Date Published: Aug. 2, 2017, 12:38 p.m.
he initiative 'connecting the disconnected’ was launched in 2014 and is led by the Indian NGO CURE and supported by the Metropolis Network over a period of three years until 2017. It is designed to empower the people to connect to their city government, and between themselves in order to improve their living conditions and environment. The main goal of the project is to use mobile technologies to increase the participation of marginalized communities living in slums in the decision making process at the municipal government level. The initiative is in this sense a Smart Project for the ‘less smart’ and the less well-connected segments of society and it seeks to reimagine how the poor and marginalized can be partners in the process of city development. The pilot is being tested in 15 low-income settlements representing over 8,000 households (nearly 50,000 people). CURE is capitalizing on the mobile and other social media technologies and skills available among the poor people to implement a citywide slum-upgrading program. The project uses mobile media technologies to build “new commons” and a digital interface between the people and the municipality to achieve four things:generate people’s data on the availability, access and quality of municipal services in their areas;simplify, analyse and share the data simultaneously with the city officials and all households in the neighbourhood;determine community and city priorities and neighbourhood level solutions;promote shared implementation of sustainable slum upgrading solutions.The use of smart tools will also address challenges of exclusion, micro designing, variance, institutional coordination, and tracking and measuring change. If successful, the outcomes of the pilot will be up-scaled across Agra’s 432 settlements and replicated in other Indian cities.
Agra is a city of 1.7 million people located in the state of Uttar Pradesh, India. The city is of historic and cultural importance, mainly because of its three world heritage sites among which the Tajmahal. This makes the city of Agra one of India’s most popular touristic centres. Agra has also been an important commercial centre of the State and has many small scale and household industries. Being just 200 km from the India’s capital, Delhi, Agra is easily accessed by road and railways.
Despite being a city of historical importance, most of the metropolitan area is underserved. The city has a Master Plan, yet much of Agra is growing organically. Nearly half the city’s population (48.8%) reportedly lives in unserved, informal and low-income settlements. In fact, there are 432 such settlements in Agra (Slum Free City Plan of, Agra, 2011). Among the poor who live in them, 87% belong to Backward and Scheduled Caste communities, living below the national poverty line. Agra’s slum dwellers are largely Hindu communities (82%) with 17% population being Muslim.
Slum settlements of Agra have very poor access to municipal services: Nearly one-third of the settlements are without municipal piped water supply and just 60% households have taps at home. While most houses (78%) have private toilets, these are unconnected to sewerage and/or proper discharge systems, and 17% of the people defecate openly.
The Centre for Urban and Regional Excellence (CURE) is a development non-governmental organization. It collaborates with slum communities and local governments to implement processes of slum upgrading and sustainable poverty reduction. Specifically, CURE mobilizes low-income communities to plan and implement innovative solutions that will improve the quality of their living. CURE has been working in the city of Agra since 2005, supporting the city government to do five things:
CURE has been active in Agra since 2005 with the aim to improve the quality of life of the people and to achieve two main objectives: make the city slum-free and build resilient communities. CURE began its work after the municipality made a request for support to USAID and Cities Alliance with the preparation of a City Development Strategy designed to integrate slums within the city’s overall development plans. In parallel, a community-led, ‘in-situ’ slum-upgrading pilot was implemented in a low-income settlement, Kuchpura. In this context, CURE mapped the city’s slum settlements on GIS based on the city’s property tax map, and generated socio-economic data on households and the state of municipal services. These informed the Citywide Slum Upgrading Plan and strategy and helped forecast a budget and timeline. Agra leveraged the necessary funds (US$11 million) through various government schemes for upgrading 17 slum settlements in the city’s core area, Tajganj. The municipality implemented the upgrading projects with the support of CURE and organised groups of slum dwellers. The slum upgrading was made possible thanks to a formal, strong and trusting relationship the different stakeholders forged over the project period.
