Map Your Slum — There’s An App For That

One exciting theme at the intersection of big data, planning, and smart cities is mapping, and the ability of policy-makers, interest groups, planners, and engaged citizens to use new data and software to use maps to tell stories in ever-changing ways. A recent Atlantic CityLab article introduces another new “free, open-source platform” called Open Reblock, which offers people living in informal, unplanned slums in the developing world an easy way to map their communities and use these maps to argue for smarter housing arrangements, infrastructure placement, and other planning needs.

Examples of “reblocking” through the new open-source platform

Open Reblock’s mission of “helping communities put themselves on the map,” as one Arizona State University researcher who worked on the project put it, is compelling. Spreading free, simple mapping platforms around the world has the potential to empower and encourage better city planning. Open Reblock also promises to counter the perception that slums are an “unsolvable problem” that need to be razed and rebuilt from the ground up, by illustrating in new ways that incremental changes to existing structures can make a big difference for things like public health and access to roadways.

Still, Open Reblock could fall into some of the traps that have doomed past smart city projects — and planning efforts before them — becoming another technology imposed on a community from the outside, and creating a problem in search of a solution. Though the platform’s developers acknowledge the need for community input, three of the four development partners are US-based institutions. The article also explains that the “only input that’s required for Open Reblock is a good-quality map with details on each property,” but this seemingly simple premise presupposes that communities are mapped to begin with, a problem for many slums. And if the community needs to be mapped in the first place, is a digital platform the best solution? The opportunity to easily manipulate blocks on a digital platform has some appeal, but begs the question of whether similar goals could be accomplished at a lower cost, and with more tangible engagement, through the types of physical mapping and modeling exercises planners have done with communities for years. Physical mapping would also have the benefit of accessibility and transparency to the vast majority of participants who will not be able to make sense of Open Reblock’s “algorithm to identify the least disruptive reorganization of a cluster of slum blocks.” Mapping is an important issue in communities across the world, but there seem to be many gaps between the needs of Open Reblock’s target communities and the service the platform provides.

Preparing for urban growth in the developing world is one of the most serious planning challenges of the day, and technology will certainly be part of the solution. Empowering people to tell their own stories, and make the case for how to continue to build their own cities, through mapping platforms sounds like a strategy that combines all the best smart city strategies. However, at least in this case, the “smart” solution raises more questions than answers.