Crowdsourcing the slums: a breath of fresh air?

November 24th, 2011 by

microtask_breath_fresh_airWhen we consider humanity’s great achievements, the humble toilet does not usually rate a mention (unless to describe where the greatest failures ended up).

Yet in terms of making our lives better, sanitation – and the way it eradicated annoying things like the plague – is actually pretty important (don’t get me wrong, it’s no iPad or anything).

Which is why it stinks that so many people in the world do not have access to it.

Intrepid PhD student Mark Iliffe has been doing his best to do something about this in the slums of Kenya and Tanzania, using – you guessed it – crowdsourcing.

How do you say “where’s the WC?”
Mark’s scheme, The Tandale Mapping Project, aims to map sanitation services in the fast-growing, chronically under-resourced urban slums of Dar es Salaam. Armed only with integrity, an OpenStreetMap interface and (presumably) a really good Swahili dictionary, Mark’s team crowdsourced geo-located data from Tandale residents and students. As well as tapping into local knowledge, Mark claims that this approach” allows the community themselves to take ownership of the project”.

Results so far are impressive. In just a few weeks, residents have produced detailed maps of toilets and water access points across Tandale. The interface (clearly inspired by the famous Ushahidi platform) also allows residents to report sanitation problems via SMS and web forms. I guess now it’s up to governments and NGOs to actually do something with all that data.

My only issue with the (obviously worthy) Tandale project is what happens after the well-funded Western PhD student has packed-up his GPS and gone home? In other words, is the project sustainable?

Mark tackled this criticism in a recent blog post. He argues that by working with locals right from the start he’s created a “small nucleus of highly engaged people” who will “infect the community from the inside.” Let’s hope so because I’ve got a feeling that Mark Iliffe’s vision and enthusiasm has the potential to spread the civic crowdsourcing bug a whole lot further.