Black Holes No More: The Emergence of Volunteer Geographic Information

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This essay by Ron Mahabir takes a look at how crowdsourced mapping (or volunteered geography) efforts are helping to fill in much needed geographic information about impoverished areas around the world.  Ron Mahabir is a PhD Student at Department of Geography and Geoinformation Science at George Mason University. His current research looks at the detection and mapping of slums using open data sources.

More than one billion people currently live in slums, which are growing at unprecedented rates leading to the rise of vulnerable communities. Slums are usually viewed as areas of extreme poverty and neglect and further, their development as an impediment to progress. Although slums exist in all areas of the world, their presence is most noticeable in the less developed countries of the global south. These countries are among the poorest worldwide as suggested by the Human Development Index and the substantial disbursement of and dependence on international aid. With the added burden of having to absorb the majority of projected population growth, further challenges can be expected at these locations if the situation of slum dwellers does not improve.

Mapping Slums Using Volunteered Geographic Information

Recently, there has been growing awareness of the poor living conditions and daily hardships experienced by slum dwellers. This is in part due to the way in which social media and the internet have transformed the sharing of information. Users of social media like Facebook and Twitter generate content about themselves and their selective interests within and among peers. Most of this information is provided voluntarily by untrained private citizens and compared to the traditional top down approach of collecting geospatial information, represents a new form of geographic information altogether. In locations where slums are most pronounced, reliable information on these communities is often lacking, making this Volunteered Geographic Information (VGI) an important resource for slum information.

Map Kibera Project

The most well known example of VGI aiding slum dwellers is the Map Kibera project started by Mikel Maron and Erica Hagen in 2009, with the help of local partners in Kenya. Prior to 2009, Kibera, a slum with an estimated 250,000 residents, did not exist on any official maps of Kenya. It was no more than a black hole to the outside world. In this project, local residents are empowered into mapping their own community with the resulting digital data collected and placed onto an online map. Uploaded information is freely available on a wide rage of themes, including, transportation, health services, safe paths and the location of water and sanitation facilities, providing actionable knowledge for local residents in supporting their daily workflows. Local slum businesses have also benefited, using information from Map Kibera to expand their customer base. Map Kibera therefore provides Kiberans with an informational basis for better coordination and planning within their community.


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Kibera geographic data collection via OpenStreetMap

Kibera geographic data collection via OpenStreetMap.

Projects such as Map Kibera are also important for improving government involvement in slums. During the 2013 Kenyan election, the Map Kibera project provided information on access routes and the location of polling stations. This information was used to ensure overall safety during this event. Non-government and community-based organizations also use VGI to identify and fill water and sanitation needs in slums. These organizations further use this information for advocating with government, on behalf of slum dwellers, for improved conditions within slums. Such representation is important for improving the situation of slum dwellers since they are often overlooked in the planning decisions of the state.

VGI projects also provide empowerment through the development of new skills and increased involvement on the part of slum dwellers (related: How Refugees are Using GIS to Map Their Geographies and Experiences). Locals use geospatial technology to create maps of their community. Newly acquired skills can also contributed towards finding better jobs for improving the situation of slum dwellers. These projects also encourage innovation among local slum residents. As an example, local slum residents trained by Map Kibera in using film media went on to found the Kibera News Network. Since its inception, Map Kibera continues to be a catalyst for many similar projects, allowing for a sustainable source of information on slum communities.

A common attribute in slums is a lack of digital information and communications technology typically known as the digital divide. VGI projects that assist in reducing this divide are more likely to succeed because they do not require any professional expertise and are more inclusive of local residents. Non-government organizations including UN Habitat and Slum Dwellers International are working to make these technologies more accessible in slums. As an additional benefit, these types of VGI play a key role in connecting locals as they move through their communities, developing relationships with residents and forming lasting networks. Slum residents are also able to connect with people outside of slums, both locally and internationally, providing an outlet for voicing their concerns to local government and global communities.

It is clear that VGI represents an important resource for information on slums. This is especially the case since many official sources of information on slums are often limited or are of a low quality. Given that it may not be at all possible to remove the existence of slums altogether, there is a need for improving conditions within existing slums. This is important to ensure that everyone, both slum dwellers and non-slum dwellers alike, have the opportunity to live a quality life and not be marginalized, as is the case of many slum dwellers today.

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