Leveraging community data to better plan informal settlements

Ona Staff
May 14, 2018

image Above: Community members mapping informal settlements in Cape Town.

“How might urban slum communities become more resilient to the effects of climate change?”

When our long time partner SDI (Slum/Shack Dwellers International) started asking this question, we jumped at the chance to help as it provided an opportunity to explore how data that we’ve helped SDI collect in their communities for the past 4 years could be used to improve urban planning and resilience. SDI is a network of community-based groups from 33 countries creating a voice for the urban poor, engaging international agencies, and operating on the global stage in order to support and advance local struggles for more than 20 years now. We first started working with SDI for the Know Your City campaign aimed at empowering communities through data.

When communities collect their own data, they own the process of their development.

– Anni Buekes, Data Manager (SDI)

As SDI began using Ona to collect a wealth of critical data around informal urban settlements it became clear if we could showcase this data to tell the right stories, we would have a potent urban planning tool in our hands. The first step in this journey came when Ona went to Cape Town last September to participate in the 2017 Digital Impact World Tour, a global series of convenings run by Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society’s Digital Civil Society Lab.

Partnering with SDI in Cape Town, the tour brought together civil society leaders, scholars, digital activists, funders and policy makers in the region, and proved to be the perfect backdrop for Ona’s client solutions team to meet with stakeholders at South Africa SDI Alliance to lay the foundation of what would become the Open Reblock platform. Reblocking is the process of spatial reconfiguration of slums such that each residential or commercial structure has access to essential urban services, especially water, sanitation and drainage, all crucial elements of response to climate change. It also allows for access to emergency assistance, such as in the case of fire or health crises.

It was very powerful to see communities using our tools to influence decision making and establish initiatives that will change their lives. The communities had enough data and information to push for what’s important and not just what looked good on paper.

– Erick Ngwiri, Director of Client Solutions (Ona)

image Above: Access to services including water, electricity, energy sources etc mapped out on Open Reblock for settlements in Blaauwberg, Cape Town.

The first step in designing this platform was understanding what stories would resonate the most with a wider audience of social change makers, and then looking for ways to represent these stories in an impactful way. Packed in-person meetings in Cape Town, followed by countless email and message exchanges, allowed Ona to form a comprehensive plan for creating a platform that not only fit SDI’s immediate needs, but also lent itself to easy scale up as the project grew over time. After understanding SDI’s requirements in detail, the next step was picking the right tech tools for the job — and the perfect fit turned out to be mapping visualizations powered by the Canopy Discover suite of technologies.

Once the design and technical architecture were finalized, Ona’s engineering and data teams got to work. As the platform was built, the data team in parallel started cleaning and parsing through data collected by communities in the Blaauwberg area in Cape Town, Mukuru in Nairobi, and West Point in Monrovia. SDI’s thorough enumeration efforts meant we not only had each structure in these settlements mapped out for the first time, we also had access to invaluable data around service delivery, energy access, and risks and vulnerabilities faced by the communities, all coming first hand from the residents living there.

Through regular demonstrations with SDI and brainstorms within Ona’s client solutions team, the Open Reblock platform began taking shape in early 2018. Around this time SDI proposed including local transport data from WhereIsMyTransport, a platform providing public transport information for metropolitan cities across Africa. Ona immediately saw the huge value addition this would bring to the overall platform and got working to pull and display local bus and matatu routes, stops and fares for Cape Town and Nairobi.

image Above: Public transport routes and fares for Mukuru, Nairobi displayed on Open Reblock.

A culmination to the combined efforts of Ona and SDI came at the 2018 World Urban Forum in Malaysia where Open Reblock was launched, in line with the conference’s theme “Cities for All: Implementing the New Urban Agenda”. Amid a gathering of actors from the civil society, development sector, policy makers, academia, and government agencies, the platform received a resounding vote of confidence in its ability to clearly demonstrate the ground reality from some of the most packed urban slums across sub-Saharan Africa.

Currently, Open Reblock clearly visualizes access to essential services like water, energy and sanitation at a granular level, along with showcasing how they may relate to risks or disasters faced by entire communities, but the potential for such a platform is immense. And as Ona continues to work together with Open Reblock partners to define its future direction, we are even more aligned in our vision to make this into a powerful decision making tool used by both policy makers and slum communities alike.