• Public interest

    AI is enabling Africa’s municipalities to monitor, manage and deliver more efficient services – from resource management to community engagement

    Public interest

    You can’t always trust Jamie. The Singaporean online virtual assistant works across 70 government websites, tapping into AI and natural language processing to answer questions from the public on various public service matters. In 2021, the ‘Ask Jamie’ functionality was taken offline when it started producing weird answers to questions about COVID-19.

    ‘My daughter tested COVID positive. What should I do?’ one citizen asked.

    ‘You should practise safe sex through the correct and consistent use of condoms, or abstinence, for at least the whole duration of your female partner’s pregnancy,’ Jamie replied, in what Singapore’s Ministry of Health generously described as one of many ‘misaligned’ replies.

    Jamie hasn’t always gotten it right, but the chatbot is part of a growing international move towards AI-enhanced local government.

    ‘Government agencies can utilise AI for cost savings, enhanced service delivery, improved public safety and security, fraud detection and prevention, data analytics and regulatory compliance,’ Behzad Zamanian, chief information officer for Nevada’s Washoe county, writes in a recent opinion piece for Government Technology.

    ‘Most importantly, AI-powered tools can revolutionise citizen services and engagement, which is supposed to be the core of what we do in local government.’

    Jamie’s COVID-era meltdown notwithstanding (and, let’s face it, we all had our moments in 2021), AI is bringing unprecedented levels of accuracy and efficiency to the local government space. And as local communities across Africa – and the world – grow and diversify, local municipalities are exploring new ways to use the tech to engage with their constituents and better manage their infrastructure.

    As local communities grow and diversify, the ways local government communicates and interacts is becoming more important than ever. With AI there is an opportunity to rethink traditional communication channels.

    Stephen Colman, senior adviser at Australia-based DLA Piper Business Advisory, describes in a recent online post how in Australia, about 657 000 km of the country’s roads are managed by local government and require ongoing review and maintenance.

    ‘This is complex, expensive and when managed poorly, life threatening,’ he writes. ‘Asset AI is a technology-development partnership between Transport for New South Wales, Canterbury-Bankstown Council, IPWEA Roads and the transport directorate. This pilot platform will offer real-time diagnostics of road conditions, paving the way for proactive maintenance.’

    By outfitting public transport and council vehicles with advanced sensors and cameras, Colman writes, that AI technology uses machine learning to identify risks and early indicators of road wear and tear. ‘This integrative approach ensures that preventive maintenance can be scheduled proactively, safeguarding community well-being.’

    To that end, Rwanda launched its National AI policy in 2023. That policy is built on six priority areas – one of which is promoting the responsible deployment of AI technologies in government services and operations.

    ‘AI has the potential to improve performance and efficiency of public services, but few ministries and public sector agencies are currently harnessing it,’ the policy states. ‘We will invest in raising awareness of the benefits through piloting, demonstrations and building capacity to implement and manage AI projects, delivering improved public services. Using policy tools, the government will engage local AI-solution providers through innovation-friendly procurement processes, organise training sessions, invest in hackathons, prizes and challenges to open opportunities for responsible AI applications in the public sector, and establish a risk-sharing fund to support R&D in the public sector.’

    Access to precise data enhances decision-making, and proactively addressing and mitigating risk irregularities will help municipalities focus on ensuring better service delivery

    South Africa is taking a similar approach, for much the same reasons. The Report of the Presidential Commission on the Fourth Industrial Revolution, gazetted in 2020, notes that ‘if we wish to meet the power demands of the digital economy and fourth industrial revolution, we need to efficiently use power. In terms of efficient power usage, South Africa needs to leverage artificial intelligence to help improve energy efficiency. This can be done on an individual, municipal and national level’. That report cites Google’s DeepMind as an example of an AI-powered energy-efficiency tool, pointing to how it enabled the tech giant to reduce energy consumption by more than 30% in its hyperscale data centres.

    ‘Google does this by using sensors to collect data on power consumption and feeds it into the DeepMind’s neural network, which then identifies what actions Google can take to minimise energy usage while also satisfying all of its constraints,’ the report states. ‘This can be applied to micro and macro energy grids all over South Africa.’

    Dean Wolson, South Africa country manager at Lenovo Infrastructure Group, agrees. He says that AI-driven energy-management solutions can analyse consumption patterns to predict peak demand periods. ‘This is particularly crucial in South Africa, which is grappling with a severe load shedding crisis that has far-reaching implications on a socio-economic level, affecting businesses, industries and households alike,’ he says.

    ‘In addition to peak demand prediction, which would enable utilities and consumers to prepare and take proactive measures, the solution would further allow for smarter resource allocation that takes advantage of energy storage solutions. Inevitably cities like Johannesburg will be empowered to proactively manage energy distribution, reduce wastage and promote renewable sources.’

    At a municipal level, however, the challenges in Africa – and in South Africa especially – are not limited to resource management and community engagement. In February 2024 the Auditor-General of South Africa released its Material Irregularities (MIs) in Local Government report, which found that 268 MIs had been flagged among 170 auditees in the 2021/22 financial year.

    It further found that the country’s beleaguered municipalities had accrued nearly ZAR5.2 billion in material losses due to irregularities, including non-compliance with financial regulations and suspected fraud.

    New AI tools can help fix that. ‘Verifying the credentials of buyers, suppliers and vendors to the municipality is a crucial first step in combating malfeasance of all kinds – from deceptive suppliers to tender fraud,’ says Sameer Kumandan, MD of data platform SearchWorks. ‘Detailed company registration information can assist in establishing if an entity has a track record in the sector in which they claim to operate and if they have a history of supplying similar services.

    ‘Complete and accurate information enables better, more transparent decision-making, which in turn can create greater trust between municipalities and the public. Preventing and mitigating risk irregularities, fraud and corruption can free municipalities to serve communities that need improved service delivery from their elected officials.’

    As AI sweeps the globe, big tech is keenly watching for opportunities in Africa – both in the private and public sectors. ‘At Microsoft, we are witnessing the AI revolution first-hand through our collaborative efforts across the continent,’ Lillian Barnard, president of Microsoft Africa, wrote recently.

    ‘In Egypt, Microsoft is working with government, business and start-ups to implement AI solutions to reimagine government services, expand business and instil innovation in the society. In Kenya, Microsoft is working with leading partners in food and water security and wildlife conservation to help address climate and sustainability challenges. In Morocco, AI is being used to improve water conservation efforts, a critical resource for the country’s agriculture and human consumption needs.

    ‘In South Africa, where AI utilisation is already advanced, Microsoft’s partnerships with key players in the public and private sectors are reshaping public service delivery and addressing multifaceted business and societal challenges, particularly in the areas of health care system optimisation and innovative urban infrastructure management.’

    In all those cases, AI is enabling massive-scale data crunching for national, regional and local governments. Whether it’s utility-scale energy deployment, town-scale water management or personalised community engagement, data and robotics are changing how municipalities are doing their job … and how well they’re doing it.

    By Mark van Dijk
    Images: iStock, Gallo/Getty Images