Category Open source

Urban Data and Urban Resilience

This article was published during my time at 100 Resilient Cities.

Cities in the 100 Resilient Cities network are embracing the use of information and technology to improve the livability of cities. Due to the growing interest in open data, the Internet of Things (IoT), and increasing use of sensors, cities are collecting and using data to plan for a multitude of resilience challenges, and inviting the civic and private sectors to take part in the process.

Using data for city services and planning

Large U.S. cities like Los AngelesSan Francisco, and New York have open data portals in which various types of information are published: data sets on active building permits, crime incident locations, traffic statistics, earthquake fault zones, among many others. In October 2018, 100RC hosted a three-day CoLab in New York to explore potential data-driven solutions to city services. London has been measuring issues that are less tangible, such as social cohesion. One of the city’s key metrics, that 84% of Londoners get along well with neighbors from different backgrounds, is based on interviews with local residents. The city also utilizes measures of factors such as overall life satisfaction and food security, providing critical insight to program and policy design (source).

Figs. 1. London’s well-being map. Each dot represents a borough.
Fig. 2. London’s Data Store dashboard, showing key indicators at a glance. The portal holds over 700 datasets of publicly-available statistics on the city.

Singapore applies its urban data toward planning new city sectors. The city’s Punggol neighborhood is a great example, designed by the Housing & Development Board (HDB), the city’s public housing authority, with both environmental and affordability concerns in mind. Data inputs such as wind flows, solar radiance, and the height of buildings were utilized to select the best locations for amenities as wide-ranging as parks, public plazas, childcare centers, and playgrounds. These all converge to allow children to be outdoors throughout the day, according to urban planner and HDB CEO Cheong Koon Hean.

Fig. 3. Wind and solar radiance modelling of the Punggol eco-town in Singapore.

Cities elsewhere are turning to data more than ever before to help solve pressing resilience challenges. The cities of Miami and Miami Beach recently received grants to develop a visual platform that will allow residents to see for themselves the impacts of rising sea levels on buildings and to plan accordingly for that future (source). New York City is working to coordinate a new level of data integration among its many municipal agencies, with the immediate goal of creating a 3D map of all underground assets. Greater Manchester’s Smarter City Programme has been working with stakeholders across six key themes to improve city operations and residents’ quality of life. Using artificial intelligence and machine learning, the CityVerve consortium is optimizing bus schedules, preventing overcrowding on public transportation, and reducing journey times (source).

Engaging residents with data

It is estimated that by 2025 there will be more than 80 smart cities in the world (source). Advances in innovative technologies are dramatically changing both how cities operate internally and how they are interacting with their constituents. Yet how does the average person access urban data and make sense of it all?

Alex Dodds of the Sunlight Foundation suggests that it is the city’s role to not only inform its residents of progress through the use of statistics and data, but to also use those assets to create a common understanding and shared narrative (source). Dodds uses a Tactical Data Engagement process to bring data to the community level. By engaging with residents from the beginning, the process helps identify use case scenarios for data and build consensus on possible interventions.

The Urban Institute (UI) also uses in-person workshops to communicate data and findings with community members. In what UI developed into a Data Walk, community members are prompted to react to a simple visualization of statistics published by their city, allowing the organization to gather feedback directly from end users of public services, based on their personal experiences.

Fig. 4. A Data Walk session uses simple graphical data to prompt citizens to react and express their personal viewpoints on the data related to an urgent issue they are experiencing in their city.
Fig. 5. As cities develop their resilience strategies, 100RC uses a Perceptions Assessment tool to report back to city leaders how their initiatives match citizens’ perceptions.
Fig. 6. A City Resilience Index (CRI) graphic for Santiago, Chile. The CRI is a way for cities to assess qualitatively and quantitatively the city’s resilient qualities.
The informal sector context

While many cities in North America and Europe produce an overwhelming amount of data, cities in the Global South often face a data challenge of a different kind. Approximately one-third of the world’s urban population currently living in informal settlements, making it crucial to understand the context of this sector. In cities where neighborhoods were built informally, where the legal status of building ownership is blurred, and where the local economy is mostly driven by cash transactions, data collection requires more on-the-ground methods.

