Empowering people, and seeing something differently by mapping abandoned spaces

derelict abandoned buildings in detroit urban decay community empowerment

Credit: Luca and Vita : derelict abandoned buildings in detroit urban decay community empowerment

Creative commons images of abandoned houses in USA: Luca and Vita

Vacant buildings are a growing problem in many areas that have been hit hard by the economic downturn. Not only do these empty spaces look forbidding and gloomy, their presence can actually attract crime and vandalism, and kick off a spiral of decline which drives down house values in the neighbourhood, and is hard to break out of. I came across a neat project that is running in Louisville, Kentucky which is aiming to use these vacant spaces a catalyst for change instead of allowing their empty presence to begin causing more problems.

They are doing this in a low-tech but effective way – primarily through community conversations out on ‘front porches’ and using this up to date local knowledge to make more accurate maps of vacant lots than local government does. I’m really interested in two aspects of this:

1) this idea that local people can create better quality data than local government >Question: Where else is this true and how can it apply in other contexts? (Think Kaizen service improvement/Nissan but at the street level in municipalites of all kinds)

2) making this information visible and visual has empowered people to see potential and opportunities where before they only saw problems. Question: >what other ‘visualisations’ can lead to positive empowerment and action?

The very interesting Kibera project which I’ve mentioned before went a step further than Kentucky with its mapping work, in that it actually worked with local people to do GPS tagging and make new local information visible and shareable using an online map. this in turn enabled people to find opportunities for improvement within that shareable, visual resource, much like the Kentucky project and others.

Clear and visually appealing maps combined with GPS and community conversations could offer much more value and opportunity to do the following things:

  1. generate new possibilities, where before people felt weighed down by problems
  2. build local resilience by strengthening social networks/ increasing social capital
  3. create high quality, transparent evidence for change campaigns
  4. help maintain local economic value systems (see @WillPerrin on this in Guardian , though I think it could go further than this.)

We are now at a time when a significant enough number of people could* be potential contributors and analysts of this information, developing new possibilities and insights where before we just saw problems.

Please send me more information on any work you’re doing that crosses over with this. I’m really interested to hear about variations in approach, and also whether you think an online interactive platform PLUS a  lower level of offline work would be even more effective than the intensive offline work alone.

 *Am I right? Perhaps true of some communities more than others, but are those the ones who would benefit most?

 (Thanks to @fastcompany for highlighting Louisville story. )

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The Power of The Visible : Open up for Social change

Imagine this; a driver is stopped on a provincial road in India. They are asked to pay a ‘fine’ for some unspecified infringement of the road traffic laws. The men asking are dressed in police uniform and one seems to be carrying a weapon. They’d like the fine to be paid right now, in cash please. Much is left implied and unsaid as each party searches the other’s eyes for an understanding of the real nature of this transaction. The driver pays the ‘fine’ and is permitted to carry on travelling down the road. The driver is pissed off, but hey, this is normal – and its just the way things work round here – and what can one pissed off driver do about this stuff anyway?

Well, there is something that people can do now, they can speak out, and make these hidden transactions, the ‘bribe economy’ visible through initiatives like the India-based www.ipaidabribe.com . The site enables people affected by bribery to write about their experiences in public and to track the incidence of bribery in an open and transparent way, it aims “to tackle corruption by harnessing the collective energy of citizens.”

You can report on the nature, number, pattern, types, location, frequency and values of the bribes made, and the  reports add up to provide a snapshot of bribes occurring across any given city. They make formerly covert activities visible so that individuals who are sick of corrupt practice can build a stronger case for change, together, from the ground up.

And this idea of making things visible as a form of power and a force for legitimacy of experience can be brought to other contexts. One of the most powerful online tools out there is the interactive map. Geography and place bring things to life for people, and if you are not on the map then you’re not part of the ‘visible’ geography – you are part of a hidden world with little legitimacy as a home and a place to live. This is the case for many slum dwellings.

Take the example of Kibera in Kenya – Kibera in Nairobi, Kenya, was a blank spot on the map until November 2009, when young Kiberans created the first free and open digital map of their own community.

Map Kibera has now grown into a complete interactive community information project with the additon of Voice of Kibera – a portal for citizen reporting and community advocacy which has the map at its heart.

The Map of Kibera “has steadily emerged as a powerful tool for not just locating place, but also for influencing the social, political & economic spheres in Kibera and beyond.”

What else that is hidden or covert can be made visible through social media to make a real-world change? If you’re intersted in reading more check out this blog from Giulio Quaggiotto who works on Knowledge Management at UNDP Europe and CIS. There is much more that can be done through using these online tools to make a real-world difference.

Blogging Ideas : Pakistani Spectator

A -kind of- festive post for you before the holiday season kicks off for real… I read a few international blogs through the excellent global voices and one of the active ones is the Pakistani Spectator. Ghazala Khan does a regular series of interviews with bloggers from all over the place and it was my turn last week: 

Would you please tell us something about you and your site?

I write about public involvement in decision making. This is actually takes in quite a wide range of different issues, from the tension between different modes of governance and electoral systems to how individuals collaborate on decision making in their own communities, both locally and online. I blog here.

    Do you feel that you continue to grow in your writing the longer you write? Why is that important to you?

