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Research

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.

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.


City. Text. Laboratory

A small sample from my research on graffiti for social analysis in conflict zones. Sutika Sipus 2013.

Any casual reader of this blog is familiar with my obsession over social research methods.  Not only am I fascinated by the idea of measuring and quantifying the intangible, but I also question the general viability of most social research instruments.  In the areas that I work, it is not practical to conduct standard surveys or the usual data collection procedures do to security threats, so consequently I'm somewhat critical of the information that does surface.  

For the last two years I've used Kabul as an urban laboratory to experiment with alternative methods of social analysis, and one project has been the cataloguing of graffiti and social imagery throughout the city.  Almost one year ago I wrote about initial explorations in this area of critical cartography.  

More recently I've been able to break newer ground by merging this technique with other methods.  I will be presenting my work this weekend at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  I can't divulge much on the details till the finished publication comes out next fall but anyone in the Boston area is welcome to attend the conference MIT8: Public Media, Private Media.   

For anyone that can't make it, I do have a semi-related book chapter coming out in August (just submitted final draft yesterday!) and hope to publish on this particular project in the late fall.   Its been a busy last couple weeks, and the year is just getting started!

Scaling Tools and Hacking Methods for Urban Development and Reconstruction



Case 1:
Last year an organization analyzing tribal conflicts in the Pashtun belt hired an outside consultant.  He had never been to Afghanistan before, had no familiarity with the issues, but had instead spent a lifetime studying patterns of gang violence in South and Central America.   I was optimistic about his role in the project as I hoped he would bring some keen insight and a new point of view that would revolutionize everyone's understanding of systematic violence in Afghanistan, creating a pathway toward viable solutions.   In contrast, the consultant made a series of irrelevant observations but charged a hefty sum, and left behind only a drained budget and a frustrated research staff.

Case 2:
In the latter years of Albert Einstein, he became obsessed with discovering GUT, the "grand unified theory" that will provide a scientific basis to create a total explanation for everything.  He approached the problem by trying to fuse theories on electromagnetism with relativity.  Not only did he fail in this endeavor, but his pursuit of it made him removed from the newer discoveries of his discipline, in particular the new field of quantum physics.  


The Pursuit of Universal Solutions
I mention these two examples as a consequence of a conversation I had last week with a professor from Columbia University. At this moment I'm loaded down with some deadlines over the next few days so I have little time to spare, but with  a new project on the horizon, I called her hoping to find the cliffs-notes version on relevant industry toolkits and best-practices to save time and ensure success.  Surprisingly, she didn't really have any answers for me.   

Initially I was annoyed, as I'm one forever interested in particular issues rather than specific geographies, and thus have a compulsion to study broad trends to glean useful cross-disciplinary and cross-geographic kernels of knowledge.  I too would likely have hired the Latin American violence expert for the project in Afghanistan.  In my own practice, I make a point to not be geographically specific in my abilities.  Yet over the last few days, my ideology has begun to shift.  Universality is a myth.  

Institutions are forever trying to build toolkits to bolster resilience, establish sustainability, or ensure economic development.  Development interventions, such as technology and business incubators for economic growth are often formulaic.  Certainly these projects can succeed, but how often and under what conditions?  While these are valuable tools, one of the first rules of carpentry is to use the right tool for the job, so we must ask, are these the best tools available?  If they are the only tools, then we need to modify the tools we have to better fit the tasks at hand.

When I was a graduate student, I spent years examining the viability of Sphere Humanitarian Standards for shelter creation within protracted refugee settlements.  Sphere outlines methods for disaster relief and reconstruction, making it a fairly useful tool for cross-coordination among stakeholders and relief organizations in the immediate aftermath of a disaster.  At the time, I questioned if it was well suited for upgrading in displacement camps that had been in place for decades since the tool is also used in that manner by some ngos.  After conducting extensive field work in Dadaab Camps of eastern Kenya, I learned that Sphere failed to fully account or accomodate the complex socio-economic mechanisms that developed overtime within the camps.  Consequently interventions crafted with Sphere, when applied to long-term settlements, were foreign and arbitrary to the matured local systems.  

Nowadays I question if the very essence of Sphere, as a framework designed for widespread and global application is perhaps entirely flawed upon conception.  While a tsunami will wreak the same kind of damage anywhere in the world, the levels of preparedness, the available social capital, and the legal structures in place will differ dramatically.  Within the current Sphere guidelines, it informs actors to examine and utilize local laws and customs but it does not explain how to do so.  How does this guidance, which is painstakingly obvious, actually helpful?  Rather than construct a universal Sphere, why not begin crafting Sphere guidelines at the country-level, so that all laws and mechanisms can be accounted and introduced in greater detail?  This will not work perfectly and an iterative process is also necessary on the ground, yet it will likely work better than the Sphere guidelines we have at the present.