In cities like SuratSemarang, and Porto Alegre, 100RC has partnered with the World Resources Institute (WRI) to assess the preparedness of informal communities in facing climate risks. WRI’s Urban Community Resilience Assessment (UCRA) tool has been utilized to collect census-like data related to the quality of urban services, as well as individual perceptions on the vulnerability of communities to floods, landslides, fires, or earthquakes (source). With its heavy emphasis on technical aspects, UCRA also measures social indicators like the size and strength of informal social networks in a given community: how well neighbors know each other. This metric helps determine how well a community will adapt and recover from a given emergency, given that cohesive communities are more likely to help each other in times of a disaster.

Data and urban resilience

As cities continue implementing data-driven projects and smart city agendas, it is key for city officials to consider not only the collection and publication of data, but also engaging with citizens in data analysis and related resilience benefits. MIT’s Urban Risk Lab has taken this concept to a new level with a platform to crowdsource data collection and tools in times of flooding. Urban Risk Map, beta-launched in Florida in response to Hurricane Irma, is operational in Indonesia and Semarang, and harnesses social media and real-time reporting to aggregate flooding data into a map interface.

Fig. 7. RiskMap aggregates data from social media to create maps of flooded areas.

As the field of urban resilience continues to evolve, the factor which remains constant is community engagement. The situation is no different when it comes to data. Urban residents are key stakeholders for the collection and use of data, and their contributions are critical when applying that data to urban planning processes.

Designing a gift-based economy

In my effort to keep understanding the concept of a gift-based economy, this time i’m sharing some reflections on Nepun Mehta’s work. I first heard of him last year, when I read about his commencement speech given at the University of Pennsylvania.  As of today, it’s been read 176,884 times. You can read it here.

In this humble but very inspiring speech, Mehta talks about a pilgrimage him and his wife did in India relying entirely on strangers” kindness for food and shelter on their 1,000 kilometer long journey for three months. Throughout this trip Mehta describes how people like vegetable vendors, shared the little they had to support him and his wife. Mehta calls this process inner transformation, referring to how giving becomes an act of love and brings joy to the person giving, despite of how fair that exchange might be. In this video below you can hear him talk about ”designing a gift economy”.

These acts based on self-less generosity is what makes Mehta”s organization, ServiceSpace, stand out. It started as CharityFocus in 1999, an organization that provided free web services to non-profits.Since then it has evolved into ten different initiatives that share volunteerism as its common thread. Amit Dungarani, a volunteer with ServiceSpace, describes in a video interview how “by giving I”m getting something back and both parties are mutually benefited”. Mehta seems to emphasize this process of giving as an ongoing personal transformation that happens every time an act of generosity is made. Dungarani also describes how ServiceSpace is intentionally run by volunteers, as opposed to being an organization that relies on raising funds to pay for staff salaries.

All of ServiceSpace projects are run with a $0 overhead.ServiceSpace’s work is very much related to communications and technology. Besides CharityFocus, other initiatives include works & conversations, a magazine with touching stories of artists” lives;; a website that hosts resources and news related to development work in South Asia;; a site and mailing list of good news delivered daily to nearly 130,000 people.  Only one project has a store-front presence: Karma Kitchen, a pay-it-forward restaurant where guests pay $0 for their meal but are invited to pay for the next people coming in. Dungarani has some insights on the value of volunteering small acts. “Focusing on the small is something everyone can do and seems less daunting,” he explains. ServiceSpace relies on these small acts that amount to millions of dollars of work in public service. Mehta calls these successive acts of generosity “giftivism” (gift-iv-ism).

