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Zoning and Urban Land Use Planning for Drones



Just prior to my last stint of working in Somalia, I purchased a small consumer drone to use as social research tool.  Unfortunately the landscape had changed drastically since my last time in Mogadishu, and it was impossible to use, in particular because I am terrible at flying the damn thing. But I have since invested many hours into piloting the UAV to explore its utility as a research tool for urban planning and design.

Last weekend, a small disaster took place when I lost the signal to the UAV. The drone drifted out of sight and crash landed.  I had no idea where. It took several hours to find (on a building rooftop, I couldn't see it, but I found its WIFI signal), and even longer to recover (24 hours). At some point on TwitterConstantine Samaras, raised a significant point:  Perhaps this situation could have been avoided if I was in a no drone zone. But what does would that look like?



Legal Framework for Drones

In the United States, airspace above 700 feet is Federally restricted.  Airspace below 30 feet is considered part of individual property rights, meaning that when you own a piece of land, you also own the 30 feet of air above it. Ownership of this airspace is occasionally able to be sold for provide through a transfer of development rights. But what about the airspace between 30 and 700 feet?  At present, the FAA has restricted the use of drones for commercial use but amateurs are free to fly.

Some cities have already taken progressive steps concerning the legality of drones. The city of Evanston Illinois has passed a 2 year ban on drone use in the city for use in warrantless surveillance. This is a good thing. Carrol county in Maryland is looking for similar legislation on the use of drones by law enforcement. There was even recently a temporary event ban during golf tournament in North Carolina.  But existing UAV zoning laws are "all or nothing" in design, they do not make use of the opportunity that drones can provide in creating new markets, improved public policy, and better design for communities.

Zoning for Drones
In general, I'm not a big fan of city zoning.  I admire its intention, to make sure that the overall quality of urban life is consistent with high standards of physical and mental health.  We do not want the aluminum factory next to the children's playground or the speedway motor park in the residential neighborhood.  We do need a legal instrument for communities to make decisions about what they want to look like and how they need to function.  Yet overall, I find my city zoning is poorly conceived.  I am highly supportive of health standards, environmental regulation and taxes, but I see zero advantage toward regulating the values of a population (such as zoning concerning bars or adult services) or the economic geography as such zoning only reinforces the values of those who hold power, not the people who constitute the community.  Likewise zoning for residential vs. commercial use tends to put more strain on the landscape, increase traffic, increase pollution, and reduce the distribution of wealth. Zoning should not hinder social mobility, yet it can and does.

Therefore, to approach zoning for drones, it is important to examine the issue from multiple points of view.  After all, the goal is to create a regulatory framework that will maximize the ratio of nuisance to utility in favor of people at large, not a particular social group or economic class.

Areas of Review:

Example UAV Questions to Consider
Is the UAV big or small? 
Loud or quiet? 
Does it have a payload or a camera? 
Is it operating according to a predefined flightpath (using GPS waypoints) or is it freely piloted?
How fast and how high is it?
Is it for commercial or amateur purposes?

Example Site Questions to Consider
Is the site of high or low pedestrian traffic?
Does the site contain socially vulnerable or critical security infrastructure (schools, power plants etc)?
Does the site consist mostly of public or privately owned property?
To what extent is the airspace already cluttered and at what density?
Is this an area of high or low diversity in land use?

Example Population Issues
Is this area a public space or private space?
Is what is the privacy expectation in this space - for example, on a beach?

To recognize the array of drone designs and use designs is to realize that an affective zoning solution is flexible to support the advantages of the UAV but with limited interference upon bystanders. Conversely, it is important to insure that UAV operation is not disruptive to the general activities of the population.  Ideally, UAV operation should be able to operate "in the background" of day-to-day life.


General Guidelines for UAV/Drone Land Use Zoning Laws
While thinking about zoning for drones, one of the first questions that comes to my mind is "what will that look like"?  After all, 2-dimensional arial map is insufficient to capture the particular sense of space that will be used and affected by a UAV.  An advantage of contemporary design and modeling is that we do not need to restrict zoning maps to a 2D surface, but can draw these maps in the air, to model them above cities and within them.  A zoning map for drones should not only take advantage of modeling the airspace, but should take into consideration the variations of time.  For example, an area that might restrict private drone use from 9-5 could lift the ban from 30-400 feet after 5pm and 400-600 feet after 10 pm.

Implementation
It might seem abstract to place an imaginary 3D geometry around a building to restrict flight patterns. But for those who are already flying drones, it is no unimaginable.  Furthermore, providing the information online (such as a downloadable CAD file) for a drone operator to layer onto Google Earth or other GIS software would easily remedy the situation.  GPS and time sequencing can even be programmed into flight patterns.  It might seem abstract and hightech, but 3D mapping of airspace for drone use has few hurdles and requires no new technology.


CASE STUDY/CONCEPT EXPLORATION - CHICAGO
Drone Zoning and Urban Planning Concept Location, Chicago Illinois. Sutika Sipus 2014.
Drone Zoning Concept in Chicago, Illinois. Sutika Sipus 2014.