I think everyone learns as they write more frequently – it forces you to order your thoughts in a structured format and to try and imagine how others might understand your meaning. Having said that, I feel that the most important thing is to get out from behind the keyboard and monitor and to speak with a whole range of different people to gain inspiration whenever possible. That’s where you find opportunities to grow as an individual and as a member of several wider communities.

    I’m wondering what some of your memorable experiences are with blogging?

My favourite recent post was an interview with an Obama supporter on London bridge – I took a quick photo of him with my camera phone and it came out so well – really capturing the enthusiasm and spirit of the moment. I was affected by the belief of an individual that genuine change can come from those at the top rather than the cynicism that is often expressed towards decision makers in the UK.

    What do you do in order to keep up your communication with other bloggers?

I use RSS feeds to keep up to date – attempt to keep my netvibes page which pulls all of those feeds together in good order. Then of course, I read and comment when I have some spare time.

    What do you think is the most exciting or most innovative use of technology in politics right now?

In politics, it has to be the Obama campaign in terms of excitement and the interplay between online connection and offline action. This was a very powerful mix and am very glad to see this strong emphasis on online tools continuing. See obamacto for an interesting take on what should happen next!

    Do you think that these new technologies are effective in making people more responsive?

I do think that new technology can make people feel more personally connected than ever before, and more able to respond quickly and easily to causes or issues that they are interested in. Not only this, I think that it can supplement our existing networks in new ways which are only just beginning to be realised.

    What do you think sets Your site apart from others?

It focuses on public participation and involvement from a personal perspective. I work for an organistion called http://www.involve.org.uk which is based in the UK – this enables me to look at public engagement and participation from a more analytical viewpoint during the day – then my blog covers the aspect I feel is often not covered so well – what do these ideas and projects mean for real people in their working and home lives?

    If you could choose one characteristic you have that brought you success in life, what would it be?

Critical optimism!

What was the happiest and gloomiest moment of your life?

I’m not sure on this one – life is a journey and I’m usually looking forwards not back!

    If you could pick a travel destination, anywhere in the world, with no worries about how it’s paid for – what would your top 3 choices be?

I like this question – I’d go to Tierra del Fuego to see lava pouring into the sea, then drop by Venezuela to see the Angel Falls, and then maybe to Dongtan to see the eco city… in a year or two.

   What is your favorite book and why?

I don’t have a favourite – I love reading and lots of books have strong meaning for me – one would be ….read the rest here

Enjoy the holidays! 

(Yes, I know the life is a journey line is a bit Forest Gump –  is tough not to be able to edit your words after you write them…!)

Obama McCain : The world is watching… and participating!

Iranian Obama Campaigner

Ahmad Foroughi : Iranian Obama Campaigner

 

I love this picture of Ahmad Foroughi standing on Waterloo bridge. I met him a few weeks ago when I stopped to talk as I was curious to know what was motivating him to stand there, giving up his time on a windy Saturday afternoon.  He was wearing a cool T-shirt and carrying a sign that said “We’re searching for Americans! Can you help? Are YOU American?”

I assumed that he himself was a US citizen – enthused by Obama’s message of change – trying to spread the zeal and get others to vote Democrat too on November 4th. I was off the mark – he is in fact Iranian by birth- and unhappy with the US’s current foreign policy around terrorism and extremism. He himself is unable to cast a vote in the US election, so gave up his Saturday afternoon to stand on Waterloo bridge trying to find any American who hadn’t registered in the hope that it’ll help Obama win tomorrow.

I asked him why he was so passionate in wanting Obama to win – he went on to discuss his family and roots in Iran and the impact of US foreign policy in previous years and what it might be the future. He then went on to tell me in a matter of fact way: “Its time for a real change and I believe Obama can do this.”

The world is not only watching this election – they want to be part of it in whatever way they are able to, and its not just happening online, there are people like Ahmad willing to give up more than a mouseclick moment to the campaign. Inspired by politics, inspired by a politician, belief in the possibility of real change… write it off as  Obamamania if you like – but the passion and interest in participating has to be good for people’s rights and for generating the demand for real democratic process and real opportunities for people to influence power across the world.

I’d like to see this level of enthusiasm in the UK election next time around…

Guardian:response to the White Paper-Involve

Here it is: http://tinyurl.com/6lpe5b

The cut to the chase section:

This white paper is undoubtedly a significant step forward, but for it to capture the imagination of all in society, especially the disengaged, it needs to move beyond traditional notions of community as well-meaning people in community centres, to freeing up human potential wherever we are.

Hazel Blears Blog

It has arrived…

7 day blog:http://tinyurl.com/6zarqb

7 day twitter feed: http://twitter.com/communitiesuk 

7 points for attention from the white paper:

1. being active in your community
2. access to information
3. having an influence
4. challenge
5. redress
6. standing for office; and
7. ownership and control

 Am feeling strangely biblical all of a sudden… ;)

However, the thing that really stands out for me in the first posting is the sentence:

“We want to make these changes because we believe that local people are capable and willing to take difficult decisions and solve complex problems for themselves. “

Along with the ever-present challenges around spreading good practice in an accessible way, the challenge of helping local people to believe that they themselves are capable of taking difficult decisions and solving complex problems is absolutely key to making enagement work at community level in the future. The promotion of personal empowerment.

(Also, making sure that the people involved do indeed want to have the responsibility of stepping up and taking control is another major consideration – this links into the co-design/co-production issues that are currently being debated… Institute for Innovation in Public Services recently produced interesting work in this area.)