The takeaway: Nipun Mehta has done a great job at starting a great organization, but also communicating the great joy that acts of love and generosity bring to those who donate their time and skills without expecting any reciprocity (communicating generosity can also be an act of generosity).

In one of his TED presentations, Mehta asks, “what designs emerge when we assume people want to behave selflessly?” That is the premise behind a gift economy, relying on people’s trust, as opposed to a rational evaluation of what might be a fair trade. How can we as designers and communicators begin experimenting with small acts of generosity?

And finally, the biggest takeaway I get from ServiceSpace is that we can all do more for others if we’re nudged a little by love, and like Mehta says, and move “from isolation to community” a little more.



Ollitas Sol, an ingenious irrigation method

Some of us may remember pots or clay pots as favorite objects of our grandmothers, especially in Latin America. The mud has been used since pre-Hispanic times for cooking, and even for agriculture. I came across this clay-based irrigation method from “El colectivo El Traspatio”.

These group of vegetable-growers from Guanajuato used to promote the use of  interior spaces in people´s homes to grow different types of vegetables. Las Ollitas Sol is a product that El Traspatio rescued  from millenary agricultural traditions. It´s based on the use of clay pots for growing plants and vegetables. In Mexico, this irrigation technique was called as olladines but traces of this method can be found in other continents dating back over 2,000 years.

The concept is very simple, a clay pot buried and filled with water. The plants around it to drink for up to a week, as the pot prevents water from seeping deeper, but allows the roots of plants to absorb the water through the clay pot.

The productivity that can be achieved with this form of irrigation reaches 2.5 to 6 kilos for every 1,000 liters of water used. Compared to other irrigation systems, such as drip irrigation, only 1.4 kilos of production is often achieved. There is very little space needed to cultivate with this method, only one square meter of space is enough to start growing some vegetables.

For around 4 dollars, worth of clay pot, it is possible to start learning this water-efficient  irrigation method.

Photos by: El Traspatio.

Ollitas Sol, before and after, growing acelgas and lettuce. The clay pot is buried in a plastic, water-proof pot.

SANA: a mobile health solution

In remote regions there is often a shortage of medical personnel prepared to meet basic needs and medical emergencies. SANA is an organization that is creating the first mobile health operating system using cell phones as an interface between marginalized communities and medical institutions. The use of cell phones is key, since it is quite common for remote villages to lack clinics. It is estimated that between 80 and 90 percent of the world population lives near an area with access to a cellular network.

The SANA system is installed on cell phones of medical staff who diagnose patients. During a medical evaluation a questionnaire is installed on the phone. Photos and descriptions are recorded and sent to a hospital or medical center where the information is received for analysis. Finally, the staff make a diagnosis on site and help the patient to make a decision.


Images of the app interface.

Medical organizations in turn can share their diagnoses with other organizations and thus generate a collective intelligence that, based on the cases of millions of people, can generate better diagnoses and low-cost treatments.

The SANA system is based on an open source information system, which is shared for free and can be used by institutions in developing countries such as the Philippines and India. SANA is doing tests in Mexico to evaluate the possibility of using this system in the country.


More details:

Bicimáquinas by CACITA

Bicimáquinas are bicycles that are transformed into motorized tools for daily use, whether to grind coffee, blend a sauce, process corn, or pumping water. These bike-machines are created by CACITA, also known as the Autonomous Center for the Intercultural Creation of Appropriate Technologies (Centro Autónomo para la Creación Intercultural de Tecnologías Apropiadas). Cristian Guerrero, one of the group’s founders has given courses and demonstrations to rural communities in several states of Mexico along with their collaborators.

Part of the philosophy of appropriate technologies is to develop designs that use materials and tools available in communities, especially marginalized areas. By turning old bikes into income generating tools, bicycles are accessible to the community and are methods that can be used without the need of an outside consultant and without having to buy expensive raw materials or technologies.

Photos by Revolucionemos Oaxaca, Cristian Guerrero, Ecoaldeas México.