Case Study: Urban Planning for UAVs in Chicago
To explore this idea, I have rendered a rough concept drawing of drone zoning in the parks bordering downtown Chicago.  Basing the idea off of a traditional traffic light, green areas are free-use, yellow and orange maintain various restrictions according to the time of day and day of week, while red areas are restricted at all times.


Buckingham Fountain, Chicago, Open UAV Zone. Sutika Sipus 2014.

Open Droning
The green zone is near Buckingham fountain.  This area is a wide open space, with zero infrastructure of critical value.  It should be realized that we design areas where free drone use is available so as to offset the general distribution of restrictions.  A greenspace, therefore, should permit the widest amount of flexibility and opportunity.  Likewise, in such spaces we want to reduce the likelihood of losing the drone or disrupting others in the event of an accident.  Accidents will happen, so it is best to permit a space for those accidents to happen with limited consequence.


Side-View, Zoning for Drones/UAVs in Chicago. Sutika Sipus 2014.

Limited and Restricted Drone Use
In the image above the football stadium has been recognized as a "zero public drone" area.  In this space we can imagine private licensing options for droned cameras and advertising initiatives by the stadium and partners.  However, unaffiliated individuals should not have the right to use their drone in this are.

The yellow and orange spaces represent the Field Museum, the Shedd Aquarium, Aviary, and Observatory.  For the sake of the example, I have suggested that these properties contain their own particular rules that change according to the day, season, or event.  This is not a unreasonable regulation, given that it is common place to create zoning in a similar manner for public parking during weekdays, sporting events, and even according to the weather.

Example Drone Zoning in Chicago. Sutika Sipus 2014.
Alternative Perspective of Drone Zoning in Chicago. Sutika Sipus 2014.

Drone Zoning at Human Scale. Sutika Sipus 2014

Drone Zoning at Human Scale II. Sutika Sipus 2014.

Data is Not Sterile: What is Geospatial Data Made From?


When I first started working with GIS and GPS data there were two basic truths. One, all GIS was equal to ESRI ArcGIS. And two, all data I need is neatly organized in a database somewhere on a server - you just need to find the server.  Three months later I moved to the Dadaab refugee camps and discovered no software, no data, and no server.  The head camp architect for the UN had never even heard of GIS.

At the time, I struggled with a solution.  In one project I was tasked with site plans for some buildings for Save the Children. I conducted an array of interviews in the camps to select the sites. Then I used a satellite phone to get GPS coordinates from which I extrapolated distances and drew vector maps in Autocad. I imposed the Autocad layer on top of a scanned topo map. The vectors could also be exported to ArcGIS upon return to my US university, since I obviously didn't have the money for a personal ESRI suite.  Technically, the solution worked well enough but I encountered another unforeseen challenge.  

Now the only problem is about the quality of the data. What is the combination of objectivity and subjectivity that goes into the creation of a single POI? How does we measure its value and how do we design the data collection to maximize that value?

For years I continued to search for strategies to create GIS data in places where it was unavailable. I experimented with walking papers, proposed ideas to software development friends, and wrestled with ambiguity.  I experimented for years with this problem in Egypt and was never happy with the outcome.  When I discovered the mobile application Fulcrum sometime in 2010 or 2011, my eyes were opened to the world of mobile data collection.  Suddenly the technical side of the problem was solved.  I could geolocate any survey. How you design the survey for the creation of spatial data is another matter.

The quality of the data is a continual obsession of mine.  Working in dangerous environments or even in multiple cultures creates special problems.  For example, if I were asked to rank the quality of infrastructure in Somalia, personally - I would label all of it as poor. There has been barely any development in decades but lots of bombs and bullets. In my eyes, as an American urban planner and designer, every road in Somalia is a nightmare.  But does that judgement present any value? Does this do any service to an external analyst or local project manager?

No.

Because of the demanding conditions, it is more important to rank the data according to the values of the local population.  In the eyes of a person who has lived in Somalia for a lifetime, how does one road compare against another?  It is through this local level comparison that the POI earns higher level of value to the analyst.  To continue the road example, I can now use this data to estimate the scheduling of work or to select where to start, such as the area in most need or the quick fix? Obviously, from my perspective everything needs improved, but now I can adapt my project to the local context for improved success. The population will recognize that the development is starting with the worst road - or going for the quick fix - and this understanding generates support.  Working in dangerous conditions, there is no such thing as too much support, regardless of the endeavor.

All budding cartographers must realize that no GIS data is founded on a universal set of standards. Every POI is connected to a body of perceptions, values, and judgements.  When we look at the collective data, we are looking at a story about a place and we are looking through the eyes of the person(s) that assembled the story. 

