A South African City Says It’s Putting QR Codes On Informal Settlement Cabins To Help Services. But Residents And Privacy Experts Are Uncertain.

Xolani Mahlaba, a formerly incarcerated, unemployed 39-year-old cook living in the Mfuleni informal settlement, said his cabin is to be QR-coded in future phases. Mahlaba is intrigued by the current exercise. “We don’t fully understand the confusing gears of technology,” he said, “the internet and codes and the effect on our housing structures, to be honest. We would be glad if the dazzling tech things can bring us food markets, piped water, mobile clinics, but we told them, ‘Don’t pass our data to police.’”

“It’s very, very difficult to know what information is being collected, how, and for what purposes, from the city’s very vague announcement of this project,” Ziyanda Stuurman, a Cape Town–based digital privacy expert and former parliamentary researcher, told BuzzFeed News. “The language in the press release is quite ambiguous in detailing how much communities have been consulted. Asking survey questions with data that may identify them or other people in their households, or data that may be used to track or surveil them, [would] be deeply problematic.”

Written consent was obtained from each dwelling’s owner before QR-coding it, no personal information will be shared with unauthorized users, and the data is encrypted, Booi told BuzzFeed News.

“We are very excited,” Booi said, promising that the process strictly adheres to South Africa’s new Protection of Personal Information Act rules. “We are adapting [to] use of new technologies, even in the most vulnerable of communities.”

To the best of the council’s knowledge, this is the first tech project of its kind for a metro city in South Africa, Booi told a local radio station.

In 2015, Cape Town became the first city in South Africa to launch an open data portal and make the gathered data sets available to residents and stakeholders. In 2018, it became the first city in South Africa to digitally map traffic routes and usage of both informal minibus taxis and regulated public buses. The goal was to gather big data about the evolving patterns of urban transit flow in Cape Town.

“Cape Town loves data, it likes to map, number, enumerate,” said Fiona Anciano, an urban governance professor at the University of the Western Cape who has conducted field studies in informal settlements. “[It’s] not wrong to go there and see how different households work.”

Anciano told BuzzFeed News that most people in deprived informal settlements across South Africa, including some of her master’s degree students, live on streets that don’t have proper title deeds or property addresses. If they want to open a bank account or get a loan, they need to prove an address. What most dwellers do is visit a local authority, usually the head of the ruling party branch, and get a stamped letter. “One speculation is this [QR-coding] takes out the middleman,” Anciano said. “The city can say, ‘We are officially linking your ID to the structure.’” This could prove more convenient for people.

At the heart of the criticism is how millions of residents in South Africa’s informal settlements live and how digitization interacts with rights.