Environment & Urbanization

World leading environmental and urban studies journal

Data tales – part three: the technological prowess of the urban poor

Antarin Chakrabarty
07 Nov 2022

Is the valuable technology expertise of the urban poor being overlooked? Guest blogger Antarin Chakrabarty calls for greater awareness using surprising (to some) examples from his work during an ambitious, state-wide slum upgrading programme.

These data tales again draw on real life examples from my work with Jaga Mission in Odisha (India). They show how technology – in its truest sense – is often misunderstood but is fundamental to the local knowledge and practical skills used in everyday life by the urban poor.

Unless we are like the wanderlust-stricken anthropologist Manomohan Mitra – the protagonist in Satyajit Ray's final film 'The Stranger' – we would not associate high-technology with what is normally described as local knowledge of the urban poor.

Sure, we love to involve community members in qualitative techniques such as participatory rural appraisal or community action planning, which were created specifically to ensure that the community does not get excluded from a technologically-heavy development process.

The true meaning of ‘technology’

While these methods are brilliant, they do tend to create an impression of the urban poor as being essentially unfamiliar with the use of modern technology and quantitative techniques. Of course, this has also to do with how the word ‘technology’ itself is understood and the images of complex machines, computers and gadgets that inevitably come to mind at any mention of the word. 

However, no matter how complex a supercomputer or a space station may be, the word ‘technology’ simply means ‘the application of scientific knowledge to solve practical problems’. 

And, ironically, an obvious, and often overlooked fact about the urban poor is that they are almost always technology experts. In fact, their lives and livelihoods are far more saturated with technology than middle- and upper-class millennials with their iPhones and laptops. 

The informal sector is a world filled with a mind-boggling variety of technical specialisations: masonry, welding, metalworking, motor vehicle repair, product fabrication, carpentry, electrical works, small-scale manufacturing, repair and maintenance of electronic gadgets, plumbing, HGV driving, cleaning, machine operation, gardening and landscaping, soil excavation, solid waste segregation, and small- and large-scale construction. I could go on and on... 

Problems solved

Each of these activities demonstrates the application of scientific knowledge to solve practical problems – whether it is in the specific mopping methods used by a domestic help to clean a dirty terrace, or the skill of an electrician to fix a water pump. 

There is near-zero failure rate. The mechanic WILL fix your car, the plumber WILL make water flow out of your tap again, the electrician WILL fix the leak in your air conditioner, the domestic help WILL make your floors sparkle. What kind of scientific knowledge and technological skill enables such a performance record?

And yet somehow, we development practitioners, who couldn't solve a fraction of the complex technical problems that the informal sector faces daily, feel that whenever we visit the homes of these ‘technical experts’, we assume ‘kindergarten-mode’ with our thick marker pens and colourful chart papers. We sit in circles and use diagrams (which make for the ‘cute’ community photos in donor reports) to ‘match’ what we assume is their level of comprehension. How sweetly ludicrous is that?

There is some serious cognitive dissonance going on here. The way we relate to the informal sector in their ‘professional sphere’ is totally different from the way we relate to them in their ‘habitation sphere’. The idiocy is ours.

Why we should never assume anything

Here’s another story to illustrate this peculiar situation. The Jaga Mission work involved the high-tech mapping of slums using drones which produced high-resolution imagery then used to create a GIS (geographic information system) database.

The mapping was quick and accurate, but as it was a new technology, the survey process also included manual field verification of a small sample of slum houses to satisfy revenue officials regarding its accuracy.

This was a new process even for the technology consultants, who were employing it to map slums at such a large scale for the first time. While the local residents, especially the children, always enjoyed witnessing the flight of the toy-like quadcopter drones, none of us expected them to have any understanding of the technology. It was challenging even for the GIS professionals operating the drones and preparing the databases, and definitely for the traditional cartographers and surveyors of the government revenue department. 

Nolia Sahi, a large, dense and extremely vibrant settlement of the migrant Nolia fishing community located on the coast of the Bay of Bengal in the city of Konark, was the first slum we surveyed. When we visited the slum for the field verification – the revenue official armed with his paper maps and tape measure, and yours truly armed with his laptop, open-source QGIS software and the high-resolution drone imagery – the community members, who had already enjoyed the ‘drone shows’, gathered around us in anticipation of fresh entertainment. 

Ever the enthusiastic ‘participatory planner’, I couldn’t resist showing the residents the drone images of their homes. I was a bit taken aback by the repeated requests of ‘zoom in’, ‘zoom out’, ‘pan it right’ and similar remarks coming from the men and women alike as they became engrossed in the image on my laptop screen.

Map orientation is a tricky affair and here were members of one of the poorest communities of Odisha effortlessly navigating to each other's homes in an aerial image covering all 12 hectares of that huge slum. It soon dawned on me that I was not sitting amid ‘slum dwellers’. I was in the company of a professional fishing community who had navigated the rough seas of the Bay of Bengal for generations – orientation and map reading was in their blood. 

I asked them about the clusters of red flags planted at various locations in their settlement which we had often wondered about. It turned out that what we imagined to be cultural or ritualistic artefacts, were in fact homing devices. The Nolia typically venture out to sea at night and return during daylight hours after spending a few days’ fishing.

The clusters of red flags help them locate their settlement on the flat coastline and orient themselves as they sail back. No wonder they could orient themselves easily on the map on my screen, whereas I would definitely die if left in their boats and asked to return to the right spot on the beach.

So much for qualitative local knowledge, and chart papers, and marker pens... Well, the Nolia community definitely would need colourful, chart papers and very thick marker pens to explain their science and technology to us.

"But we don't use the flags for that purpose nowadays. That was in the past," said one Nolia gentleman, looking up from my laptop screen. "What do you use now?" I enquired. "Nowadays we use GPS," he replied with a broad grin.

More on data tales

We invited Antarin Chakrabarty to contribute to this blog series and reflect on his experience working in Jaga Mission, the state of Odisha’s ambitious slum upgrading programme. His particular interest is how well this was served – or not served – by GIS.

Data tales part one looks at the generation, ownership and use of GIS data to underpin the slum upgrading programme – or often the non-use

Data tales part two reports on what the author found when he went looking for relevant data. Despite being told by government officials that no such data existed, he discovered vast resources that were not being used

Data tales part four shows how the lack of relevant or accurate data on climate risk and resilience in slums could be resolved by making community-based data collection the norm.

Data tales part five questions whether the flashy and often unnecessary ways we use computers have detracted from their primary function of reliving humans of boring, repetitive tasks.

This blog post also appears on www.iied.org. Please follow this link to view and post comments: https://www.iied.org/data-tales-part-three-technological-prowess-urban-poor