Kerala exploratory visit

In March, GroundTruth went to Kerala, India at the invitation of The Blue Yonder, a “responsible tourism” outfit operating throughout India and based in Bangalore. Not knowing quite what to expect, we nonetheless jumped at the chance to work on a project about crowdsourcing the cultural history of the Nila River. Nila is one of the destinations that Blue Yonder knows best. Its founder, Gopinath Parayil, is a native of the area, which is in the northern part of Kerala state. Prakash Manhapra, another TBY staff, is a lifelong resident of Tirur, a city near Nila, and has absolutely encyclopedic knowledge of the region. Better yet, he has the curiosity of a journalist and an instinct for drawing out a fascinating tale from just about any bystander we came across.

Our task was to take a look at the wealth of cultural activity and history in the Nila basin, much of it very place-specific, and devise a methodology and training for turning this into an engaging multi-input platform for showing off the local riches. This all with a view toward drawing out elements for the tourist to seek out and enjoy, giving locals a chance to celebrate their heritage, while providing a means for preserving not only some of the more fragile customs and artistry but also the very river itself. Besieged by a long-running sand excavation, the “sand mafia” controls an often illegal but overlooked sand mining operation which is quickly destroying the ecosystem of the river linking the fascinating human settlements together over millennia. The hope of Blue Yonder was that the platform would help fight the environmental battle underway by reminding people how interlinked their lives were to this river.

We took a welcome opportunity to use some of the same tools we’ve developed for slum residents to report on basic services and needs, Palestinian activists to share their efforts to retain their land, and Nigerians to share crime and security reports, to the more cheerful topic of highlighting a rich cultural heritage. And Nila has plenty of positive to share, as we discovered. We visited artisans making bell-metal puja sets, handweaving cloth, and throwing clay into cups and bowls in ways that reflected centuries-old traditions. We visited ayurvedic doctors, martial arts practitioners, traditional dance and Kathakali theater, even an all-night shadow puppet performance that is enacted for many nights in a row with or without audience, to please a watching goddess.


There was the unplanned too – we happened upon a tiny village festival featuring frightening fire-theatrics and elaborately made-up ritual performers channeling the snake deity. At another nighttime temple festival a band of drummers played relentlessly and ecstatically for hours until they stopped all together on a dime, leaving a haunting ring in the air for several seconds.


I also got to see elephants. Though some looked a bit sad.

Mesmerized as we were, we got down to business. Developing a system for recording some of these events would not be the challenge; even collecting media might be easy given that everywhere we went we saw cellphone photography and video in process. Kerala is not particularly poor; the historically communist-run state is proud of local development and a small fortune has been sent back from migrants overseas in the Gulf. Building a way for locals to interact would require, yes, a mapping of the area as well as a variety of ways to report through media and aggregate. We also wanted to involve the artisans somehow, so that they would receive more business, and integrate a social interface for recent visitors and tourists to submit media and interact with locals. Of course, the primary language in the area is Malayalam, complete with its own swirly script. Interaction with the site would have to be possible through Malayalam-enabled keyboards, Romanized inputs typically used with mobile phones, and English.

As usual, the wild card would be the community-level participants – who exactly would be energized to report, on what, and who would sustain the enthusiasm? Options included working with a fantastic local group Vayali, already dedicated to exhaustive cataloging of local culture for academic and other purposes, as well as a widespread project of youth engaged in a volunteer palliative care movement. These youth had the civic engagement spirit along with local knowledge. We could also access a mass-media outreach campaign to engage more contributors. Integration with social networking online was also important.

This project sparked a long-dormant passion of mine to preserve and protect traditional social and cultural practices which I believe are in similar (and related) peril to the ecosystems that are being systematically destroyed. There is an interrelation between the attention that one can focus on a cultural feature, and its survival in the face of immense economic and social pressure to conform to the dominant or “modern” culture.

