We can use open data to make smart cities “searchable”

Lahore, Pakistan: the writer's hometown, and just one of the cities that could use some smart data to help with its traffic problems.

As we all rush to surf upon the sweeping tide of smarter cities, it pays to just pause and think – what exactly is a smart city? Or to put it another way, what is it that makes a city "not so smart" to start with?

As urbanisation has been growing, distances have also been increasing between people. Communication systems have found ways to link people who are geographically distant; but they still have to catch up with the problem of how exactly to recreate the relationship between people and the environment, at a time when both are constantly changing.

That particular aspect is pretty stable in rural or close-knit environments, mainly due to the availability of information about one’s surrounding at all times. But metropolitan areas lack that – and that's what I believe is what makes them "not so smart". So the problem to solve here is one of providing, or rather exchanging, information. That is the crux of the idea of “smart cities”, especially in the digital domain.

Most of this information is already available, published or unpublished. But it’s usually holed up in silos, unavailable to the people when they might require it most. The recent push by many public organizations to publish this information as Open Data has helped, a bit; the next step, if it’s to be useful, is to make it available when it is actually required.

Unfortunately, a major chunk of this published open data is in archaic formats, or formats which are extremely difficult to use online: data published in PDF, for example, or in formats only readable by propriety software. This data serves well for one time research or study purposes, but is absolutely useless when a system needs a steady flow of information.

Open Data comes in all shapes and sizes, but, in context of smarter cities, probably the most relevant dimensions are space and time. That’s why I founded Noustix, a system which collects and stores spatio-temporal data from multiple open sources, and turns them into a single stream for third parties. In this way, we can combine multiple data sets to give fresh insights. Road networks data can be combined with mobile phone use data to show traffic congestion, for example. Or you can combine traffic accidents data with demographic data to observe patterns in areas with varying population and resource densities.

But the most interesting applications come when this open data is further combined with crowd sources data for a whole new set of applications. Geo-tagged tweets, for example, can be used to see the patterns of conversation at any place, or any time. There is an argument for using the tweets people send when, say, they are frustrated at traffic jams, to identify the congestion hot spots in a city.

This can be done by semantic and text analysis, but a much more accurate way of doing it is asking people to use particular hashtags for specific purposes: when people are stuck in traffic, alongside the usual string of frustrated rants and obscenities, they can maybe add an unimaginative tag #stuckinTraffic.

Over a period of weeks or months, when this particular tag is evaluated, it will reveal the traffic congestion patterns in city. Comparing and combining this with published open data of traffic and road networks will give you a very precise picture of troubled areas. Moreover, by using social data, apps can stream in data live and see congestion hot spots in real time. You can even throw news feeds from the media into the mix, too.

Combining open data with crowd sourcing is a powerful way to organise, sort, filter and analyse data, in a way that makes it more useful. The "crowd" part actually helps to validate the authenticity and relevancy of the data, in a way no individual or organization could.

As an analogy, consider comparing cities with the web. Until search engines came along, the web was all about making and keeping extensive lists and bookmarks of useful websites or forums.  But search engines, especially those which use human input to improve results, changed all that. Suddenly, all that you needed to find relevant information was a query.

That's our aim for smart cities as well. A city is currently browse-able; we need to make it searchable. And social and crowd sourced data combined with open data can do that.

Areeb Kamran is British Council Global FUTR Lab winner and chief executive of the smart city platform, Noustix.

He is one of ten cultural innovators that took part in the first Global FUTR Lab, a partnership between The British Council – the UK’s international organisation for cultural and educational opportunities – and FutureEverything, the award-winning innovation lab for digital culture and annual festival. 



In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 

The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.