Cartography as a Tool to End Poverty

CHENNAI, India — With a population nearing 10 million, India’s fourth largest metropolitan area is no stranger to slums. Although the numbers are shaky, the 2001 Indian Census reported that around 25 percent of the residents were slum dwellers. This number received a bump when a group of “maptivists” shed light on a half million people living in slums hugging the outskirts of the city’s proper limits. This sudden recognition did not just serve to surprise municipal planners, but was able to galvanize action to bring services to these previously invisible people.

The group responsible for finding these half million residents call themselves Transparent Chennai. They work to gather, create and disseminate data and research on city planning and governance issues with the goal of giving a voice to poor residents and enabling them to demand better services. They achieve this logistical miracle with the use of free open source software, such as Google Maps.

The maps painted a descriptive and easy to understand picture of what was happening, where in the city, and showed planners where a water line or toilet facility was needed. These services, like water, electricity and sewage hookups, are critical to the smooth functioning of a city and to an economy in general. By highlighting issues in an easy to understand manner, the maps shocked the government into action and improved the lives of those in the slums.

The story and power of mapping technologies doesn’t end inside city limits.

HALO Trust also takes advantage of how technology has liberated and invigorated the ancient science of mapmaking. Their work clears the way for development in post-conflict regions of the world by removing landmines and explosives. Google Maps has increased the efficiency and precision of their operations by providing updated and accurate coordinates, something of utmost importance in that line of work. In addition, the maps are used to show where infrastructure has been built, spinning a visual yarn of how development has taken place in areas that have been cleared.

Protecting the world’s forests is another job with which mapping has proved surprisingly proficient. By tracking and mapping forest cover over time, Global Forest Watch is able to crisply define and depict the global problem of deforestation. Recently, their maps provided the evidence for the culpability of a chocolate company in the clearcutting of 2,000 hectares of rainforest in Peru.

Deforestation exacerbates the problem of climate change, which threatens an extreme cost to humanity and significant barriers to poverty reduction. Climate change is regressive and will bring more harm to the poor, who are less able to insulate themselves from its shocks. By bringing greater transparency to deforestation and the fight against climate change, Global Forest Watch’s maps are protecting the poor from future hardships.

Cartography is being employed in various unique ways to further the fight against poverty. These maps and the computing power that underpins them are waiting for the next enterprising individual or group to help realize their potential in ending poverty.

– John Wachter

Sources: Center for Global Development, Economic Times of India, ForbesThe Guardian 1The Guardian 2India Online PagesTransparent ChennaiYork University
Photo: Tim Spivey