Gopi showed us traditional Keralan architecture, which is being replaced, like everywhere, by cement block ugliness. I sometimes think of how the houses in my hometown were remodeled in the 1950’s to reflect the day’s mores, eliminating all the wood trim and tin ceilings. It’s only now that homeowners are trying to reconstruct what was damaged back then, which is never as good as the original. Gopi has convinced – sometimes by actually offering payment – some owners not to destroy but to preserve the traditional houses, by insisting that tourists would pay handsomely to stay in these beautiful lodgings. Running a tour company, he has some authority to make this claim. Examples of expensive “traditional” lodging abound, usually only as imitations. (Here’s a cool example of architectural preservation and tourism in Kathmandu).

Sometimes, locals do not realize that what they have always had – traditional architecture, artisanry and crafts, medicine and religious festivals – can be extremely valuable to the visitor as well. Of course, there is the danger that such practices will become museum-pieces for benefit of tourists alone. That is something we experienced in Kenya, where safari tours visiting colonial-style lodges will be presented with a song-and-dance performance abandoned by the actual representative tribe years ago. The effect was, for me, disturbingly patronizing. There’s nothing quite like seeing Kenyans dressed proudly in their costume on property once part of their spiritual homeland, in front of white haired foreigners supping on mashed potatoes and corned beef, in a lodge built by British colonials. But I digress.

The amazing thing about Kerala (and other parts of India) was that in no way was any of what we saw put on for our benefit, and yet, a visitor could still inspire pride and represent a financial incentive to support certain elements of culture. With our system, we hope to expand that experience to reporting oral history, heritage, cuisine, and other aspects of the river culture that make the place all that much richer. For example, there are archaeological remnants of an old trading route that tied into coastal shipping routes, pit-stops called Athaani that traders used to use for rest and refreshment, which we hope to map and annotate with interviews along the way. Only it won’t be us – as usual, only the community members will contribute, no outsiders, no researchers, no foreigners or even local city-folk. That kind of process, I hope, will lead to local ownership not only of this technology but also of the Nila itself.

Moabi and Big Important Challenges for the GeoWeb

Recently finished a technical review of WWF’s Moabi platform, their geodata sharing platform to track deforestation, and came out with some important technical challenges for the GeoWeb I want to share with the mapping nerds.

Post continues on Brain Off

Benin City, Nigeria

GroundTruth is embarking on another iteration of – and new contextualization of – our mapping-reporting work here in Benin City, Nigeria. We arrived a week ago, and are beginning to make sense of the project and lay the groundwork for the pilot.

Benin City is the capital of Edo State – part of the Delta region technically, but without the “oil curse”.

The Benin project is a partnership with the ICT Directorate of Edo State, supported by the World Bank. We are also fortunate to have on our team, Dr. Steven Livingston of George Washington University, in DC. Dr. Livingston is a professor at the School of Media and Public Affairs and researches ICT use in developing country contexts especially for political purposes; he has also recently been researching policing and security in Nigeria.

The current project has a few different goals, primary among them being the creation of a (geographically-situated) information channel or network between community members, government, and the wider public, with an initial focus on crime and security issues. The rooted nature of the project means that we will begin in a particular district or “local government area” known as Egor. During this trip, our main task has been to get to know the actors at the local level who might benefit from the project, and essentially map out the roles for various stakeholders, to use development lingo. We have met several local governance activists and civil society leaders, a community-based girls empowerment NGO, a professor of sociology at the local University, and a company responsible for kickstarting the government GIS department.

We also met the traditional leader of one community, known as the Enogie. This is a member of the historic Benin kingdom, which once posed fierce resistance to British rule and whose structures are still functioning and highly respected here.

We have gotten to know the ICT directorate staff, and it has occurred to me more than once that there are quite a few governmental or quasi-governmental (private sector or Bank-supported) staff putting a lot of energy into this pilot. This, it cannot be overstated, is not always the case; perhaps even unusual. It is highly motivating that we have such a commitment. Edo state also benefits from being known for its especially engaged and effective governor Adams Oshiomhole – at least, this is what we have been told by several people, from our taxi-driver to young government underlings to a variety of civil society leaders. I can’t give evidence beyond that, but, well – the norm in Nigeria is pure kleptocracy. Some infrastructure is being built now in Benin including several roads, a new hospital, and public spaces. People are overjoyed.

