Mapping, data, and informal communities

Mapping people, places, and characteristics of urban spaces is essential for understanding cities and their residents in the Global South. Data visualization is crucial for development interventions, whether they come from a government upgrading program or an NGO-driven community initiative. The following articles profile a variety of projects using mapping technologies, including government subsidies in Bogotá, urban initiatives in Cairo, bottom-up upgrading in Cape Town, and a more traditional top-down approach in Curitiba.

Read on to see reports from our community managers in Mumbai, Cape Town, Bogotá, Curitiba, Mexico City, and Cairo, and then join the discussion below.

Cape Town
Mexico City
Carlin Carr

Community-led counting as bargaining chip

Carlin Carr, Mumbai Community Manager


The Dharavi Redevelopment Plan (DRP) stands physically at the center of the city and metaphorically at the nexus of a debate over the future of redevelopment. On the one hand is the government's grand scheme to join hands with private developers to rehouse the poor in free 225-square-foot flats, using the leftover space to construct luxury buildings that can be sold at market rates. Activists who stand opposed to this model say the DRP fails to acknowledge that the issue is more complex: the one-square kilometer is also home to thousands of small-scale businesses, often sharing spaces with residential plots. The mixed-use, low-rise settlement is a typology that many neighborhoods all over the world envy.

The diverging stances can be traced to the early days of the DRP when no one knew much about Dharavi. The lack of accurate figures on who lives there, where they came from, and what services are available continues to this day — decades later — to be cause for speculation, despite many exercises in counting.

In a new book, Dharavi: The City Within, Kalpana Sharma traces the history of Dharavi in her essay, "A House for Khatija." In it, she explains that former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi visited the slum in 1985 — and, afterward, allotted Rs. 100 crore ($15million) to redevelop the area. The committee he appointed to draft a proposal — which was headed by Charles Correa, one of India's most renowned architects — had essentially no data on which to base their ideas, since no mapping had ever been attempted there. Surprisingly, the committee thought a detailed exercise in data collection was too "painstaking," and opted instead to hire the Hyderabad Remote Sensing Agency to do an aerial survey. From above, Dharavi looks like a sheet of cookies that have baked into one; it's hard to distinguish where one house ends and another begins. The committee counted a population of 250,000 in Dharavi.

The real numbers were obviously much higher, and the National Slum Dwellers Federation (NSDF) and its partner organization SPARC knew this was a gross underestimation. Together, NSDF/SPARC launched a community-led census where they trained residents and, importantly, had them report back to their neighborhoods on a daily basis. Sharma says that transparency is extremely important in these exercises, as is trust. Households are more willing to give information to neighbors they know than to government-sent enumerators. Data from ration cards, voter registration lists, and rent lists also helped inform the final outcome. Not only did this survey produce vastly different numbers — calculating the population of the area at more than 600,000 in 1986 — but a bigger picture emerged as well: "...although Dharavi was being looked upon as one slum even by the planners, the residents did not see themselves as part of one settlement. Instead, each settlement had a distinct identity," writes Sharma.

Importantly, the community-led survey informed the people, empowering them to better understand their position in the future of their settlement. The map that emerged told the story of land ownership, where businesses were and how long certain communities had lived on that land. With their new information in hand, residents formed a committee, Dharavi Vikas Samiti, which continues to fight for the community's rights to this day.

The two very different approaches to collecting data in Dharavi illuminate the larger diverging viewpoints on the area's future. Yet, the community-led exercise continues to be an important milestone, as residents could then begin to develop a narrative around what their own future should be, not simply based off of anecdotal ideas but hard evidence.

Photo: Senorhorst Jahnsen



Carlin Carr's picture

I heard a talk the other day by Shelter Associates, an organization in Pune (a city outside of Mumbai) that works on housing issues for the urban poor. Data, they said, underlies everything they do, and key to that is participatory mapping. As their site says, "Municipalities fail to include informal settlements in city-wide planning and urban development." In response, Shelter Associates has helped to improve inclusive planning by using GIS data and slum surveys as tools to integrate communities into the process or improving their neighborhoods. The communities themselves carry out the research so that they become key players in the process and have a greater stake in their own future. Have a look at their interesting work:

María Fernanda Carvallo's picture

Carlin, I agree with you that community mapping is a key strategy in order to improve the context of communities from a community development perspective. Instead of blueprint approaches the integration of the community in their own process of improvement makes people to own the projects in a sustainable way. Moreover, through these strategies people are the ones who identify their needs, diagnose their troubles and plan their own actions in order to recover from their vulnerability.