You might argue that some data is somehow void of this conflict. Census data, for example, seems fairly objective. But this is not the case - instead, census data is established by opening the story creation to all participants.  By means of the aggregate we get closer to objectivity, but the deeper you drill into the data, the more ambiguity will present itself. While some questions might seem objective (how many children do you have?), their simplicity is deceptive.  Another question - how many people live in your household? - will not bring the authorities crashing if the respondent answers "14" in a 1-bedroom house. But will a respondent be honest to admit "14" if that is the case? It is unlikely.  Social values, paranoia, and personal psychology will inform a respondents answer.  The closer you get to the person, the closer you get to uncertainty.

Unfortunately in higher level education for geography, planning, design, and other cartography related fields, there has been little focus on data creation. It is seen as a purely technical process. Yet I argue that students should begin their GIS studies by building the data before learning about the variety of GIS tools for analysis (note: variety, not just ESRI). Only by building the data will students learn to recognize the subtleties of its composition and help them become more critical of their own work.  

A nuanced understanding of the data will contribute to deeper levels of insight into the the data set and ultimately to a broader understanding of other data components such as the importance of metadata and data shelf-life. After all, GIS data is snapshot of a given moment in an ever changing world, only by understanding its creation can we realize its mortality, ultimately, to realize how to leverage its death. There is definitely something called "bad data," yet I'd argue that a more common data affliction is "poorly understood." This problem isn't difficult to fix, you just need to start building it yourself.

The New Digital Divide: Transforming the Global South into Reliable Data

Transforming the world's most hard-to-access and uncertain landscapes into digital data. Sutika Sipus 2014.
Everyday urban professionals, data scientists, economists, and geographers sit in front of a computer screen and create extraordinary visualizations and statistical methods to unravel the world.  Geographic information systems such as QGIS, statistical programs like "R", spreadsheet softwares like Excel and lines of python code have empowered us with the ability to understand economies at scale, measure and predict public health, monitor pollution and deter violence.  Data is good.

Yet what about cities, states, and nations that do not or cannot generate reliable data?  In his recent book, Poor Numbers, author Morten Jerven reveals the faulty statistics collected and published by government agencies throughout Africa.  Over the last three years that I was in Afghanistan, I witnessed nearly every single aid agency or government research contractor rely upon "perception based" data which means researchers confronted too much danger in the field to collect actual information, but could only ask locals their opinion on matters ranging from conflict to education and corruption.  This method is safe but provides zero validity.  It might as well be make-believe.

The result is the global data gap.  Governments and institutions that can transform intangible social dynamics into quantifiable data can conduct sophisticated analysis and move forward at a faster pace. This sensibility was the foundation of my initiative in Mogadishu, to create a comprehensive map of the city that fused business and residential management with geography.  As my operation was too small to go beyond the proof of concept, the vision was eventually passed via the local government and integrated into a longstanding UN initiative to develop a city planning department which is advancing with some success.  Yet while Mogadishu may be on the cusp of a digital governance revolution, problems persist.  Data dies.  Situations change.  More dramatically, very little of the world is generating the data sets commonly enjoyed throughout the west.

The global data gap is economically inhibitive. Imagine if your company sought a new market opportunity because the markets your normally serve are saturated with your product and your competitors.  Most companies would never imagine distribution in an African nation, partly because of misled beliefs on stability of those markets, but that those misconceptions are ultimately founded on a lack of reliable data.  With no local data, there is no global opportunity.

This is also a failure for companies that already working in data-deficient nations.  A few months ago I had a meeting with Afghanistan's largest tele-communications provider, Roshan, and when I asked about coverage, they could only give vague feedback.  When I asked for data on every household using Roshan to access the internet in Kabul, they could not give this information because Kabul doesn't have a postal address system, so all installations are tied to a person's name and neighborhood, but not a specific address.  In this instance I created alternative solution, where after about three weeks of combing selected neighborhoods, I was able to generate a GPS location for every Wi-Fi network and mobile tower in each area which could then be joined with the existing data.  We could filter Roshan networks vs competitor networks and now had sufficient data to improve marketing and coverage strategies.

Location and evaluation of strength of Wi-Fi access in Kabul, Afghanistan. Sutika Sipus 2014.
Having worked throughout Africa and Asia as a researcher since 2007,  I have developed an array of techniques to get past this problem, focusing on the creation and testing of indirect indicators.  In Zimbabwe economic wealth could be measured by counting the number of water jugs in front of each house.  In the Philipines, one could count denim jeans swinging on the clothesline of an apartment.  In a variety of Somali refugee camps I found that metal roofing materials separated the less-poor from the more-poor.  In Afghanistan I have steadily been testing and re-testing the presence of graffiti as a predictor of social protest and conflict with success.  The advantage of these Rapid Rural Appraisal techniques is that they are safe, fast, efficient, and quantifiable.  To determine an RRA indicator requires extensive time on the ground, but once established, we can effectively measure anything, anywhere.  There are of course other methods, standard survey techniques, but my efforts generate GPS location, culturally relative valuation, and easily shared outcomes.  RRA is not new, but my method of fusing RRA with traditional research methods, GIS tools, and mobile technologies does create a new outcome. I produce valid, quantifiable and mappable data that is customized to the problem and the location, but can accommodate different scales.

