This post also appears on Disruptive Witness.
Citizen feedback on development and aid projects has been a kind of “holy grail” for aid for a few years now. The latest discussion comes in a recent blog post, “Consumer Reports for Aid“, by Dennis Whittle of the Center for Global Development. This is one of my very favorite topics, too. And, I eagerly sought the same kind of thing in 2009 when we began working in the Kibera community.
When we tried to activate a citizen feedback loop in Kibera with Map Kibera, we thought that having a communication mechanism for residents to post comments about aid projects on the ground could revolutionize the way not only NGOs practiced, but the way the community viewed and took ownership over development. On Yelp, if I leave feedback, either positive or negative, I feel more connected to the businesses in my community and helping them succeed, fail or improve. In short, I feel a subtle sense of ownership. If the local NGOs and projects in a place like Kibera could be put online and rated by citizens, or various services commented upon in a detailed way, then maybe we’d have some real and meaningful feedback. USAID and big donors would respond to that, not to some puffed up self-reporting.
In fact, when we launched Voice of Kibera, that was one of the first ideas we had about what it might become. It wouldn’t necessarily be the news reporting site we have now; maybe it would allow people to mark services and organizations and comment on them.
It’s clear to me now why that didn’t happen – though, as you’ll see, we’re still working on the broader goal.
1) It’s hard to overestimate the complexity of a neighborhood of some 200,000 citizens, several tribes, a variety of languages, and little government whatsoever, that has existed in spite of the government’s desire to wipe it out and whose often transient residents have to struggle every day to make a living. I’m talking about one place, but I might be referring to many urban informal or extremely poor neighborhoods in the world which are the target of large amounts of aid dollars. There is a way things get done, and a reason why they get done that way – an entrenched system in which both the aid donors, government, and local actors play a role. People are very sensitive to the micropolitics that could impact their lives much more seriously than in wealthier environments. Offending the wrong person, or pleasing the right one is an important determinant of success.
Being in the business of engaging people, soliciting and publicizing their honest and informed views, and getting accurate data out there is a big job, and in my view far too little attention is being focused by techies or donors on the community side of this equation. Ultimately that’s what Map Kibera seeks to do, but it takes a lot more than setting up a web platform.
In this context, the role of a trusted representative is very important – who represents local opinion? Is it just whoever gets on Twitter while their neighbors still don’t have a mobile phone? In our excitement over technology there are always those who figure this out and can then hijack the process. System gaming problem? Not solved.
2) International aid is a mainstay of the Kibera and many other poor communities’ economies. This is what the international aid juggernaut has wrought. Yes, most Kiberans work outside of the aid industry and its various projects, but were you to do a critical analysis of the local economy and jobs, you would find that NGO jobs are the best paid and most stable, and come with a reputation upgrade, while “appreciations” – a soda at the end of a meeting, or a bit of airtime, cash or t-shirts – will be given out to a myriad of community members who attend any sort of event or meeting. Therefore, how do you build loyalty and good ratings on your Development Yelp? By intelligently executing a project that everyone relies upon day to day, that has impact, and legitimate sustainability (meaning the NGO jobs “should” be phased out eventually)? Or by winning a popularity contest by fitting the expectations for other perks? It’s a lot easier to do the latter. The incentives and potential rewards for supporting a claim that an NGO is doing great work are very high. Saying something negative can get you in trouble. We’re talking about tight-knit communities here. Why spend time giving critical feedback when it’s potentially going to get you in trouble?
3) In fact, why spend time giving feedback at all? Time and energy are very precious resources when you live in a place where parents are forced to leave small children to play unsupervised all day because they need to work and can’t pay for daycare. You’ll need to distribute some appreciation to get participation, unless participants are using a system for rating large-donor projects they’ve been beneficiaries of (see Danish Refugee Council example below), in which case much of the feedback might be in the form of calling out the continuing need for more assistance.
4) Many might respond that anonymizing this information will solve some of the problems I’ve mentioned. That’s essentially the route that Global Giving went with most of the stories on its Storytelling platform. But in that case, you don’t have very detailed knowledge about specific interventions or programs, which to me is the ultimate goal. Also, in most instances, asking for anonymous information from people is perhaps the purest yet least effective method of crowdsourcing. Anonymous inputs means you cannot hold people accountable for false information, and also removes a key incentive – to have an online presence and visibility. Even with Yelp, that’s clearly a motivator – a little bit of egotism.