Background. The Smart pilot project ‘connecting the disconnected’ was conceived in the context of an urgent national mission Rajiv Avas Yojna (Mission for Affordable Housing) launched in 2013, that aimed to make Indian cities slum free in 5 years and to do so by engaging citizens in the planning and upgrading of their own neighbourhoods. CURE pointed to the need of integrating technology in order to accelerate the planning and participation processes when considering the upscaling of local projects.
CURE is convinced that technology can help achieve scale in inclusive development strategies and minimise the time and physical efforts necessary to engage the communities at different stages of the process. The organisation believes that SMART tools and ‘out of the box’ ideas can help connect the ‘disconnected’, and deliver services based on their needs without compromising on the principle of participation. Mobile media technologies not only have the potential of reaching far out, but are also prevalent among residents of the communities and their technicalities can reinforce the processes of city-people interactions for the benefit of all.
Goals. The initiative ‘connecting the disconnected’ was launched in 2014 and is led by the Indian NGO CURE and supported by the Metropolis Network over a period of three years, until 2017. It is designed to empower the people to connect to their city government, and between themselves in order to improve their living conditions and environment. The main goal of the project is to use mobile technologies to increase the participation of marginalized communities living in slums in the decision making process at the municipal government level. The initiative is in this sense a Smart Project for the ‘less smart’ and the less well-connected segments of society and it seeks to reimagine how the poor and marginalized can be partners in the process of city development. The project uses mobile media technologies to build the “new commons” and a digital interface between the people and the city to achieve four things:
Globally, the use of SMART tools will help address challenges of exclusion, micro designing, variance, institutional coordination, and tracking and measuring change. Concretely, the pilot, in its initial phase have two clear goals: (i) accelerating the participation of low-income communities, particularly the excluded groups in the planning and development of their neighbourhoods; (ii)
up scaling the intervention of municipal services in all the settlements of Agra to achieve rapid reduction of service-level poverty.
Scope. The pilot is being tested in 15 low-income settlements clustered within Agra’s Municipal Corporation (ANN) Tajganj IT (Information Technology) zone. There are over 8,000 households (nearly 50,000 people) living in these settlements. CURE is capitalizing on the mobile and other social media technologies and skills available among the poor people to implement a citywide slum-upgrading program (see map). If successful, the outcomes of the pilot will be up-scaled across Agra’s 432 settlements and replicated in other Indian cities.
Main expected result: strengthen Citizen-Municipality dialogue. CURE’s knowledge of communities and city governments in general and of Agra in particular is at the core of the application for smart community building. CURE understands that; (i) data and information conventionally move from bottom (communities) to top (government), hardly any information flows from the city-administration to the people; (ii) community-city information sharing is usually in the form of complaints; and (iii) even when information actually flows in both directions there is still very little space for real participation. In other words, information flows are rarely translated into visible and graspable actions that enable citizen participation in the management of urban services and development plans. The smart community application will be designed in a way that problems and solutions – once prioritised by the inhabitants – will be translated into governmental response and implemented on the ground in partnership with the communities. The main innovation of the pilot project is thus the creation of a community-city dialogue that goes beyond the exchange of information to achieve real partnership by bringing in information technologies.
Methodology. In order to reach these goals, the project moves along two streams: community and IT solutions. The two unfold in parallel and complement each other in creating solutions and scale, meaning that the project makes use of both modern mobile technologies and interaction methods in order to reach a wider audience.
The application. The project will aim at creating a ‘smart-community application’ that shall primarily use basic mobile phones (and in a few cases smart phones, notebooks or tablets), elementary tools and simple skills prevalent in such communities. It shall interface with the local government’s e-governance systems in simple dashboards with spatially linked attributes for each settlement. The application shall allow citizens to upload their problems, priorities, and potential solutions to address these, and bring together diverse groups in the community to act upon the problem in the framework of the cooperation established between the city and the community. CURE shall help the city interpret the information flowing from the bottom to top and translate it into implementable plans backed by resources.