Tariq Toffa's picture

This is a great link — thanks!

Jorge Bela's picture

A common theme in this week's articles is how involving the communities in the "counting" and in the mapping will bring very different results from top down approaches. No matter how much technology or methodology we throw in, the communities will bring up issues that simply cannot be detected just by looking at numbers.

I was fascinated by the potential that social networks in combination with maps has. The Cairo experience with Harssmap is very similar to an initiative by the newspaper El Tiempo in which users can report crime. Since crime is often not reported to police, this map can be very useful in identifying the most troubled spots in the city. Of course, this approach is highly biased, as only people in better economic situation have access to the Internet, thus crime in the poorest neighborhoods is not reflected. Still, it is only an example of how social media can bring maps alive with all sort of information.

Concerning the lack of access to the internet, that's why most of the projects in Egypt and in more developing countries use ushahidi which enable people to send their reports via text messages which is more accessible and easier.


María Fernanda Carvallo's picture

Jorge, la estratificación que realizó Colombia me parece una buena estrategia para que el pago de servicios sea de manera progresiva de acuerdo a las características de las zonas geográficas. No obstante, una preocupación que surge es si dentro de esta estratificación se ven afectados los grupos más vulnerables. Por ejemplo, en el caso de la Ciudad de México, hay colonias que son clasificadas como zonas residenciales pero que comparten el territorio con viviendas desarrolladas en asentamientos irregulares, que al ser incluidas y regularizadas con los servicios pueden quedar bajo la categoría territorial de una zona residencial. O bien dentro de las mismas Delegaciones (municipios) y al interior de las colonias, hay viviendas que no comparten las mismas oportunidades y recursos y que se les aplica el pago de servicios de la misma forma. Ante esta problemática han surgido estrategias para que la estratificación sea reconsiderada por medio de los amparos ante el pago de las tarifas de servicios. En la experiencia de Colombia, ¿se han enfrentado a una problemática similar? ¿Cómo lo han solucionado?

Jorge Bela's picture

Hola María Fernanda, al ser la manzana la unidad de análisis, este tipo de problemas se minimizan, aunque no se eliminan del todo. En este sentido la estratificación tiene un efecto retroalimentador, pues refuerza que las personas de un mismo nivel adquisitivo se agrupen. Las personas de bajo nivel económico no pueden pagar los sobreprecios en los servicios, por lo que tampoco pueden habitar en edificios ubicados en manzanas de estratos altos aunque encuentren una vivienda económica. En Todo caso, los afectados pueden presentar un recurso administrativo, por una o varias manzanas afectadas, siempre alegando que no se cumplieron los requisitos y la metodología establecidos. En ningún caso se podrá cambiar la clasificación de una vivienda.

What a great initiative

I was very interested in reading this week’s articles. They made me think about one of the most common debates around mapping exercises, which is if they are a mean to an end or an end by themselves.

In my own personal opinion I am tended to think they should be more a mean to an end, like for determining subsidies as in the case of Bogota, or to map crime and other events as the Cairo article reports. But, then there are initiatives like the one in Mumbai, Cape Town and Mexico that remind us that mapping can also be an end, because through the mapping exercise there is a process of community empowerment that promotes cohesion and joint work. In these cases the process itself is a really important outcome.

Tariq Toffa's picture

I love the idea of ‘mapping for good’ as per Harassmap. This can be useful as a set of coordinates to maintain some purpose & integrity to the exercise, so that the map doesn’t become the new ‘art’ for architects, a new kind of product in case nothing actually gets built.

Cape Town has something very similar to Harassmap called VPUU — — for mapping violence. I think these are all brilliant initiatives. They are all different aspects & potentials of the mapping paradigm; because one of the real benefits of mapping is its ability to reveal and to synthesise different kinds of complex information: mapping for good (Egypt), mapping to locate need (Mexico City), mapping to consolidate existing resources and social structures (Mumbai / Cape Town).

Some questions that arise through looking comparatively at these projects:

How could one compare the incorporation of the informal into the formal (such as in Curitiba), to more informal bottom up approaches which build alliances with more formal structures and organisations (such as in Mumbai / Cape Town)?

To what extent has the economic organization of the built environment for subsidizing service delivery created/worsened economic segregation? Inner city neighbourhoods in particular tend to break out of the box as they can also be very mixed-income despite the similarities in built form.

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