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Scientific American: Share the Wealth: New Urban Poverty Atlases Now Provide Data to Slum Dwellers

Published 08/18/2011 by Global Communities

Share the Wealth: New Urban Poverty Atlases Now Provide Data to Slum Dwellers

A nonprofit works to get information about the lack of health, water and sanitation services into the hands not just of the government but of slum residents as well.
This article originally ran in Scientific American
By Larry Greenemeier

Economic opportunity has always been a big part of the allure of urban life, yet most cities are at least pockmarked by areas of extreme poverty. Often the scope of the problem eludes government agencies as well as the impoverished communities themselves. Poverty atlases that map the extent of privation have existed for decades as a means to alert urban leaders to areas lacking basic services, such as water, electricity and sanitation. More recently, however, groups are looking to deliver this information beyond bureaucrats, going straight to the residents in an effort to empower them to take charge of devising and implementing long-term solutions to their problems.
Since 2007 nonprofit CHF International has been mapping urban poverty in areas of India and Africa through a program called Slum Communities Achieving Livable Environments with Urban Partners (SCALE-UP) (pdf). “There isn’t a lot of granular information on poverty and slums in the cities we’re working in,” says Brian English, country director of slum upgrading, urbanization and climate change initiatives in India for CHF, which was founded in 1952 as the Foundation for Cooperative Housing to provide affordable homes for low-income families in rural and urban America.
CHF’s goal in mapping slums is to provide a more complete picture of why poverty exists in certain areas and how conditions can be improved. For now, SCALE-UP, with the help of about $9 million in funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, focuses on three cities in India—Bangalore, Nagpur and Pune—as well as three in Ghana—its capital Accra and its twin port cities Sekondi and Takoradi. Some mapping work has also begun in Haiti.
Data deficit
There are several reasons why information about slum neighborhoods may be lacking. Often, when a local government designates an area as a slum it has certain obligations to that locale, such as providing access to health care, water and sanitation services. “So until the government is ready to accept their obligations to provide services to these populations they won’t collect any details on them or include them in official statistics,” English says. “Another way of saying this is policy makers often turn a blind eye to impermanent settlements.”
In addition, high-poverty neighborhoods are spreading faster than some cities can track them, particularly if local governments are relying on outdated census information to allocate resources. And government-conducted surveys on poverty in developing countries are often considered crude estimates because the poor’s mistrust of authorities skews honest answers, English adds.
Map making
In general, the first stage in creating a poverty atlas is to identify the communities that meet the criteria for being considered a slum and to plug their locations into geographic information system (GIS) software. (Esri’s ArcGIS has been used in Ghana, for example.) This enables CHF and its partners to analyze data and query conditions in a particular community. CHF is likewise using satellite imagery and survey-grade handheld GPS devices to ensure the accuracy of its maps. “We’ve also experimented with open-source platforms like Walking Papers that allow anyone to add detail to maps and upload them to wiki-style, Web-based OpenStreetMap,” English says.
Map Showing Relationship between Water Supply and Poverty Pockets in Accra
CHF’s Pune atlas, created with help from local NGO Maharashtra Social Housing and Action League (MASHAL), is one of the organization’s most complete projects, with 477 slum neighborhoods identified. CHF has also been able to drill down and perform socioeconomic surveys within 360 of the slums, according to English. Within those, 85,000 households have responded to a questionnaire, representing roughly 430,000 individuals. To get this more detailed information, CHF broke each slum down into clusters of 25 households and asked a volunteer from each one to gather information concerning the people living in their household. For example, households were asked if they had their own toilet, used a public toilet (and whether it was free) or defecated in the open.
Defining poverty
Knowing, however, that the wheels of government often turn slowly, CHF also shared the information with the residents themselves. “We gave the volunteers from each household who collected the data summary statistics that they could bring back to their communities,” English says. The idea was to enable households to better understand their communal problems and self-organize in an effort to improve their conditions.
In one case in Pune, a group of households sharing information learned that the husbands in their community were drinking heavily and then abusing their wives. They also determined that the majority of the liquor was coming from a single store, which they were later able to shut down to help alleviate the problem, according to English. About 85 projects—constructing drainage pipelines, setting up classes for school dropouts and establishing a library for women, to name a few—have been implemented in Pune as a result of information-sharing efforts.
A distinct characteristic of SCALE-UP is its broad definition of poverty. In Ghana urban poverty has traditionally been a measure almost exclusively of income. CHF’s poverty map for Sekondi–Takoradi, the country’s third-largest urban area, takes into account access to housing; room and housing density levels; solid-waste services; sanitation and water; and income, says Ishmael Adams, acting country director for CHF in Ghana. The Sekondi–Takoradi study (pdf), published in February 2010 with help from the Sekondi–Takoradi Metropolitan Assembly, found that in one of the slum areas studied, among 400 houses there is only one house with a toilet. The rest of the 9,000 residents share a public latrine built in 1958.
The poverty atlas generated significant interest from the mayor of Sekondi–Takoradi, according to Adams, who adds that data in the poverty atlas was used to prepare the city’s current Medium Term Development Plan. “Because of CHF’s poverty atlas, and the bright light it has shed on several deprived slums, over 30 new projects are now in the works to support the development of the most in-need areas,” he says. This includes the construction of water and sanitation facilities at Ngyersia, Kojokrom, Kwesimintsim and New Takoradi—all slums in the Sekondi–Takoradi metropolis.
“This project is not just about Ghana nor is it just about India,” Adams says. “This is an approach that is going to have to be taken around the world, and many other similar organizations are trying to do the same.”
Plotting better cities
Of course, CHF International is not the only organization to create urban poverty atlases. The United Way of New York City and the Community Service Society of New York created a map of that city in 2008 (pdf). The U.S. Census Bureau has a map of the country based on 2005 census data, whereas the World Bank has a comprehensive series of maps for countries worldwide (pdf).
“The power of this project is that the data is not just extracted and put in presentations for policymakers—it’s also given back to the communities themselves and used to empower them,” English says. “We tell them where to push in their local governments and if there is no place to push, we tell them how to mobilize their own resources to do this.” Slums are not the result just of urbanization but also of failed policies and practices of marginalization and exclusion of the poor, he adds, “so it is quite possible to not have slums although it’s hard for cities to imagine it.”