 ANN has trifurcated the city into 3 zones, each managed by an IT cell. IT zones are spatially demarcated areas that enable people living within to connect to municipal services - digitally such as pay their bills, lodge complaints etc. These zones have been established as part of the e governance reform agenda envisaged for Municipal authorities under Government of India’s national urban renewal mission.
The pilot project unfolds in four phases.
PHASE 1: Household survey to map digital inclusion. In the first phase, a rapid assessment to understand access to mobiles, ownership patterns, types of mobiles, user skills by gender, age, caste and class was conducted by CURE in two settlements using focus group discussions. The aim was to determine the most appropriate, cost-effective and user-friendly way of implementing the pilot in the communities. The appraisal found a very high-level penetration of mobile phones at the household level - nearly every person in the communities had access to a mobile device. However, only one-third of the people – mostly men – actually possessed the mobile phone. Only one in five phones was a smart phone. It was also observed that user skills were very basic - confined to sending and receiving SMSs, making and receiving phone calls and taking photos. The survey had significant takeaways for building the application: (i) the application must be designed to work on ‘un-smart’ devices owned by technologically un-savvy people to bridge the technological divide; (ii) it must also address the question of how to provide an affordable (free or subsidised) and adapted service to increase participation of the poorest people – in other words, achieve inclusion. A more detailed household survey in all 15 slums is now underway to capture the complete bandwidth of hardware and human capabilities.
PHASE 2: Developing the application with adapted technology. The second phase of the project consists of developing the application reflecting the learnings of phase one. Since the most popular options (android/ IOS based applications and internet based applications) were seemingly unfit for the task (needing at least a smart phone to operate), CURE began to search for alternative technology options which could work as a universal platform for all types of mobiles. After careful evaluation of different tools and mediums (see graphic below) the project team has opted for a partnership with a small private service provider, U2opia, to provide an affordable and efficient platform for the application.
U2opia Mobiles is a small startup capable of providing both an affordable and efficient platform for the Smart project. The platform works on USSD (Unstructured Supplementary Service Data), using architecture similar to that of SMS, but used for a more complex two-way data flow. The caller goes through a digital menu, after which the application displays the information as required.
PHASE 3: Executing the project through community processes. The third phase of the pilot project involves the application of the ICT to the community processes – creating the choice architecture. This involves using the tools to bring larger numbers of people together in a community, particularly marginal groups, building consensus on solutions, organizing collectives and amplifying their voice and negotiating skills. The pilot will run on an uncomplicated message-polling system; citizens will receive a code from the service provider (USSD) which will open the application when dialled. The first step of the application shall be aimed at prioritising existing problems. In the second step, users will be able to suggest best solutions, and/or new ideas. Technological move (polling, crowd sourcing, etc.) will be interspersed with community meetings, focus group discussions, brainstorms, roundtables, etc., before relaying the information to the city servers. The platform for people-municipal interactions will need to be developed with the aim to translate ideas into implementable projects. The poorest households and/or technologically excluded people will be included in the program by accessing retail service providers – cyber cafes, mobile repair shops etc.
The Interface processes shall include the following:
Collaborating with mobile network operators. Taking the project to other cities requires the participation of mobile network operators. Their commitment to the project would enable the use of their networks, bringing in economies of scale and cost-effectiveness. The initiative could then be envisaged as a commercial model. This requires serious negotiation with the companies addressing business prospects in order to achieve both cost-effective and inclusive solutions.
System upgrades and improvements. The pilot processes shall help develop a robust interface system. Improvements and upgrades will be made to optimize the system load and for augmenting usability of these systems by the communities. They are also necessary for building an information database for the community with appropriate responses to frequently asked questions. However, it is important to note, that this would not be a ‘technology alone’ solution: the participation of citizens will not only be encouraged through social media and mobile phones and other technical devices, but also through the use of participatory tools and processes, such as focus group discussions, door-to-door visits etc.