Digital Data Collection and Mapping.
Cambodia. Sutika Sipus 2014.
To me, the global data gap is a new frontier of untapped opportunity.  Maybe more people will realize this sooner than later and I'll encounter some digital cowboys, wandering deserts with laptops and satellite phones, their backpacks sagging beneath the weight of external hard drives.  I won't be the only one canvasing the worlds most remote locations.

Maybe soon more companies will ask "what about Nigeria?  what about Ghana or Bangladesh?" and they will need answers.  They will look online and see some global statistics that are 5 years old and impossible to trust.  They will need a fresh perspective they can trust and they can see.  Something they can drop into their software and understand.  Good thing I'm easy to find.


The GIS Interface I Always Wanted


I have a love-hate relationship with geographic information systems.  I use these systems frequently and have been thrilled to witness a recent explosion of interest in mapping across various disciplines.  But overall, I have always hated the software.

Part of this is the fault of GIS software UI/UX design.  Current GIS software is designed for a user to work with a database or data tables, and by generating a final set of data, the software will produce a visual product - the map.  Many GIS packages do providing CAD-like drawing or design tools, however application of these tools does not modify existing data.  They may allow one to create a new and empty shape file layer, but it is necessary to then attach data to that shape file.  If I want to make changes to a cartographic layer that already contains data, then I have limited options from the graphics side, and more options from the data side.

The outcome is that seemingly simple goals in GIS contain many steps to achieve and are not intuitive to a new user.   I recall when I was a new student to GIS that the strategy I created to learn the software was "right click at all times,"  otherwise it was impossible to know how to proceed.  Of course anyone who is a frequent GIS user finds all these smaller steps as intuitive because they have used it for a long time.  Consequently many GIS professionals have adapted to the logic of the system and have difficulty to see its flaws.

The other problem with current GIS platforms is the way they are taught.  When learning GIS, students are  introduced to the vocabulary of geography and cartography as the theory component, much of which focusses on the the map, not the data.   In the meanwhile they must undertake assignments and exercises focussed on the software.  The theory and the application remain separate most of the time.  A better GIS class would start with explaining and exploring databases without maps.  Once the student is comfortable with a database, geographic coordinates would be introduced (all using a common projection etc), maps would be generated, and finally the class would begin to explore geographic concepts.  In this manner the teaching is attuned to the system and moves forward in a simple and linear fashion.  

Over the last few years GIS has exploded with options.  When I was first introduced to these tools in 2006, the only options were ESRI products and GRASS as the open source alternative. Today we now have tools such as QGIS, TileMill, Open Street Map, and maps are frequently created tiles for a base map.  Yet I believe there is still plenty of room to reinvent the GIS interface.  I believe we can create a better GIS interface and user experience design to expand versatility.  

An ideal software package would provide each user with 2 options for user interaction.  One option is the same as the current approach, in which a technician works with the data to generate a visual outcome.  The alternative is software that allows one to create a visual modification which will also shift the underlying data accordingly.  This is a step beyond existing products, such as TileMill, which provide the means for designing beautiful maps, but do not allow one to conduct data analysis.

In the above image I rendered an ideal GIS interface, based strongly from Adobe photoshop, on account that photoshop is highly intuitive many users.  This interface features layers in the right corner like photo layers, but the most significant feature is the ability to work across Tables - Drawing/Selection Tools - CARTO in a fluid system.  For example, a user could click on physical elements of a map to select them in a table, then change the look of those items in the CARTO window. 

The array of GIS options today are phenomenal.  Yet I continually am working across different systems because there is no ideal platform for working with data, styles, and design in a fluid manner.  Perhaps we don't need a single platform for all that, but if anyone ever develops a method for underlying data to shift in response to graphic decisions, I suspect we will encounter an entirely new era of cartography.

Using Graffiti to Predict Insecurity in Afghanistan



Last spring I documented informal graffiti and political imagery throughout Kabul.  The result was over 1000 records of graffiti, which after carefully combing, resulted in about 800 data points.  Each data point is classified according within 15 different categories.  These categories include key words, language used, translation, political association, ethnic association, surface description (public building, private residence, private business etc.) and so on.  The goal was to identify geographic points of emerging social tension, utilizing graffiti as an indicator of resistance among youth.  Then I got distracted by other engagements.

But I've recently returned my attention to the matter and have started running the analysis.  The map below reveals one of the recent findings of the project, over lapping the linguistic distribution of messages with the ethnic and political content.  The yellow identifies graffiti that is purely written in Farsi, while the Red concentrations identify concentrations of Fari and Pashto.  Farsi is the dominant spoken language in Kabul, and it is interesting to note that Pashto graffiti is never isolated, but always located amid dense clusters of Farsi. (Note: If the embedded map does not load in your feedreader, please go to the original article source here).




The green squares signify locations of contentious rhetoric.  Many of these messages are critical of ethnic groups, are xenophobic, or criticize the government.  Some of these messages support the Taliban.