So how do you make visible the inherent knowledge in a community of what works and what doesn’t? Certainly every Kibera resident has a lot of valuable knowledge, that, for instance, the vaunted bio-toilet is just stinking up the corner and no one’s using its supposed cooking gas. There is indeed a desire in Kibera, at least, to weed out the unproductive and even fake “briefcase” or “ghost” organizations that are supposed to reside there, but which aren’t in evidence on the ground, which means there is some latent incentive to provide data.
That’s why we hope our teams on the ground at Map Kibera and others like them will become the trusted informational resource for the community and will do a kind of due diligence on the local organizations and projects. In fact, this is a standard role that journalists play in a community – accountability and investigation. New kinds of citizen journalists and information centers can fill this role in places where there is limited news coverage. These informants aren’t anonymous at all – but they are protected by association with a network and local reputation.
In fact, an idea the Map Kibera team had was to create a directory of organizations and projects in the area where each group could have a page explaining what they do. The neutral nature of this project would invite in organizations in order to allow people to know who’s doing what where, and basic transparency would be built in. It would also help those tiny initiatives of regular community members – the orphanages, day cares, and youth groups – without much money or tech savvy to have some visibility and essentially prove their value. Mikel and I worked on this a little bit in a different format with Grassroots Jerusalem at www.grassrootsalquds.net. We are still seeking funding to finish this platform and establish it in Nairobi. Once that’s done, I think we can rely on our dedicated team to fact-check reports and post about various initiatives, and because they’re trusted members of the community, they can retrieve detailed opinions of citizens, both positive and negative and quote them on the site.
There is another way this could all work, which is to create a loop about government and large donor projects (those less likely to have a presence in the community) or simply highlight needs that require attention locally. This is more akin to the FixMyStreet concept, calling out local issues which have no project yet attached in hopes of triggering government or other support. We’ve tried to do this in Tandale, a slum in Dar es Salaam. There, we trained a team of reporters who’ve mapped the area and now post blog reports about conditions in the slum. See http://tandale.ramanitanzania.org/blog/. In this case, the loop has so far failed to close on the government or other responder’s side, in spite of initial promise. Here is where an influential third party can play an important role, such as the World Bank or UN.
I also found interesting this example of the Danish Refugee Council trying to solicit feedback on its work, which might not be a model to copy but gives a pretty accurate picture of what types of complaints a system might field. This is what a loop would often amount to: “We are requesting for power to charge our mobile phones, in order to reduce the challenges about the power and sent more SMS feedback.” Response: “According to your prioritization, DRC doesn’t provide electricity to any community.” Basically, that’s a no. I’m not sure that gets us much further, yet, than fielding such requests for more assistance. But, it does make public a normally very private exchange between donors and beneficiaries, when they are in that traditional relationship common to development schemes. I think this is a step in the right direction, because the more we open up these processes the more likely they will be open for questioning and productive critique.
The fact is that every “complaint” about “service delivery” is actually a citizen claiming a right – clean water, for instance – often in a place where there is no easy solution and there is a systemic and ultimately, political reason why neither NGOs nor government have yet to provide for such needs. Usually, that reason has little to do with the government (or big NGO/World Bank/UN etc) not knowing that the problem exists, sometimes in great detail.
The more that trustworthy community information representatives can detail and report and map and publicize and pressure and comment – and, do real journalism about – about the particular issue, the more likely that some downward accountability will be injected into the system. It’s also more likely that community members will begin to understand the forces at work in their neighborhoods and analyze what’s happening around them. It’s hard to imagine an information asymmetry as critical to address as that between residents of poor communities and major players in the development and government arenas, the 6 foot view vs the 30,000 foot.
I’m trying to gather thoughts from our whirlwind spin mapping and documenting through the Chalakudy River Basin with The Blue Yonder friends; and connecting to various other half formed ideas and unprocessed experiences. You might experience a little whiplash through the mental landscape, but no worse than than the twists and turns of Kerala roads…
The last remaining sand bank on Chalakudy River. It remains due to local agitation and proximity to religious sites. The rest have disappeared to sand mining
We have decamped 12 kms from Chalakudy, The Blue Yonder is renting us a hotel room (in five hour increments) to take advantage of the sort-of usable wifi, and crush the last few days of experience and ideas into software, maps and media. Passing by in the streets below is a jeep, flying the hammer and sickle flag, announcing monotonously and over loud-speaker in Malayalam, appointments to various local committees. Prakash is uploading videos and making reports on an Ushahidi instance running locally on my laptop, configured with custom map tiles resulting from another three days of epic drives of Kerala (that platform is now online here. Every responsible tourism spot we’ve visited is being sketched in a report, pictures, videos; and already mapped in OpenStreetMap (tourism=responsible). I’m excited for how many ways openness can share and preserve the amazing culture and environment of the Chalakudy river basin in Kerala. Like everywhere, Kerala faces extraordinary global pressures, and I notice how collective and individual efforts are in an everlasting interplay to protect, undermine, inspire, catalyze, smother, build and destroy these experiences and environments, yet again reflected in the global rush to digitize and connect to the global brain.