The three-year pilot is funded through a broad range of sources. While Metropolis, the global network of metropolitan cities, is contributing to the actual cost of developing and testing the application during the pilot phase and disseminating the results to a global audience, other resources also contribute to the implementation of the project. First, a federal fund was leveraged by the city with the support of CURE, and is now being used for implementing upgrading solutions in the selected settlements. Second, municipal spending on IT systems and operations in the city are important complements to the project. Third, donors (Indian philanthropic foundations and corporate agencies such as Arghyam and Apollo Tires, Cities Alliance and USAID), and International charities (Frank Water) supporting the projects implemented by CURE in Agra may provide additional resources for this particular initiative.
An estimated 8,000 poor households living in 15 slums of Tajganj and the key implementing agency - the Agra Municipal Corporation (ANN) – are expected to benefit from the initiative. The pilot project shall reach all 432 slums of Agra – nearly half of the city’s population, as well as other Indian cities that would build similar initiatives into their developmental processes. The project may also be adapted by international partners of Metropolis and municipalities worldwide. Concretely, the pilot project shall deliver the following results:
The results of the project will be measured through the following set of indicators: speed and scale of settlements and populations reached with upgrading solutions; reduced effort in making communities participate in terms of number of hours and people required for facilitation/group training and increased community group membership; number of projects implemented in partnership between the community and the city.
The project encounters two major difficulties: First, the civil society in Agra is weak and unorganised. This is particularly true for low-income settlements, where community organisations are not present or rudimentary, and face contestation and conflicts around resource-sharing. This provides a difficult context for the implementation of a project that is based on the mobilisation and participation of the citizens. The challenge is partially overcome thanks to CURE’s longstanding involvement in the communities, as well as the existence of urban collectives and associations that were facilitated by CURE to represent the needs and demands of the inhabitants and to facilitate links between the city administration and the citizens. On the long term, however, CURE will need to transfer its role as a facilitator to a federation of slum dwellers at the city level, which may prove challenging.Second, the low and very basic access to technology and low technical skills of the inhabitants mean that not all latest technologies/instruments can be included to this platform.
The feasibility study and capacities evaluation conducted by CURE was crucial for the success of the projects. In fact, technology is often imagined as being inclusive by nature. However, early results from the project show that technology is biased towards men, the literate, the young, and already included and empowered inhabitants. These findings motivated the development of face-to-face and non-technology based mobilisation from the very beginning of the project. The generally basic user skills also made it necessary to present information as light and simple as possible. What seems to be an obstacle on the first sight, revealed to be an advantage when transferring the different project elements to other contexts and cities. In fact, the application is of universal character as it is hosted on a commonly available platform and built on technology options available to poor communities (SMS and mobile phones). It will therefore need very little customisation when being upgraded to another city or settlement.
The main condition for the transferability of the project to other contexts, however, is the presence of civil society actors that can generate the longstanding footprint and relationship of trust that CURE entertains with all involved parties in Agra, and which enhances its credibility and visibility. Counting on a local, well-established and visible organization leading the project is in fact crucial for its success, and for reaching marginalized communities. In fact, the municipality should only approach private service providers once it has a clear understanding of the demand of the citizens and its own departments and the type of service or product to be developed. This is to make sure that the technology will be adapted to real needs and capacities of the people on the ground.
The second prerequisite for implementing the project in a different context is the creation of a common understanding shared by all stakeholders – city governments, planners, urban designers and architects, social development workers, etc. - of the need to integrate citizens and their needs into urban planning processes. This will facilitate systemic changes within municipalities and enhance a correspondence between municipal action and communities’ and individuals’ needs. In India, governmental institutions are increasingly agreeing on this vision, and seeking ways to engage with citizens. Correspondingly, citizen participation via mobile apps is picking up in the country, mainly through popular complaint systems and ‘selfie’ uploads. The particularity of the present project is to bring in the ‘unsmart’ and marginalised slum households into this process.