A rare example of protest graffiti in English. SSLLC 2012.
The points on the map where a green square sits on top of a red section identifies sections where there is a linguistic friction combined with an overtly political message.  Based on these two variables, the intersection of the green square and the red cluster are areas of highest social friction.

Notably, some of these locations have been known points of resistance in the past.  The cluster in the lower left (just above Qala-e-Shada) hosts Kabul University and a public park that is frequently the site of protest rallies.  The two square situated directly below the "U" in "Kabul" was the site of the Ashura suicide bombing in 2011.  It is possible that using only these two variables, that the current finding is mere coincidence.  But as several classifications of data remain , it will be possible to drill down with continued analysis.

I'm particularly curious about the concentrations that are not presently linked to a previous act of protest or violence.  What about these sites creates such a hostile and turbulent environment?  As all the data was collected in March/April of 2013, I am now running the project again.  I am using the same techniques and plan to capture the same size data-set.  I hope to see how the pattern changes, and more importantly, I hope to see where it stays the same.  By identifying the location of sites that do not change, then I can follow up with closer qualitative investigation of those sites.  Also by running the study again, I hope to to get closer to a better question - not where will points of insecurity or protest occur, but when?


Problem Solving through Design and Dancing your Phd: #design, #urbanplanning, #dance

Design is an experimental process to question and remix the obvious
Last week I wrote about how design has lately become over privileged as a problem solving tool with the recent pop-culture and corporate belief in the power of design-thinking.  Certainly while design-thinking will not solve all problems, it does have its merits.  In fact, it is the use of design and product-centric outcomes which differentiates my own work from many competitors.  Too often urban planning and development firms invest thousands of hours into research and strategy, only for the final product to manifest as a sterile report and an underwhelming powerpoint presentation.   Imagine if urban planning retained the energy of a design process throughout multiple phases of strategic problem solving.  It could potentially engage broader audiences, source more diverse inputs, and lead to solutions that aren't so easily diluted by city governments and regional politics.

Design thinking has benefits.  It is both systematic and exploratory.  Take for example a typical model for concept development within industrial design practice.  It is more or less similar to an urban planning approach - to identify stakeholder interests, define guidelines, to research similar projects and move forward with a product for phased testing.  Over time the concept becomes more refined and at anytime you can - and should - revisit previous steps to continue revision.  Eventually the final product is realized and implemented on a broad scale or mass produced.  Only within the process of idea creation are decisions arbitrarily made, yet the process is not strictly scientific or entirely reliant upon market tests.  In theory, the final result should maintain some degree (or hopefully all) of its original creative energy while nonetheless balanced and viable.  Typically work developed via a design methodology should be effective, attractive, accessible, inexpensive, and broadly communicative.  Perhaps it is the infusion of such simple concepts as "attractive" that have corporations suddenly lusting for design integration within their work.  Yet the real question is, why was this not a concern before?  How many revolutionary moments in human invention have been connected to the phrase "our product is really ugly, hard to use, and  cumbersome, but please ignore that."

Concept Development within Product Design Methodology

The power of design can also undermine real analysis 
Obviously a design-based approach has an important role beyond the idea development and solution process, as it has the means to transform sterile content into an engaging opportunity.  For example, a quick look through the UNHCR Statistical Yearbook reveals an adept use of Adobe Indesign and a variety of visualization techniques.  Or take for example the work done by Space Syntax.  Their GIS work is consistently beautiful. So much that I am often distracted by the quality of the renderings, uncertain of their specificity and meaning.   Of course that is a keen advantage to providing data via beautiful imagery, as the method can smoothen over the gaps in knowledge and research.  Then again, the strength is as much a weakness.  

If the purpose of design is to communicate, then we must be wary of how easily the beauty of design can undermine the ability to do so.  Communication is challenging, in particular when communicating complex information to audiences who are unfamiliar with the territory.  I believe every grad student experiences that moment when a relative asks "so what are you working on in school" only to watch their eyes glaze at the over-long, overly detailed, and laborious response.  A couple clean graphics could change this entire situation, yet the result could just as well become "what beautiful colors."

A recent TEDtalk by my buddy John Bohanon does well to illustrate how good intentions can go array when  communicating information.  In the video below (or here), John satirically examines the detrimental impact visual PowerPoint presentations have made upon the global economy.  And in a beautifully choreographed yet modest proposal, John demonstrates how other means of communication are perhaps more appropriate to explore complex concepts.  Although John embraces dance as a vehicle to communicate, one could just as well embrace music or knitting.  Ultimately, the vehicle by which a message is delivered cannot redefine the message itself.  It can only carry it.  Sometimes the correct vehicle is chosen and is a smooth ride.  Sometimes its not.  And sometimes, it would have been better to walk or ride a bike had one taken a moment to stop and consider the possibilities. 


3d Maps for Humanitarian Aid and Urban Planning: #googleearth, #kinect, #gis, #urbanplanning


NGO's often ask me to help them interface new technologies with current operations.  Sometimes accomplishing this goal is a simple matter of providing staff with some technical training.  On other occasions it requires a modification of data collection methods, database construction, and the organizational structure.  These tasks are not necessarily complicated, but they do require some imagination on behalf of the organization to ask probing questions about what is and is not possible in their organization.  This is particularly true when it comes to processes of data collection.

