In a world with Google Earth, it can come as a surprise that vast urban slums are virtually non-existent on official maps. The slums appear as simple outlines around empty zones, when the areas are in fact densely peopled by thriving communities and abuzz with entrepreneurship and life.
The interactive project Smart Slums will visit the Indian megacity of Mumbai where millions are living in the city’s slum areas, which number over 3,300. Being invisible on official maps has daily practical consequences. When one lives unmapped, one’s demands remain off the political agenda. Without detailed maps, it is also infeasible for city authorities to provide basic infrastructure such as roads, renovation and electricity.
Debates about smart cities often fail to address the pressing needs of the urban poor. But in an era of two converging global trends – bigger cities and more data – it has become crucial for slum communities to become visible on maps as well as on the political agenda. Here, the tools to democratise data can be the first step towards formal recognition by authorities, as these provide a platform for struggles to improve living conditions. Data and maps can work as evidence in courts of law to stop evictions, and also presented to city planners as puzzles to be solved. For these reasons, Indian slum-dwellers participate in Do It Yourself projects to map their communities, armed with only GPS-tracking cell phones and geospatial software.
On the other hand, mapping also poses a potential threat, with slum-dwellers giving public and private developers a tool to spatially identify, target and evict those squatting or otherwise living on disputed land. Being India’s most populous and richest city, Mumbai is host to fierce competition over land. Investors are eager to evict slum-dwellers before upgrading the areas into urban developments for moneyed classes. Sometimes local authorities deploy an ‘evict to protect’ strategy, forcibly removing people from overcrowded slums. The team will visit the two slums Govandi and Dharavi in Mumbai to cover how communities use mapping and crowdsourcing technologies as weapons to improve living conditions and gain recognition.
Smart Slums will be a project with interactive maps, photos, short videos and written features presented as one scrollytelling feature. But far from focussing exclusively on technologies and data, we will engage readers with personal accounts and a series of portraits of four slum inhabitants.
Photo copyright: Freedom House via Flickr Creative Commons.