fishing by stick is a reality
Chalakudy is Kerala’s most wild river, with the highest biodiversity of all Keralan rivers, largely lying within the rugged landscape of a forest reserve. Each morning, with several cups of chai acquired from the road side shop down the way (poured in meter long hand movements by a woman who works every sunlit hour, and many dark ones, except for a half day break on Sunday) (the road is the former tram way built by the British to expedite extraction of virgin teak forests, used among other things for reinforcing N African trenches in WW1), I read through Dr. Sunny George’s epic integrated atlas-like report on the Chalakudy watershed, covering everything from the settlement history and demographics of “scheduled tribes” (as designated in India, indigenous people who have retained their identity and largely way of life through thousands of years of contacts with various ruling structures), to land use changes over the past decades (conversion of rice patties to clay mining or conventional framing, planting of oil palm along river banks, historic exploitation of massive teak forests, and the numerous effects on water flow, retention and livelihood), to pages of tabular data indicating worrying declining flow of the river overall, to the wide diversity of traditional inland river fishing styles (reflecting fish biodiversity, and even including the unbelievable technique of catching fish between two slowly closing sticks). It’s a wonderful primer to understanding this place, and its locked away in 400 loosely bound pages; the floppy disks holding the soft copy have perished to mold sometime in the past 10 years. Its information and data that’s difficult, almost impossible, to share and utilize, yet should be required reading for anyone making decisions about the watershed. Yet it represents only the slightest beginning of the knowledge actively enmeshed in the landscapes and cultures of Chalakudy.
Open Data Watershed
A watershed is a natural ecological and cultural boundary, plainly obvious when you know to look for it. So much of the environment and character of a place, its inter-dependencies and issues, are based not on the numerous and complicated overlap of administrative boundaries (as evidenced by the long list of offices and sources consulted for compiling in the Chalakudy report), but rather the way water flow shapes landscape and human settlement. Cities are a natural organizing principle (though only I learned at Meeting of the Minds a formal focus of study more recently), and have easily grown into the framework of Open Data (also coinciding w/ #motm12, was launched the aggregate city site cities.data.gov). Like cities, open Watersheds can be a movement with real legs, to share environmental data and build on the models of engagement across disciplines evidenced in other Open Data movements. And of course, cities are intertwined with watersheds, traditionally founded on strategic points on rivers. Conceptually, it can easily attract coders, policy makers, scientists, historians, students who have already grasped Open Data; while the watershed is a geographical unit of focus that is tangible and practical. Watersheds are nested, fractal-like structure, so that data can be shared and compared across watersheds of similar scale (through the evolution/conversations of tagging structures/flexible taxonomies) (similarly, in Cairo, Takween and Diane Singerman were developing taxonomies to more easily understand, compare, develop interventions, and support grassroots learning in informal settlements). And watershed data can be generalized to contribute to larger scale models and policy, ultimately to the global level.
The Blue Yonder is developing the idea of design workshops, where experienced and student designers hold a month or two residency with a traditional crafts group in Chalakudy (like the Bamboo Craft workshop) and develop ideas which could be marketable to tourists and abroad (products from the Natural Fibre Craft Resource Center even now is marketed by IKEA). The same could be done for data. A big start would be looking at updating and translating to the web the Integrated Study of Chalakudy. And OpenStreetMap is an ideal platform to model and implement part of an integrative approach. In OSM, land use, water structures, tourist infrastructure are all stored together in a single database, yet seperatable for particular visualization and analysis.
Next couple posts will dig into more how open data and community media complement a responsible tourism approach, leading we hope to a methodology for addressing the issues facing river basins, as well as some more technical ideas and directions.
As mentioned in a previous post, we’ve been here in Cairo for the past couple of weeks working with local architects, techies, grassroots activists, and interested residents of the Ard el Lewa community on a quick demo and experiment intended to catalyze the use of open technologies at neighborhood level.
