Making smart cities work for people. No 1: Crowdsourcing flood maps in Jakarta

One of Jakarta's main business districts, during the floods of January 2014. Image: Getty.

The “Smart City” is a vision of what cities might look like in the future if they adopt a range of cutting edge technologies – the Internet of Things, big data, advanced computing, and so on.

But this vision rarely leaves any space for people; nor does it take into account the pressing problems that cities are facing now. As a result, many smart city ideas have failed to deliver on their promise, combining high costs and low returns.

In our recent report, Rethinking smart cities from the ground up, innovation charity Nesta argued that cities need to combine investment in tried and tested hardware with the growing potential of “collaborative technologies”: that is, those technologies that enable greater collaboration between urban communities, their citizens and their governments

Over the next few weeks, in this series of articles we’ll be exploring five examples of cities doing just that. This is the first.

Putting people at the heart of Jakarta's flood data

Jakarta, the Indonesian capital, is a megacity of around 10m people, with over 28m in the wider metropolitan region. As a result, the city faces a huge range of challenges, from the world’s most congested roads to annual flooding that forces thousands to abandon their homes and takes many lives. Alongside investment in infrastructure, the city is exploring the potential of working with citizens to address these challenges.

It’s a surprising fact that Jakarta tweets more than any other city in the world. PetaJakarta – the name means “map Jakarta” in Bahasa Indonesian – was set up by researchers at Australia’s University of Wollongong and the Jakarta Emergency Management Agency (BPBD) to take advantage of this. During the pilot phase of the project, when anyone in Jakarta tweeted the word “flood”, the system would upload the location of the tweet onto a map, to create a real time, crowdsourced map of flooding in the city.

 

A video introduction to the PeteJakarta project.

Accuracy is always a concern with crowdsourced data, so another innovative feature of the platform is its partnership with Twitter. Residents of Jakarta who tweeted the world “flood” during the pilot received a message asking them to confirm that they were trying to report a flood. Only once they’d done this did the report appear on a crowdsourced map.


Could crowdsourcing reports from social media ever replace traditional flood monitoring techniques? The results from the pilot show that crowdsourcing data currently works best as a complement to existing data collection methods: there aren’t yet enough people reporting floods on Twitter to create a comprehensive flood map of the city. This may change in the future, however: BPBD is committed to integrating, developing and promoting the platform.

The city government is also experimenting with crowdsourced traffic reporting to help it address its legendary traffic woes. With around 1m monthly users of Waze, the Google-owned navigation app, Jakarta was a good candidate for the Waze Connected Citizens program.

The programme provides city officials with data about how Waze users move around the city. This, they hope, will improve the city’s ability to manage congestion.

Tom Saunders is a senior researcher at Nesta, the UK innovation charity, and one of the authors of the "Rethinking smart cities from the ground up" report. 

 
 
 
 

Jane Jacobs and Le Corbusier would agree on one thing: we need more social housing

Unite d’Habitation, Marseille. Image: Iantomferry/Wikimedia Commons.

Much has been written in CityMetric and beyond about the urban planning debates of the 1950s and ‘60s, that came to be characterised as a battle between master-planning and preservation. One side of the debate was personified by the father of modernist architecture, Le Corbusier, whilst the counter-argument was advanced by writer and journalist Jane Jacobs.

But when it comes to London’s housing crisis, aren’t there a few things that these two would actually agree on?

Jane Jacobs’ writing about the organic nature of self-organising communities, demonstrated, in her words, by the “intricate sidewalk ballet” of inner city neighbourhoods, should be required reading for anyone interested in how cities function. But today, Jacobs is increasingly invoked in attempts to oppose new developments of any kind. Her role in conceiving Manhattan’s West Village Houses, a low cost rented housing scheme built through New York State’s Mitchell-Lama Program, is unfortunately much less well known. It’s been suggested that if Jacobs were around today, she’d be working with New York’s housing activists. When her seminal work The Death and Life of Great American Cities was written, there were almost 2 million rent-controlled or rent-stabilised apartments in New York City; nowadays, there are fewer than half that number.