Within a humanitarian crisis, advance understanding of the geography makes all the difference among first responders.  But too often the situation is different upon arrival than had been expected.  Especially when faced with a natural disaster such as an earthquake when buildings collapse and road are uprooted.  Even when decent 2d maps are available, they only portray a fraction of the information necessary to situate logistical lines of operation.  First responders relay information back to headquarters, but I suspect that with ongoing technological developments, this can take place faster and better.
Google is well-known for their data-collection cars, equipped with fancy cameras by companies such as Elphel and Sick AG, roaming city streets to compile imagery for Google Street View.  Most of the streets recorded are major cities throughout western countries, but there have also been experiments utilizing snowmobiles and tricycles to collect the same information in difficult terrains.  Understandably, these systems are cost-prohibative for an aid agency, not only in terms of actual equipment, but also for data transmission, image compositing, database construction and the staff necessary to put everything together. It would seem an organization would need to function at the scale of Google or at least in partnership, but there are already many private companies out there - such as Cyclomedia and ImmersiveMedia- who conduct such work.  If aid agencies were able to have a navigable 3d rendering of a crisis immediately upon arrival, it could change everything.

So how can we scale this to something smaller and cheaper?

In terms of digital 3d scanning, there might be options in the near future as experiments continue with the Microsoft Kinect.  Originally intended for video games, Microsoft has been surprisingly "hands-off" about letting others hack and explore the device.   Archeologists are already beginning to explore utilizing the device to scan archaeological digs for analysis.  At the moment, the utility of such a device is limited to small spaces, but hopefully in the near future, the simple mounting of such a device on top of a vehicle could permit immediate digital scans of disaster sites upon arrival.  At present the tool is clearly best suited for reconstruction efforts, but as the resolution increases in the next couple years, the tool will be better formatted for humanitarian emergencies.

Likewise, at the very minimum, increased use of passive video collection by first-responders could provide headquarters offices a tool for marketing and communications.  Cheap and easy, the simple mounting of cameras to vehicles or clothing could rapidly collect information for digital late-night upload with no difficulty. Ranging in shape and size, bodycams/handhelds/and helmet cams have come along way since popularly used by extreme sports enthusiasts in the 1990s, opening the door for widespread application.  When I once worked on a project of a the Ohio Department of Transportation, I was surprised to discover the ODT had a collection of video footage of every roadway in the state.  Why can't an aid agency collect the similar information for all areas of operation upon arrival?

At the smallest personal scale, advancements in mobile phones and phone cameras provides the means to crowd source visual data collection.  On an individual level, mobile applications such as Fulcrum permit a means to collect geocoded photographs with customizable forms for databases.  With upcoming versions of the application to include audio and video, agencies have a rapid means to collect the information necessary to increase the efficiency of their response.  As the mobile device automatically synchs with the database in the cloud, any agency or individual can quickly and seamlessly integrate realtime video footage, photographs, and survey-style data collection with their preexisting information, providing a richer information system for management and planners.

Urban Planning and Design with a Drone: #urbanplanning, #gis, #drone, #design


As an Urban Planner who teaches in a Computer Science department in Afghanistan, I spend a lot of time thinking about ways to apply emerging technologies to analyze and solve problems in cities, informal settlements, and refugee camps.   I've been interested in this area ever since I observed the massive economic impact of a single mobile phone tower in the Dadaab refugee camps.  A couple years later I read about the role that communications infrastructure has had to improve security within Afghanistan, and was attracted to the idea due to its low cost and high output.  

Working in developing countries, I always keep in mind that development ideas conceived in the global north may do more harm than good in global south.  This is clearly evident whenever one looks at a formally constructed refugee camp, where it is common for engineers to clear all trees and vegetation before laying out a nice gridded settlement in a country where featureless, sterile grid communities are an oddity.  Conversely, I also support an argument made by Jeffrey Sach's that one of the primary roots of poverty is concerned with a gap in access to technology.  Clearly there is friction between the two ideas, yet upon occasions that technology is appropriated and implemented as a local solution, it is frequently a success.

Notably, when working in conflict zones, I've found that technology-based research and analysis provides far more opportunity than technology-based initiatives.  Most the time.  Yet this is a greatly untapped area for planners, to go beyond a simple reliance on pre-existing GIS databases or a survey distribution to collect real-time, meaningful data.  Quite honestly, it is hard to get good information, and it is even harder to get good information that is up to date.  If you buy it, its expensive, and if you do it yourself, it becomes a full-time job.  Consequently I'm always looking for strategies that are fast, cheap, and capable.  This might include the use of mobile apps or crowd sourcing strategies, but I believe an untapped area is the use of small consumer drones.


