Introducing ‘Spoorthi’: A Spatial Data System for the Inclusive Cities Agenda in India

In March 2018, IT for Change kickstarted a community intervention project, ‘Spoorthi’, that aims to create a spatial data platform, train community youth to engage with it, and strengthen their claims-making capabilities. 
In this multi-part series, we map the project’s journey.

Part I: ‘Spoorthi’s’ First Open House Meeting

Many countries today, including India, are increasingly pinning their hopes on smart cities to streamline and optimize modern urban living. The idea of a smart city is based on networked devices and public amenity systems that use large volumes of real-time data and digital intelligence to deliver services, manage urban governance, and maintain law and order. Smart cities are part of a global trend of datafication, where national governments, civil society actors, and multinational organizations are increasingly turning to data to make critical development decisions.

However, the overwhelmingly top-down nature of these projects and the tight corporate control over digital intelligence produced within smart city networks, raises a host of concerns. For instance, how these projects will impact citizens’ rights, what concerns for privacy and surveillance emerge, what level of human discernment exists within such structures of technology, how accountability and responsiveness is ensured, and not least, about how participatory and inclusive such initiatives are, and if they can make room for, and lend themselves to, community-led action.

Data-enabled development, in itself, need not be a top-down managerial initiative or a misguided quest to find efficiency ‘fixes’ to urban living. There are plenty of examples about of pro-active, responsive, and accountable data-enabled initiatives, notably, the networked municipalities of Spain, where citizens are actively engaging with their civic authorities through an open source citizen engagement platform that facilitates hyper-local participatory democracy. Another example is that of Map Kibera in Kenya that has afforded a slum community in Nairobi the ability to effectively map and assess the state of public infrastructure in their geography and work towards development outcomes. Such efforts have successfully demonstrated that democratizing data and designing participatory processes can lead to communities having a greater say in their local development.

Recognizing the potential for bottom-up data initiatives, at IT for Change, we initiated a community-led model for data in a low-income neighborhood in the city of Bengaluru. A metropolis of wide contrasts and widening inequality, Bengaluru is India’s IT hub and has an advanced digital environment. As a pilot project based in the city, Spoorthi attempts to explore how those in the Bengaluru’s peripheries can be part of an IT initiative that can serve their interests best.

Through a grant received from the United Nations Democracy Fund (UNDEF), we are collaborating with two Bengaluru-based organizations — the Center For Study of Science, Technology And Policy (CSTEP) and the Association for Voluntary Action and Service (AVAS) — to explore the possibility of a community-owned and managed spatial data system that can be managed by the community towards achieving their development goals.

After conversations with our field partner, AVAS, we picked G.Baiyappanahalli in north Bengaluru, as the area of intervention. This locality was selected due to AVAS’ long-established history of working with the community and its youth, right from the time of its resettlement.

On March 17, 2017, Spoorthi had its first open house. We gathered at the Drishya Kalika Kendra in G.Baiyappanahalli with 54 men and women from the community.

Spoorthi’s first open house meeting held at Drishya Kalika Kendra in G.Baiyappanahalli

We introduced the project by talking about the need for communities to claim ownership of the data related to them. For example, in 2015, IT for Change had undertaken a participatory GIS audit at Thumbasoge village in Mysore. Here’s a video of how community leaders used GIS for social audit.

A screen grab of the GIS map in Thumbasoge that illustrates the status of civic amenities

Through this audit, community facilitators from the village created a GIS map, which illustrated the status of civic amenities, including street light and toilets. For instance, it tagged households that received multiple government subsidies for building toilets as well as those that received none, allowing the villagers to point out this mis-allocation of funds.

Similarly, we aimed to create a spatial database of the G. Baiyappanahalli locality, mapping the Water, Sanitation and Health (WASH) infrastructure and the community’s access to it. We proposed that this spatial database can be used by the community for claims-making in the WASH sector by linking it to online grievance redressal mechanisms in the city.

The need for strengthening claims-making is well-understood by this community. The G.Baiyappanahalli community was created as a result of an ad-hoc resettlement process in the 1980s, when migrant populations from five different parts of the city were relocated to the area. The resettlement site did not have adequate facilities for sanitation, drinking water, education, or transport. The community has since built strong internal governance mechanisms, partly as a response to state neglect. While some infrastructural issues still remain, in the past two decades, the community has witnessed significant improvements in its living conditions. However, the constant threat of eviction looms over their heads as many residents are yet to receive land right documents, legitimizing their claim to their homes.

Community leaders present at the open house could relate to the activity of claims-making through geo-mapping because their own negotiation with authorities for land rights in the 1980s had begun with old maps and land records. While they were receptive of the proposed work in the WASH sector, they also reminded us that identification of issues addressed by the project should be done in the larger context of the ongoing agitation for land rights.

There was an obvious skepticism about the effectiveness of our proposed online grievance redressal platform as the community had been disappointed with the ‘Swachh Bharat’ Abhiyan App — that promotes Indian government’s ambitious ‘Clean India’ mission. To address this, we proposed the strategy of working with officials and political representatives to take the initiative forward on the ground. Also, the spatial database and the integrated grievance redressal platform will need to be owned by the community itself to enable greater control over the process.

A discussion with community members

Additionally, to get a sense of the neighborhood and to understand the key social areas, access, and civic amenities, our team undertook a transect walk in the locality. During our walk, it became clear that since the inner lanes are too narrow for the Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board (BWSSB) trucks to enter, the community had to crowdfund and fix the broken or overflowing drains themselves. It is noteworthy that while urban poor communities are the most in need of public services, the mode of delivery or the technology employed to deliver these services often does not match the requirements. Our team felt the need to visibilize this lack of access to appropriate solutions and bring it to the notice of the concerned civic officials.

(left) The narrow inner lanes of G. Baiyappanahalli; (right) The community-managed water supply system

To address the water shortage resulting from its irregular and inadequate supply, the community has constructed and maintained borewells in the locality. The water from these borewells is used for washing and other non-drinking purposes. In the absence of extension of the Cauvery Water Supply Scheme, BWSSB’s prominent water supply system, to the locality, the drinking water needs of the community are met by purchasing purified borewell water from a nearby water purifying unit. While exact data on the Litres Per Capita per Day (LPCD) allocated to urban poor areas in Bangalore is not available, it is estimated that they receive only up to 40–45 LPCD by BWSSB, which falls significantly short of the 200 LPCD prescribed by the Bureau of Indian Standards. Many areas like CARP quarters, JP Nagar 5th Phase, Eshwar Nagar also remain underserved and unreached by the public agency as well. Through our spatial data platform, IT for Change, aims to highlight these inequalities in delivery of public goods and services.

Spoorthi’s first open house meeting and the transect walk gave us an overview of the social and physical infrastructure of the community and their prominent concerns. Over the course of the project, we will explore how priority civic issues can be taken up through data-based reflection, planning, and decision-making methods. After consulting the community leaders, we decided to hold an issue-prioritization session next, where men and women from the community can articulate the project’s focus areas.


Watch this space for more activity from Spoorthi and IT for Change.