Can technology improve lives in urban slums? 6 examples suggest yes it can

Mon, 2016-10-24 14:59 -- Compassionate C...

"Cities and towns have an immense role to play in ending poverty and building inclusive societies that promote participation by all," UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said as member nations gathered in Quito, Ecuador last week for the Habitat III conference focused on housing and sustainable urban development. The conference adopted what's being called the New Urban Agenda – promoting equitable, accessible and inclusive cities and focusing attention on the growing number of people living in slums around the world – a number approaching one billion. Some of the effort will be policy driven as leaders deal with the impact of urbanization on all human settlements. But there are many ways that combining compassion and technology can make a difference too. Read some examples below. – Philip Bane


In Nairobi, Kenya, an estimated 2.5 million people live in slums. The needs are great, and technology is helping meet them.

  • Mobile banking improves access to water: Before the M-Pesa mobile banking system was introduced in Nairobi, water was scarce for people living in the slums on the city's outskirts. They'd often have to wait in long lines at the bank and then hunt around to find water they could buy. But the introduction of M-Pesa several years ago changed that, according to a Newsweek report. Because people could pay for water service with their phones, the local water company was willing to connect the neighborhood to its system. “This new initiative has really changed our lives,” Joab Omondi told Newsweek. “Our water cannot be disconnected again, as it used to be. We can now request and pay our bills through our own mobile phones instead of queuing at the banking halls.”
  • Mobile computer lab boosts digital literacy: With four solar panels on its roof and an inside refurbished with computer desks, monitors, printers, servers, scanners and the like, this bus isn't taking young people to and from school. It's taking them across the digital divide. The Craft Silicon Foundation uses the rolling computer classroom is give young slum residents a chance to improve their economic future. One of them is Ruth Wanjiru, who says in a Daily Nation article that she started the classes after completing high school. Her parents run a small grocery kiosk to take care of Ruth and her six siblings. "My parents’ business does not generate enough money to take me to college. Before, I would spend most of my time at home or doing menial jobs that paid little,” she says. Now Wanjiru runs a small cyber café and photocopy business.
  • Magic Bus platform curbs commuter pain: Four students at Indiana's Earlham College won the Hult Prize that comes with a million dollars for their Magic Bus concept designed to help the 2.5 million residents of Nairobi slums who rely on the city's erratic bus system. There are 20,000 private buses – called Matatus – in Nairobi but waiting for one can take up to two hours and if it's overcrowded you may not get a seat anyway. Plus fares range from 50 cents to $1.50 per trip. "The loss of productivity is staggering and a daily wage worker can lose half of their daily income," Iman Cooper, one of the Earlham students, said in a CNN Money report. The million dollar idea was Magic Bus, a SMS-based platform that lets riders pre-book their bus ticket using a basic mobile phone and M-Pesa. It also enables them to learn how far away their bus is. According to Cooper, the Nairobi pilot was encouraging, with more than 2,000 riders trying it and one in four reporting it saved them an hour per trip. "For some workers, this led to increasing their income by $1 a day," she added.

Below are a few more examples of technology changing lives in of slum dwellers in other parts of the world.

Digital app creates Vision Ambassadors in Rio
An estimated 2.5 billion people live with uncorrected poor vision and the economic and social consequences that result, according to the World Economic Forum. The Instituto Ver e Viver’s Vision Ambassador program works in Rio's favelas to train people as primary providers of vision care. They use a digital app on their mobile phones to read prescriptions and are able to propose and sell low-cost eye glasses to neighbors and friends who otherwise couldn't afford them. The majority of the Vision Ambassadors are women, according to a Triple Pundit article. Extra income they make from the program helps them improve their financial independence at the same time they're improving the health and prosperity of their neighbors.

Lighting up slums and shanties in India
A sunlight-capturing device invented by the Kolkata, India-based Renewable Energy College uses a special dome and reflective cylinder to send light into poorly lit rooms during the day. At night it relies on solar-powered batteries to light LED bulbs in the homes. A pilot project has distributed a few thousand of the micro solar domes in the slums of Mumbai, New Delhi and elsewhere, The Economic Times reports. The government's Ministry of New and Renewable Energy has committed funds to the two-year pilot and more are under consideration. The devices are being distributed through state agencies and NGOs working in slums.

Data collection and GPS empower slum residents
A network of grassroots organizations -- Shack/Slum Dwellers International (SDI) – is promoting community based data collection in slums around the world so that residents are not overlooked in the provision of basic services or development of housing alternatives. SDI introduced a standardized data collection method that residents complete with help from community activists, detailing current conditions, number of residents, history, community life, etc. Residents are taught to use digital GPS devices to document facilities in their neighborhoods, according to research by Diana Mitlin on the D+C Development and Cooperation website. Thousands of slum profiles have been created to date, making it possible for urban planners to better assess city-wide living conditions and slum residents to more effectively lobby to get their needs met.  

Related resource…
Video: Upgrading Slums for Better Cities: Ghana
An amazing story of GE e-health technologies and an urban slum

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This article is from the Council's Compassionate Cities initiative which highlights how city leaders and other stakeholders can leverage smart technologies to end suffering in their communities and give all citizens a route out of poverty. Click the Compassionate Cities box on our registration page to receive our weekly newsletter.

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