved in a project that could give social cohesion a much-needed boost.
The Black Box team includes Oberholzer, Ayanda Nene, Carla-leigh Ziady, Jean-Luc Koenig, Phakamani Xulu and Nzuzo Malinga. They design impactful technology that stewards resources for people and the planet.
One of the first products the company has designed for itself (as opposed to a suite of top-end clients it services) is called OpenSeat and is the brainchild of Oberholzer and his friend Matt Cole.
OpenSeat wants to decentralize the food market, which sounds a little lofty until you find out how. It’s like Uber, Airbnb and possibly Facebook except it is the in-person equivalent of social media. Perhaps like Tinder, but not.
The community platform rests on the premise that one of the best ways to meet people is over food and drink, but few people go to bars or restaurants to do this.
OpenSeat arose out of a conversation between Oberholzer and Cole who was then working in Sweden and craved a more authentic experience. “Matt said it was hard to build community and meet people. He wanted to experience dinner with a Swedish family. Imagine if there was an app for this, like we find accommodation on Airbnb.”
Airbnb builds a community around your spare room and OpenSpace wants to connect people over your dining room table or empty cafe at night: a place for food entrepreneurs and other interested people to create their own events.
Launched in April, OpenSpace has facilitated 20 events this year and has 700 users.
Black Box takes 8.5% commission on the cover price and has built in a host of verification and security protocols to avoid it being abused.
The system is cashless and identifies users who can only transact once they have disclosed their identity and credit card details.
“It’s a new way to eat out: find a meal you want and enjoy it in someone’s home”.
Visit www.openseat.co.za and you will see a dozen people sharing a table.
At the time of writing this story, you could join Kamaal Ka Khana, a sister duo of passionate foodies keen to share authentic Indian cuisine. They offered a three-course meal on a set date in Durban North for R400 per person.
On the Berea, Ali pitched his traditional Xhosa dinner with the message that “sharing of food has always been part of the human story”. He offered a breaking bread experience to help forge new relationships at R350 a head.
In Glenwood, Judd’s pizza pairing experience was summed up with an interesting invitation: “What do you get if you cross a vegan, a pizza addict, a butcher’s daughter & wine sommelier? Chaos or a chilled evening under the trees.”
For Oberholzer, the South African social experience is siloed.
“We want to break that and start movements of like-minded people to effect change.”
Oberholzer, who studied at Vega, says he fell in love with Durban when he arrived in the city to study.
After graduating he worked with a few of the big agencies and started Black Box. Clients are non-governmental agencies, universities and corporates. “We work with so many smart people and we have so many challenges we need to solve. We are about connecting these things with people who have a heart for it.”
Oberholzer and some of his team have worked with Open Cities Labs on projects involving the integration of technology into cities. For example, creating data portals in Durban to map economic activity. Good city development depends on government opening data so civil society can understand this and build tools to grow. That’s an example of democratising data.
That ethos is at the heart of Black Box, a name given to the piece of tech in an aeroplane that survives a crash and contains data about what caused the crash.
It represents collaboration over competition because the data is shared with the industry in each scenario. “I read this case study on how the aviation industry pioneered so quickly compared to the medical world because the latter covers up its mistakes. Plane crashes are devastating, but black boxes are an opportunity to analyse mistakes and learn from them.”
Oberholzer says solving societal challenges is teamwork that involves “sharing our mistakes by being vulnerable.”
By bringing smart people together Black Box wants to steward resources but Oberholzer says he wrestles with the appropriate role of technology in a society.
“There are certain philosophies, like market capture and notions driven by the industrial revolution about productivity, efficiencies and materialism that shouldn’t necessarily dictate our development or how we use technology.”
Oberholzer is a fan of German-English economist EF Schumacher, who developed an economic theory based on the belief that people need good work for proper development. A Gandhi fan, and Catholic by faith, Schumacher advocated production from local resources and self-reliance.
His book Small is Beautiful was a critique of big world monopolies that don’t take into account the finite resources of the planet.
“Schumacher has a couple of amazing lines which have shaped some of my thinking. Civilisations can be judged by how they look after their resources and educate their societies. That determines success. He speaks about designing things for peace and permanence or sustainability, which is harmony.
During the floods, Black Box quickly built a mapping tool that connected people in need with donors and specialists who could help them. In less than two weeks they had 22 000 people use the tool in the relief effort.
“So we can build cool products,” says Oberholzer, “But what insights do they give? “We’ve tried to create meaningful value, make a profit and grow.”
This month Black Box is partnering with former Public Protector, Professor Thuli Madonsela who this year celebrates her 60th birthday. Her wish is to utilize the celebration of this milestone as a catalyst to connect, collaborate and conceptualize a campaign called the Deepening of Democracy.
The Thuli Madonsela Foundation is partnering with OpenSeat to launch 28 Days of Deepening Democracy, starting on the Prof’s birthday, September 28th, which, notably is also the 28th Anniversary of South Africa’s democracy.
The campaign is a call to connect over meals and around tables across the country – as strangers, friends and like-minded citizens, to engage in intentional and meaningful conversation.
A joint statement put out this week reads: “We encourage and challenge our fellow community members to host and attend 28 Days of Deepening Democracy events on OpenSeat, as occasions created for discussion, reflection and collaboration around the meaning of democracy, and how we, as citizens can, individually and collectively participate. We also hope to use this four-week period as a time to acknowledge and celebrate those who are already actively contributing towards our communities’ and country’s sense of democracy.”
So go check it out at openseat.co.za. If you’re passionate about democracy, why don’t you host a dinner at your home on a topic of your choice? Otherwise, go check out all the other dinners that are taking place.
For more info, visit openseat.co.za/campaign