SDI Goes Google

by James Tayler

By Louise Cobbett and Jack Makau, SDI Secretariat 

With the Internet cementing it’s place as the gateway for any – and all- information, it makes sense for the communities of urban poor in Slum Dwellers International to use this as a tool to their advantage. SDI has been working on a platform to integrate the significant amount of data gathered by communities living in slum and shack settlements in the 36 countries. The platform is built on top of Google maps and is available on SDI’s website (

The SDI platform not only provides a focal point for the data – but also demonstrates the breadth of SDI’s network. For every community that does a profile, the settlement gets identified and marked on Google maps and has a corresponding information box containing the relevant information.  By having all the information hosted in one universally accessible place, it also allows the SDI affiliates to see the progress being made by their counterparts.

On a separate level, it also solves the basic problem of identifying informal settlements in a manner in which is usable by governments, as often there will be confusion over where one settlement starts and another ends. By the community identifying their settlements, there is accurate representation of the individual settlements and their communities on the ground.

In March 2010, the SDI Google maps platform went online, with initial data sets from South Africa, Namibian, Zimbabwe and Kenya. SDI is working on having more SDI affiliate countries come in. At the same time, work has commenced to deepen the functionality of the platform to capture mapping, biometric and socio-economic data up to the household level. This second phase is to be pioneered by the Indian SDI affiliate and by the University of Cape Town Social Justice Programme in conjunction with the South African SDI affiliate.

Moving Cautiously
As the slum dwellers movement takes its advocacy to cyber space, it is careful that the technological advances do not overshadow the reasons why communities collect data on their settlements.  Across the SDI network, slum dweller federations carry out enumerations in their settlements. These exercises identify 100% of the household in settlements and data that is useful to achieve their upgrading efforts. The enumerations are used by the communities to engage in discussions about slum upgrading with their respective local authorities. Within the communities the enumerations serve to bring the community together in a singular activity, which is requisite of any settlement wide activity.

The technology improvements are complimentary to the pragmatic data use at the community level. This was concluded at the meeting to launch the site held in SDI’s secretariat office in Cape Town this March. The meeting was attended by the affiliates from Kenya, Namibia, Zimbabwe and South Africa. The individual countries have different levels of experience with mapping in the enumeration process.

Different levels – one standard
A key reason for the development of the Google functionality within SDI was to consolidate disparate data sets. The point in this is that collectively SDI probably has the largest database of slum data – including location, household details and understanding of development efforts. The bringing together of individual country databases gives potency to SDI’s global advocacy efforts aimed at building a multilateral environment that places slum dwellers within the upgrading discourse. An environment where governments in countries where SDI works, have the affirmation that engaging directly with slum dwellers to do slum upgrades, is something that works and is done by many other governments.

During the development of the platform, the disparities in data collected was appreciated and the platform built to be the lowest common denominator between the data sets from different countries. In the case of Namibia, the slum dweller federation more than any other, works within rural but urbanizing environments. As a result there is limited access to computers and technology. The SDI affiliate has nevertheless taken inventory of all informal settlement in the country jointly with government in a program called Community Land Information Program (CLIP). As the CLIP moves into its second phase, which is to conduct enumerations of all the informal settlements, it is clear that there is an opportunity to include the mapping into the project.

For the Zimbabwean affiliate, Dialogue on Shelter, the enumerations were viewed as a tool to negotiate for land and interest around housing for the slum dwellers federation.  After a while, it became apparent that by conducting the enumerations without the participation of the local authorities, the legitimacy of the information was challenged. This was compounded by  a focus only on federation members and not the community as a whole. As a result, there was a move to have wider consultations with the key stakeholders. Prior to starting any enumerations, the relevant players are drawn into the process, and have expanded their focus to become city-wide rather than federation based.
Dialogue on Shelter and the federation conduct a profile of the settlement before an enumeration. The profiles, which are less in depth than an enumeration allow for the broader issues of the community to come to light, and therefore put the enumeration in context.  They use sketch mapping to identify spatial issues.

The Kenyan federation have inventoried and mapped out Nairobi’s 183 slums. It also allowed them to keep track of the issues, such as road, river, or railway reserves. The information that the communities had gathered, gave them the distinct advantage of being able to pre-empt any eviction actions. The critical point about enumerations and profiles is that they are pre-emptive rather than reactionary to evictions. The old American football motto holds true – the best defense is a good offence.

The inventory allowed the Kenyan Alliance to examine the political issues in the settlements, and with a simple reflection on the riots in the slums as a result of the election of 2007. It is clear why such information would be important. In addition to which, it also provides them with a history of attempted evictions, when and why they were attempted.

The enumeration process in South African begins when a community comes to the NGO with a plan and CORC (Community Organisation Resource Centre) then decides where and how it is appropriate to interact, and then approaches the relevant authorities. In the settlement of Joe Slovo, the community drafted the questions and took the lead to ensure that the questionnaire reflected their needs. Workshops are then conducted to find those interested in the community development process.

So why do we enumerate? An enumeration is one of the single most powerful tools that an organized community can have. It serves as a starting point for negotiations with the relevant local authorities, and enables the communities to come to the negotiations with priorities and a voice.

The city wide profiles that have been conducted by various SDI affiliates has meant that the communities, armed with their information that the local authorities need, are able to direct the funds to the most desperate sections rather than simply being passive.

Both of these points mean that the government would be using information gathered by the communities and as a result – the most crucial aspect is that communities become part of the development process rather than a recipient of the action. They are able to set the agenda for development at citywide scale rather than responding to it.

Ultimately, the enumerations and settlement profiles are proactive. Rather than having to respond to the misdirection of funds or an eviction threat – the communities are able highlight to the officials where development efforts should start, and are able to start negotiating their tenure rights before an eviction notice is ever signed. The factor that is impossible to ignore is that once communities are organized and proactive – they are in a far better position to dictate the terms of development; the local authorities will do a better job armed with the information; subsequent collaborative development is of better quality for cheaper and the community is an active participant in the entire process.