Road under repair to allow drainage

Typical road conditions in the rain

The ministers overseeing some of these projects are also, well, serving the public and engaged. Some of the officials we’ve met have been recruited to come back home from overseas in hopes of making a difference. This is eye-opening, not only because of the reputation of Nigerian government at any level, but also to inform our overall work, since I have seen so little positive governance in Kenya. I hope that some outcomes will be achieved that show what can happen when government is connected with technology to the grassroots. I might be too optimistic, but it’s a good note to start on. (Note to voting Kenyans: this governor was previously a labor leader and activist, ie, he had a record of taking a stand on issues publicly. Also, yes, his election came at a cost- he was first declared to have lost until public outcry overturned the decision.)

Of course, we’ll be facing the usual challenges of electricity and connectivity, as well as transportation, but much more so than in Kenya or even Tanzania. While road repairs are coming in slowly, many spots become impassable when it rains. Nigeria’s systems are notably unreliable, and the vaunted undersea broadband cable hasn’t connected with Benin. But, again, “everyone’s on Facebook” – the magic mobile connector. We’ll be going back to mobile-phone based or WAP browser interface, with data management or long form submission a possibility at the higher levels.

An element of the project is to generate better information on crime and security, in juxtaposition to environmental and infrastructure mapping and community-determined priorities. This richer information will support the police (and others concerned with security) with the kind of analysis they don’t currently have. The pilot concept was set off by the idea that urban upgrading coincides with crime reduction, and vice versa – a variation on the “broken windows” theory. The idea is that we’ll actually see a trend relating infrastructure with crime rates. But is it really true that something referring to middle-class neighborhoods elsewhere could transfer here? Or as Dr. Livingston put it, the broken windows theory applies in places where windows are the norm. It will probably be less concrete than that. Again, I’m glad there are a lot of brains waiting to take on the incoming information – I often wish that there were more analysis of the rich information that can be found in Voice of Kibera.

It will be interesting to take the project into the community –always the part where theory fades and reality hits, and concepts and plans become tangible successes and failures. We’ve already taken a stab at this during our meeting with the Enogie and “youth” – where our request to meet 5 turned into a group of more than 50, excited and challenging us at the same time. Here’s where I started to feel comfortable with the project, more familiar – where the purpose for me becomes clearer – where the excitement builds and people start to get curious and shape the direction of what has so far been conceived in rooms far away, by people who might never meet these soon-to-be reporters and mappers. Our ultimate responsibility is to these people, and the many others we’ll meet, and I hope that leads as it has in the past, to something remarkable.



Welcome to Grassroots al Quds Network!

Super gratifying to see the “beta” switch to “www” on Grassroots Al Quds!

GroundTruth, with compatriot of openness Rob Baker, have been closely developing this site with the Grassroots Jerusalem team. We first met them last summer during a month of exploration, training, and challenge with their newly formed team of community mobilizers (written up at the time, Jerusalem, Moving the Ladder). GJ’s approach and philosophy so closely matched our own, to work closely with communities and empower open communication and sharing of their own experience and data … well we were excited and eager to help by sharing a bit of our experience, methodologies, techniques with OpenStreetMap and Citizen Journalism.

This evolved into an opportunity to develop a “platform” for all these activities, documentation, and mapping. Grassroots Al Quds distilled into a pattern we had discovered before in Haiti in conceptual work on Citizen Haiti, and also in Kibera with the “Organizational Directory”. The communities we work in are highly structured, and hyperlocal. Neighborhoods have their own concerns, organizations work directly on the ground, and there’s lots of stories to tell. The concept for the web site pivots around Places, Organizations, and Stories, all kinds of media mapped and openly contributed and collected in various ways (blog posts, stories, SMS reports). It’s all localized, even the map is in Arabic (ala TileMill). We took the dive into Drupal for this one, and we just about tamed the beast.

There are still rough edges, and work to be done, but we’ve hit a milestone here, and I hope the start of something that will benefit local, grassroots communities world wide.

So big thanks to Grassroots Jerusalem for this opportunity, and congratulations on the launch today of your real space, Markaz al Kul and your online space, Grassroots Al Quds!