4 Lightening Presentations, One Spark: Open Data For Development

Last week I presented at the Geo DC Meet Up to a crowd of more than 80 development professions and techies crowded into the second floor of a bar. With a large flat screen TV to project our slides, four of us set off on our “lightening presentations” with a 5-minute time limit. Mikel Maron, cofounder of Ground Truth, talking about using Open Street Maps to help the residents of Kibera, the largest slum in Africa, map their neighborhood. Joshua Goldstein talked about mapping Dar es Salam with the World Bank’s Open Development Technology Alliance and how they got the university to host the data so no single agency could silo it or manipulate it. Christoph Koettl from Amnesty International talked about how they are using remote satellite imagery to look at eviction of squatter settlements in locations not safe to enter themselves. I talked about how CHF India mapped almost 500 slum pockets in Pune, India, using more than 1,000 volunteers, then helped their communities implement action plans based on their new community understanding.

The common thread amongst all our presentations was how “open data” can translate into more informed and empowered citizens.  Open data should be seen within the context of the Open development movement, which provides citizens with the information and tools to access, understand and influence their own development. Instead of institutions just producing large analytical volumes, surveys, and reports, domestic governments and bi-lateral aid organizations can increasingly share data and software tools, so policy makers, NGOs, community groups and individual citizens can do their own analysis, their own verification of the results, and develop their own plans for action.

As new systems are created to gather data, either traditionally or through new means with information technology, many stakeholders are now arguing that data should be made open so the latent energy of a broader group of stakeholders can legitimize findings and inform solutions.

For example, the World Bank’s Open Data Initiative has released over 7,000 indicators and they are producing free software to allow citizens, researchers, and policymakers to analyze household surveys and undertake their own poverty assessments. “OpenStreetMaps” is a collaborative project to create a free editable map of the world by volunteers using copyright free sources and the widespread availability of GPS tools often available in mobile phones. OpenStreetMap allows anyone to view, edit and use geographical data in a collaborative way from anywhere on the globe.

Because slums are “informal” settlements, by definition, these communities often live in the shadows of formal sector data coverage. City governments often know very little about the actual socio-economic conditions of households, their living conditions or urban service levels. This data gap is a tremendous stumbling block in efforts to plan more strategically, at scale, or monitor progress of investments. At the same time, there is also a huge information gap for residents of slums, and often for citizens in general, to understand how to gain access to urban services, the governments that administer them or to have a voice in planning decisions.

Many institutions are attempting to fill this gap, including CHF International. In 2008, CHF designed a program called ‘Utthan’ (‘to rise from the bottom,’ in Hindi) with the Pune Municipal Corporation, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.  Utthan collects information on the physical and socio-economic conditions of Pune’s urban slums and uses this information to empower residents and local government officials to undertake community development projects.  The Utthanprogram is distinct because data is being collected by an extensive network of approximately volunteers that reside in the slum communities. To date, these volunteers have collected detailed surveys in 360 of Pune’s 477 slums, covering 86,000 households (approximately 430,000 residents). Over a two-year period, 130 slums have participated in the micro-planning process and almost all of them have completed tangible outcomes that improve their living conditions.

One volunteer explained, “Now I know everything about my cluster. While talking to the corporator I can give quick evidence of the amenities and residents of my cluster”. “Once there was a debate on the availability of garbage bins and water taps and because of the mapping I knew exactly the status in my cluster and the corporator had to listen to me.”

CHF’s development work will always rest on people power. But intermediary institutions like CHF and other stakeholders are becoming increasingly connected with emerging tools of the information age. And with these new powers, we can help create more powerful solutions.

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