Le Corbusier, on the other hand, is too often blamed for drab high-rise blocks. But regardless of how well his followers across Europe interpreted his ideas, Le Corbusier’s vision for cities was about high quality residential blocks that also contained shops and leisure amenities and were surrounded by parkland – the original mixed use development if you like. His most famous building, Marseille’s Unite d’Habitation, consisted of 337 apartments with views of the mountains and the sea together with shops, a restaurant and a nursery school. The building was originally intended to be public housing, but the French government eventually sold off the flats to recoup costs. Alton West Estate in Roehampton and Park Hill in Sheffield are just some of the examples of Le Corbusier’s influence on the design of post-war council housing here in the UK.

Building homes for a serious business in post-war Britain. Under Attlee’s 1945 Labour Government, 700,000 new council homes were completed. In 1952, the largest architectural practice in the World was at London County Council, with 1,577 staff including 350 professional architects and trainees. These were the days of consensus, and very quickly Tory governments were actually competing with Labour governments about who could built the most council homes.

Some of the council homes built post-war have stood the test of time better than others. But what’s not in doubt is that building council homes on such a scale immeasurably changed the lives of so many families in desperate need of a decent, secure and affordable home. And so many of the post-war modernist high-rise blocks so despised by Jacobs quickly took on the organic self-organising traits that she held in such high regard and have become some of the most enduring and closely-knit communities in London.

Fast forward to 2019 and Right To Buy continues to decimate council housing stock, but perversely home ownership seems more out of reach than ever for so many. An entire generation is being forced to embrace long term private ting in a country that has some weakest protections for private tenants in Europe. Meanwhile, government spending on building new homes fell from £11.4bn in 2009 to just £5.3bn in 2015 – from 0.7 per cent to 0.2 per cent of GDP – and since then, the housing minister’s desk has been occupied by no fewer than six people.


So what would a comprehensive drive for new council and social housing on the scale of the 1945 government’s efforts look like in 2019?

Lubetkin, the architect responsible for Islington’s Spa Green Estate and Bevin Court, summed up the spirit of post-war council home building with his maxim that “nothing is too good for ordinary people”. It’s a vision that we’re trying to recreate through our own council home building programme in Islington.

One of the best opportunities for small council home building schemes is to expand upon existing communities. The vast majority of Islington’s new council housing takes the form of infill, construction on existing estates; in unloved spaces, in old garages, and in old undercrofts. These projects often involve landscaping and new amenities to enhance rather than reinvent local communities. We have built community centres and even rebuilt a library as part of council housing schemes. One Tenants’ and Residents’ Association had an idea for a new specialist over 55s block for the older residents of the estate who wanted to stay in their community.

But there’s a place for large-scale place making as well. When the Ministry of Justice closed Holloway Prison and announced that the site would be sold, Islington Council published a Supplementary Planning Document (SPD) on the site. We had one aim – to send a clear signal to the market that anyone who was looking at buying the site needed to be aware of their planning obligations. Most importantly, any development on the site needed to include at least 50 per cent genuinely affordable homes. The speculation around the site came to an end on 8 March this year when Peabody Housing Association announced that it had bought it. It has committed to going well above and beyond our planning requirements, by making 600 out of a total 1000 homes genuinely affordable homes, including 420 homes for social rent. We need to see more detail on what they are proposing but this is potentially brilliant for the borough. A local grassroots group, Community Plan for Holloway, have been instrumental in ensuring that the community’s voice is heard since the site was sold.

To recreate the scale of the massive post-war council home building programmes would require a Jane Jacobs inspired level of community activism combined with the architectural idealism of Le Corbusier. But it would also need the political will from central government to help local authorities get council housing built. And that, sadly, feels as far away as ever.

Diarmaid Ward is a Labour councillor and the executive member for housing & development at the London Borough of Islington.