Four four evenings, after the work day was done, we gathered in the screening room of Art El Lewa, an artist space, or next door in the “Twitter” cyber, made this small but good start on mapping Ard El Lewa, and posted a few reports to this demo neighborhood CrowdMap. At the end, on my birthday, I received a great present with the announcement of formation of an Ard El Lewa OSM group!
Here’s the before and after. Look closely. From absolutely no POI features at all, there’s over a dozen mosques, churches, schools, bakeries, parking; and several corrections to street names and additional streets. This was edited in just a couple of hours.
There was a terrific amount to cover in a few quick evenings, not only the techniques of OpenStreetMap and Ushahidi, but more fundamentally, the concepts of thinking and working geographically toward a particular outcome. Zaazaa from Megawra and Omar from Cluster led the initial meeting, in a packed room of participants, including about 12 from Ard El Lewa: from the youth center, popular coalition, political parties, women’s groups; and another 12 from groups outside with interest in the process. Ard El Lewa has strong grassroots networks, and Cluster has been collaborating with them, so it was easy for them to mobilize. Everyone drew conceptual maps on paper of their journey from the bridge (over the railway, one of the few entrances to Ard El Lewa), to Art El Lewa, and we explored the different ways of representing and thinking about space. Then a “find my house” session with Google Earth, that could’ve gone on for hours.
Most interesting were presentations from a few local amateur mapmakers, including a grassroots leader and tailor whose hand-drawn detailed designs for a new transit station at the entrance to Ard El Lewa clearly reflect the attention to detail in his day job craft. And another presentation by a young researcher, who’s been collecting street names and their history in Ard El Lewa, using spreadsheets and hand drawn maps; the names are usually sourced from the first person to build on the street, the name of the canal that formerly laid there, a nearby shrine, or some other prominent landmark. And if that wasn’t enough, Abdelrahman comprehensively covered the basic concepts of OpenStreetMap and GIS, including the differences between raster and vector data.
The second day got everyone into the streets, with GPS, and they totally got it, and collected an epic number of points. Ahmad from ADEF learned the GPS in the car ride over, and delivered the training on arrival. Afterwards a detailed demonstration and training on JOSM was conducted in the cyber.
On the third day, we presented some examples of how we’ve used maps and media elsewhere, and then Omar led a discussion session to brainstorm uses of the maps and reporting tools locally. This was one of the most inspiring moments, ideas growing from expected things, like using the maps in the planning of new infrastructure in Ard El Lewa, to things like custom book covers for local school children illustrating the location of their school on the map, mapping graffiti art works, developing a website for the community including job postings, and a local business oriented map, whose collection and distribution could create entrepreneurial opportunities for local youth (this idea from the local youth themselves). There were many more that flew by me in Arabic, but honestly, I’ve never seen a community so ready to put technology to work for their own agenda.
It’s true, the number of attendees reduced over the week, which is pretty typical. But the remaining core represented most of the folks from Ard El Lewa, now a seemingly dedicated lot. The rest of the two days focused on using registering with OSM, using JOSM, and using Ushahidi. We discussed how to tag the narrow, unpaved roads of Ard El Lewa, something which seems to require new classifications. The Ard el Lewa Ushahidi crowdmap instance took some of the concepts from the previous days, and put them together onto a website. Those who had stuck with the training until the fourth day all logged in and became administrators of the site, and developed categories like Trash collection, and Education. By the next day at least one new post had been made on the instance, showing that in just an hour or two members had been able to pick up the basics of creating and also approving posts. Interestingly the new post, complete with photos, was about children at a local school staging a protest against the now infamous Youtube clip “Innocence of Muslims.”
And as usual, it was a challenging endeavor. There was a lot of material to cover, and not just techniques. Abdelrahman powered through so much knowledge, every day. This would usually be stretched out over a few days, rather than a few evenings. There was so much to explain, participants had less time than I would have liked actually doing. We were also challenged by being split between two open door venues, a separate space for lecture and working, which is sometimes good, but is hard when trying to explain technicalities. Ahmad Gharbeia did hook up a local, open source, screen-casting system using shared desktops, which worked pretty well for sharing JOSM training, and delighted the manager of Twitter. But that was on top of the technical challenge of a cyber cafe that reverted every machine back to a stored disk image every reboot, making it impossible to install the tools permanently. They were very nice however, and served me tea every evening, and the machines were in pretty good condition, with decent connections, and even free wifi for laptops. We, the collective trainers, never had a good opportunity to really collectively pre-plan the program. We all threw in a lot of ideas, and with timing and the moments, did a lot on the fly, but roles were not always coherent. I guess that’s fine, and I practiced stepping back and letting things unfold as they may!