Recently a trend has emerged in journalism to collect information with readily available, consumer-market drones.  The use of drone journalism has been of great use in areas of political activism and chaos, such as protests in Moscow (stunning drone photos here) and Syria.  With increasing use of this method, the University of Lincoln-Nebraska has even founded a Drone Journalism Lab for further exploration.  

With the increased use of aerial video data collection by journalists and easily accessible with products such as the AR Parrot, I've recently been exploring how this same method could be of value to urban planners.  In some incidents, the answer is fairly obvious, as planners could simply use small flying machines to conduct mapping procedures akin to balloon-based aerial photography.  Utilizing a remote-controlled device rather than a weather balloon, it is possible to collect more specific data and at a much greater scale.  


Unfortunately, so far it appears that this method is not suitable for areas of conflict, given the role of drones within warfare. While the device of course is mobile and therefore does not put the researcher at risk (win), the necessity to physically collect the item at the end of the research process does put the research at risk (fail), or at the very minimum, raise local suspicions and create difficult conditions for further research (fail).  There may be opportunities to conduct such aerial research in an open and acceptable manner, but such instances are too rare to merit much utility.  

Finding an al-Shabaab Training Camp on Google Earth. #Somalia, #alShabaab, #gis

After two decades of watching Somalia collapse on itself and descend only into previously unknown depths of chaos, within 2011 it has dramatically transformed.  Undermined by the famine, al Shabaab has been reduced from a fighting force of about 7,000 to roughly 5,000.  Upon abandoning Mogadishu, the group has returned to their roots, utilizing hit-and-run tactics better suited to their small, agile forces.


Although Shabaab has been reduced, their training and recruitment camps nonetheless to proliferate across the south, near Kismayo.  These camps are designed to instruct youth to use weapons and “feature courses on bomb construction that are taught by al-Qaeda members in Somalia.”  To reinforce recruitment efforts, Shabaab has forced the closure of local schools to encourage students to join the battle against the African Union forces in Mogadishu.  Within a recent African Union report, al-Shabaab’s primary training camp was described as located in “Laanta Buro [sic] village at the periphery of Afgoye [sic] town nearly 40km south of Mogadishu.”


Al-Shabaab Training Camp 
I found this al-Shabaab camp in Google Earth by comparing a collection of descriptive sources. The location of Laanta Buur village is described in a 2010 country report for the UK Border Agency. 


“Heading beyond Agfoye [sic] in the direction of the coastal town of Merka, there are more checkpoints... at Laanta Buur, I am surprised to see that people can travel safely without fear of being ambushed... at Laanta Buur checkpoint, al- Shabaab militia members search men one at a time...”

Somalia has only one road leading from the southern coastal city of Merka toward Mogadishu.  


Following this road it was possible to quickly determine the location of al- Shabaab’s training camp at Laanta Buur approximately 40 kilometers south of Mogadishu, and within the vicinity of Afgooye. 


Laanta Buur contains several features that differentiate this space from the nearby towns and villages. Set back away from the primary road between Merka and Mogadishu by roughly 1⁄2 a kilometer, an airstrip runs parallel to the main road.


The airstrip was once a functioning airport known as “K-50.” For many years, when use of the International Airport in Mogadishu was too dangerous, K-50 was a fully operational airport utilized by many aid agencies to transport supplies into the country. In 2008, al-Shabaab took over the K-50 airport and all flights were suspended.


Laanta Buur Prison
Adjacent to the southern side of the airstrip is a series of large concrete buildings in a Modernist style, surrounded by a trapezoidal wall. The wall has two points of entry, one at the northeastern corner, and one at the southeastern corner. Upon closer inspection, one can discern that the surrounding wall features three guard towers on the northwestern wall.


This structure is one of the two infamous prisons constructed by Sayid Barre’s National Security Service (NSS). Constructed by East German engineers in the 1970s, this foreboding structure contains underground solitary confinement cells and was well known as a center of torture and abuse.81 The NSS utilized this prison as a “tool of intimidation, torture, and executions... the occupants of these centers, during this period, were mostly members of the political elite.”


An Amnesty International Report in 1984 described the acts of torture by the NSS at Laanta Buur and the prison of Labaatan Jirow to have included beatings while bound in a contorted position, electric shocks, rape, simulated execution, and death threats. Many prisoners were held in prolonged solitary confinement, and some cells were permanently dark while others were permanently lit, resulting in hypertension and nervous breakdowns among prisoners. 


A personal account of time spent at Laanta Buur, Mahumud Yahya described it as a very lonely place, where political prisoners were separated from families, friends, and loved ones and were denied decent food and even reading materials. Each prisoner was left isolated in a large, filthy, rectangular room, empty except for a toilet.  Yahya explains, however, that the one redeeming quality of the prison was the large courtyard, as prisoners at Laanta Buur were allowed to sometimes spend time there in the evening, whereas at the prison of Labaatan Jirow, located near Baidoa, prisoners were forced to spend the entirety of their incarceration in solitary confinement. 


