Generally speaking, I have a hard time getting excited about the much-vaunted “digital revolution” in cities. I’ll admit that transit apps, crowdsourcing, and kiss maps have gone a long way to make life more convenient, or to make our experiences in cities more fun or even meaningful. I do not mean to disparage this, as it is important. But these things have not done enough to convince me of their ability to radically change life in cities. Until recently, it’s all struck me as slightly elitist, and a little superficial.
Here in Mumbai, however, I’ve started to think otherwise. Enormous sections of Mumbai’s population will have a smartphone in their hand long before they will own a computer (or, as someone recently pointed out to me, even a toilet). Government data and information is still closely guarded and shielded from the public, and the open data revolution doesn’t exactly show many signs of imminent upsurge. And let’s face it, many government bodies simply fail to properly deliver necessary information and services to the population. In a context like this, it struck me, digital technology could actual hold the truly democratizing and revolutionary potential that many in the West often claim for it.
Chetan Temkar is the person who really brought this to my attention when he spoke as part of a recent Meet in the Middle panel about participatory planning. Temkar is the founder of Smart Shehar (Smart City), a mobile downloads firm that is best known for its transportation applications that help Mumbaikars navigate the city’s complex and confusing bus and train systems. When he went to develop the application in 2010, he discovered barriers to information so great that he and his team were forced to personally, physically visit every single bus stop in Mumbai to gather the necessary information.
He sees mobile applications and crowdsourcing as two of the most exciting and democratizing forces to have hit the country, not only for their potential to improve people’s lives on a day-to-day basis, but also for the political influence they could begin to build. “Just ten or fifteen years back, the cell phone in India was a rich man’s device . . . now you can get a cheap Android phone with GPS, Bluetooth, and Wi-Fi, and 3G for 3000 rupees [around US$60]. It’s now affordable for everyone in the city. We have never had this situation where people could be connected. The cheapest computer will cost you 15,000 rupees, and that’s useable only in a certain place, you can’t move around. This is now a phone that you have in your hand—you have access to data and information,” he said.
Smart Shehar is now beginning to collect information about people’s commuting patterns, for instance, among other data. “Now we want to start to create documentation, and we can have documentation outside of the government so it is more transparent. So any NGO can start to use this data, then you can also use it for elections. So it creates a very exciting environment,” he said.
Temkar isn’t the only one to see this opportunity for systematic shift. Digital strategy consultant Sam Lockwood, who happened to speak on another Meet in the Middle panel later that week, has been working in digital innovation and public participation within various sectors in both developed and developing countries.
“There are distinct differences between these things in the developed and the developing world, and they reflect the differences in government processes,” he told me when I asked him what potential he sees here in Mumbai. Apps in the West tend to augment or make things convenient or efficient within processes that already work, he said. “But what I see in developing markets is the sort of fundamental processes that the technology is able to almost kind of bypass—government and institutions—and that’s where it becomes really powerful, I think.”
Lockwood sees mobile technology as a three-pronged key towards creating powerful change in places like urban India, by helping provide access to otherwise unobtainable services like money transfers or e-health; opportunities for advocacy, like we witnessed during the Arab Spring; and transparency of information and data.
Though most of these initiatives are happening organically through people on the ground, governments can play key roles in facilitating the process by knowing when and where to deregulate, and standardizing and prioritizing their policies around data collection and dissemination. Said Lockwood, “The opportunity is huge. But I don’t think the path to innovation is necessarily in terms of the evolution of the technology. The opportunity is more around the forms of coordination and organization to really release its potential.”
As for Mumbai, Lockwood suggests a community organizing platform such as Nation Builder to help integrate grassroots, NGO, and crowdsourced data into formal institutional structures to help planning and other processes tune in to the reality happening on the ground in both formal an informal sectors of the city. “The primary question I have is: how can digital system be used to better mediate public participation and empower democratic processes. This should be at the heart of planning for resilient and equitable Mumbai,” he concluded in his talk at the Lab. “Without having united information strategy from all sectors, no planning decisions can be truly informed and equitable.”
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Photo: courtesy of CGIAR Climate, used by permission under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-Share-Alike 2.0 Generic License