Ard El Lewa has a vibrant street life. Hanna said “it’s one of the beautiful things about the informal”. Everything is out in the open, on the street, shared (and of course for sale). I’m grateful that Ard El Lewa was so welcoming to us, GroundTruth and all of the collaobrators. There’s a real tangible pride in what they’ve built for themselves. And with their declaration to form a mapping community, I’m very motivated to help figure out the shape of continuing support, so Ard El Lewa can put themselves on the map.
Ard El Lewa is an informal settlement in the west of the Cairo metropolis, built up over the past 30 years on agricultural land, its street layout still reflecting filled-in irrigation canals, towered over by concrete-framed multi-story buildings, just over the tracks from what was the old boundary of Cairo. Soon after the revolution, the local community built, to good standard, on and off ramps to the Ring Road (previously completely disconnected from their community), and successfully advocated for a public park on remaining precious open space that was planned for yet more housing. Yes, they built their own highway ramps! (not yet in OpenStreetMap)
Ard El Lewa Map, with images of urban challenges. Credit: unpublished report by Hanna Gad, Cluster
This is the atmosphere of enthusiasm and possibility that opened up at the very local scale in Egypt in the revolution. Across Cairo, “popular committees” organized to maintain security in their neighborhoods; some of these are evolving to “popular coalitions” focused on improving local neighborhoods through grassroots development. Modern Cairo has been a site of heavily centralized planning, large scale development, and lack of representation for local people in decision making. People did actually make many decisions about their living situation, simply by building informally outside a planning system beyond its capacity to handle the needs of a rapidly expanding Cairo, with estimates of 60-70% of Cairo’s population living in officially informal settlements. The pause of authority in the revolution resulted in countless grassroot initiatives, small and large, to remake the collective city and better serve residents. How this energy will be channeled, into politics, into restructered local government, or in something quite new, is a question being worked out right now in what seem to be typical Cairene chaotic ways.
Murals painted by local children of Ard El Lewa, their faces and their dreams for the future
Into this potent brew, enter us, novices to Cairo (except the first OSM mapping party with Abdelrahman back in 2008). A year ago, Ford Foundation offered travel cover for us to come and share our experiences with urbanists, rights groups, and techonologists, and explore how community mapping and reporting technology could support Cairo’s changing urban life. Well, lots of our life intervened, and then we waited for the right moment, without presidential elections absorbing attention, and not during Ramadan or the heat of summer, and ended up with the right and latest possible moment for arrival here one week ago. That was just a day before this whole stupid mess with the video and embassy protests broke out, which would seem like exactly the wrong time to come. But as it turns out, Cairo is completely and utterly normal (for Cairo), and where we’ve worked at Cluster’s office, just a couple blocks away from Tahrir Square, you’d have no real idea anything was happening worthy (or really unworthy) of global media frothing.
Cardboard model of downtown Cairo in Cluster’s office
In the quick run up to our trip, we reached out and began email and phone conversations with collaborators Cluster, Takween, Megawra, Arab Digital Expression Foundation, Shadow Ministry of Housing, Cairo from Below, OSM Egypt, Meedan, Egyptian Bloggers, and more and others. Cluster have taken on the role of local host, for workshop space and community introductions; and ADEF are taking the lead on the technical side. Awesome to have the interest and welcome from these folks, especially during our rapid, steep and very much continuing education on urban Cairo. We formed a rough plan around collaborative discussion and design of our previous work, the context in Cairo, and a small pilot demonstration and collaboration with residents of Ard El Lewa in mapping and reporting, with whatever results as raw material for possible adaptation and expansion throughout Cairo. Now, things are constantly taking shape and reshape, and we’ll have plenty more to say soon.
When the community of Tandale mapped itself in OpenStreetMap, they opened their community’s data to the creativity of the entire web. This visualization from our friends at Development Seed shows the dramatic before and after mapping in Tandale, with bright cartography and integrated Ushahidi reports. Hope this sparks more ideas for Tandale and other communities around the globe just now adding their voice to the web. Maya posted the details on how they put the map together.
Check it out at explore.ramanitanzania.org.