Just as Laanta Buur prison was converted into an al-Shabaab training camp, Labaantan Jirow shared a similar history in the 1990s. According to a letter addressed to the UN Security Council in 1992, Labaantan Jirow was a point of operations for the Ethiopian military, which used it as a training camp and weapons storage location. 


Today, the prison appears to be abandoned, yet examination of the road to Baidoa that passes the prison suggests that it remains avoided as the adjacent roadway forks into an informal detour (with smaller fragmentary detours) to circumvent the prison. The additional time, effort, and challenge of driving through the bush would only be worthwhile if the driver had good reason, such as avoidance of an unseen checkpoint. It is also possible that the haunting memory of the site is enough to redirect traffic.

Deconstructing Kabul's Geography - #kabul, #afghanistan, #gis, #urbanplanning


For the last few days my life has been a nonstop process of researching geospatial technologies and softwares.  Since I was first introduced to GIS in grad school with ArcMap, its amazing how far these systems have come.  Looking into an open source platform, I initially spent my days with GRASS and while impressed by all its toolset, I've been frustrated by its bulky user interface.  Trying to construct informative maps with GRASS made me feel like I was stuck in a time warp, somehow using software from 20 years ago.  I have found more functionality using QGIS, but I'm still just looking for seamless integration and multimedia capabilities.

After my last post I received some emails about some new tools out there and later after a few email exchanges with Anthony Quartararo of Spatial Networks, he introduced me to some of the more exciting options out there an began to realize that a full-scale desktop GIS may not really be necessary.  Thanks to tools like MapBox,  IndieMaps, and Geocommons, it is possible construct interesting maps and have access to a wide variety of data.

For example, by using Geocommons I was able to quickly construct a map of Kabul with the location of each school in the city - or at least the locations in 2004, I haven't located more recent data.  I was then located the map into google earth.  Check it out, its a great way to explore the city.  If you can't see the image below, you can visit the site directly here.

View map on GeoCommons



While exploring my options for analysis and filtration, I also stumbled upon a site dedicated to 360 panoramic photos.  There is a fantastic panoramic of Kabul as shot from the top of TV Mountain - the central mountain in Kabul covered with antennae and satellite dishes etc.   Once again, if there is difficulty  accessing the image, please click the link below.


TV Hill in Afghanistan

Finding #Kabul on a Map - The Challenge of Acquiring #GIS Data in #Afghanistan


Lately I've been working hard to improve my skills with Geographic Information Systems.  As a Planner, GIS is a critical tool for researching, deconstructing, and analyzing human settlements.  I've been using GIS for several years, yet was never confident in my ability to utilize the software packages or the datasets.  I could do the work, but it was never intuitive.  Fortunately that is beginning to change.   Recently, GIS has taken on a new role in my life as I've been using it to determine and model advance indicators of insecurity.  While there are plenty of competing organizations and individuals out there hoping to find ways to asess the probability and locations of conflict  before it happens, the truth is, all these systems are bulky, expensive, slow, and not feasible for an individual user.  Yet there is a demand among individual users and so my goal is to create a  reliable statistical tool for common individuals with basic internet access, not to reinvent the wheel of security and defense.

Image via Spatial Networks
Surprisingly, the biggest obstacle hasn't been acquiring real-time data. Thanks to recent developments in social media, it has been remarkably simple to acquire and filter information on recent events as they happen.  When a problem takes place in Kabul, I have full details on that situation within seconds and after only a matter of minutes am able to fully assess its scale and location.  Knowing when and where things are happening is the easiest part.

Google Maps - Map of Kabul
Instead, the biggest challenge has been the acquisition of a useful base map.  In short, maps of Kabul are terrible.  Take for example this map acquired from Google.  You will notice that the streets outlined in yellow do not remotely correlate to the actual roads in the satellite image.  Someone should be fired for this.

WikiMapia - Map of Kabul
Other typical map options are equally limited.  In the past I've been a solid user of Wikimapia, as it allows individuals to upload information and draw vector-boundaries around areas of interest, so its useful for studying remote geographies.  It has been of great value when studying Somalia, and it is clear from the example that Wikimapia is densely loaded with relevant information in Kabul as well. Clearly this is better than Google, yet it has one majore flaw, it does not allow one to export the maps into any useable format.

Options do exist out there in the world to obtain high quality geographic data on Kabul, such as found through Spatial Networks, but if you are like me and must do the work with a limited budget, options are slim.  Using ESRI's online ArcExplorer, I was able to pull up a collection of maps for comparison.  Although they look suitable in the small examples to the right, once you actually begin to zoom inward, all feasibility of use at street-scale is lost.  Bummer.

Today I made the breakthrough and found the winner to be OpenStreeMap.org.  It functions basically like google earth, allows one to customize the map like wikimaps, but best all, allows the user to export the map as an XML file.  The result is that I can integrate this map with my datasets and an actually useful product is in the making.   I'm excited about the prospects of this new tool and look forward to sharing updates on its development in the near future.   If any other GIS users out there have insight on ways to obtain useful data and maps for less-documented places like Kabul, feel free to send me an email or something - I'm always looking for new information.