Our world is no longer going through the process of urbanisation; our world is urbanised. Cities are now home to half of the world’s population, and according to United Nations Human Settlement Programme, one third of the world’s urban population lives in slums. However, if you pull up a digital map online, these informal settlements are represented by little more than a blank spot and scattered roads, as though these areas simply don’t exist.
One could argue that having your home deemed invisible in the ‘Global Village’ is not the biggest issue here. People who live in slums are confronted daily with substandard conditions like overcrowding, fear of eviction and lack of access to safe water, sanitation and durable shelter.
So what is the benefit of digital mapping?
In our digital age there is an expectation that the answer to anything can be found on the first page of Google. The fact that much of the world is invisible on the digital map can indicate in a simple but powerful way, not only a digital divide but also global inequality. The lack of information about these areas has led to an interest in navigating urban settlements that are on the periphery of global cities that have access to information and communication technologies (ICT).
Who is putting poverty on the map?
Teams of mappers are navigating uncharted regions of the world using OpenStreetMaps (OSM), an ICT citizen-mapping tool, to build collaborative community maps for a variety of different purposes. The initiative ‘Map Kibera’ created the first free and open digital map of Kibera, Nairobi’s largest slum, to share information about the slums from the perspective of people who live there. Humanitarian OSM Team (HOT) aims to monitor corporate social responsibility in Bangladesh by mapping the urban sprawl in Dhaka’s factory district of Chittagong. In labelling the buildings with the names of the companies who produces clothing there, HOT hopes to encourage companies to consider their labour conditions more closely. Initiatives like this can help to provide information that will alleviate inequality and narrow the digital divide.
Digital mapping has proven that it has less to do with access to information online, and more to do with creating information on the ground.