Rather than focusing on the universality of our outcomes, we can better ensure our outcomes by refining the precision of our tools.  Are all intervention and research methods applicable anywhere?  One might initially think so, given that these methods are empirically designed.  Yet I would say otherwise.  Hence one cannot effectively conduct standard social research in hostile landscapes.  Due to the limitations imposed, the tools can become diluted to the point of uselessness.  For example, In Afghanistan, I would go so far as to say that all social research is flawed on account that it is "perception-based," which is nothing but a delicate phrase to describe indeterminable validity.   

Researchers working in Kandahar and other regions cannot carry any mobile technology to assist in data collection.  Nor can they probe deeply in local issues (at risk of becoming part of the problem) or maintain strict oversight of the data-collection staff.  Individuals who are paid to provide responses have no incentive to be accurate or tell the truth.  Notably, people are often questioned on issues to which they have no direct knowledge or experience, so they can only provide assumptions or guesses as answers.  

Conflict is not the only variable that shapes the effectiveness of our research tools and methodologies.  Language, social conventions, and insider-outsider relations all shape our abilities to do our jobs as researchers, planners, or policy-makers. This isn't new information.  These are typically the concerns discussed with an "Intro to Anthropology Class," but it is essential to question the foundations of our disciplines so as to avoid the pitfalls of chasing after a grand unified theory when the data itself is evident of something entirely different.  

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.  

Creative Problem Solving in #Kabul, #Afghanistan with #Technology and #Education

Since arriving in Afghanistan in August, I've worked aggressively to launch a new project called the Innovation Lab.  Available to select students at the American University of Afghanistan, the Innovation Lab, or (iN)Lab has been designed to extend education beyond the walls of the classroom and directly into the streets of Kabul. By teaching students to research and assess their own local environments, to work with limited resources and engage stakeholders while providing technological resources, I hope to see (iN)Lab fill a much needed gab in Afghanistan's local-scale development. Today registration opened, along with my own small marketing initiative to drive student enrollment.  But now, just when things were starting to take off, I feel like I've hit a setback.  Not a major one, but enough to be aggravated.

Apparently Harvard University opened their own Innovation Lab (i-Lab) this week, dedicated to launching young entrepreneurs into the public.  Consequently I'm disappointed by the news that their project shares the same name, a similar vision, and has the same timing as my own.  The positive side is that I believe my project is very unique in its conception, as the program draws from my own inter-disciplianry education in art & design, urban planning, computer science and work experience in conflict zones.  Arguably, I like to think that working with Afghan students to facilitate local community problem solving through such creative measures is far more innovative than providing privileged Harvard students with more tools to be financially successful.

I strongly believe in the program I have crafted and I fully intend to see it through.  Yet it very difficult to conduct such a program in Afghanistan. We have finite resources in terms of money and space, problems with security, aggressive traffic, power outages, poor internet service... the list goes on for a long, long time.  Working with so many obstacles, I've aggressively sought partners to contribute to the program, and yet nearly 20 universities, nonprofits, or companies failed to respond or simply said it is too intimidating to get involved.  However, there have been successes, and I am very lucky to have found the interests of spatial technology company Spatial Networks and the dynamic science journalist John Bohannon.  With their support (and hopefully others), hard work, and student dedication, I am fully confident that our program will accomplish its goals.  For now however, I'm left wondering if I should change the name.

Urban Planning in Conflict

Kabul, Afghanistan

I haven't updated this blog for awhile, although daily updates can be found at The Humanitarian Terrain.  The next couple months will continue to have a low rate of posts, however in August I will have far more to write about as I begin my new position in Kabul, Afghanistan.  For the present are some small news blurbs concerning urban development issues in regions of interest.

UNHABIT releases Charter of Values [LINK].  In line with contemporary trends in economic and physical planning, UNHABITAT has required ongoing partnerships with private agencies to facilitate project implementation.  To encourage a strengthened relationship that remains centered on UNHABITAT priorities within the private sector, the agency as created a series of guidelines to frame future partnerships.

New Model on Evolution of Urban Settlements [LINK].  By merging an expansive study of regional linguistic structures and local political organization in South East Asia, scientists have advanced a theory on the rise and collapse of past civilizations, wherein those that advanced the most quickly became more vulnerable and prone to sudden collapse.


Upcoming Conference on Building Resilience [LINK]. Heritance Kandalama, Sri Lanka July 19-21. Interdisciplinary approaches to disaster risk reduction and sustainable urban development.


Brief interview with Somali Archaeologist Sada Mire [LINK].  Although initially displaced by the ongoing conflicts of Somalia, Sada returned from England's University CollegeLondon to discover prehistoric rock-sites in the northern province of Somaliland.

Approval for new Egyptian Science Research City [LINK]. The ruling military in Egypt approved the planning and construction of a new urban development dedicated to technological research and scientific advancement. The campus will be situated on 300 acres near Sixth of October City.

No Rest in Somalia. Somalia premier quits, Danish Warship offers Kenya 24 captured pirates, 25 member of al-Shabaab surrender, while continued fighting displaces more residents...  [LINK].  In a desparate attempt to round up new recruits, insurgents have been visiting Madrasa's in central Somalia, looking for schools to stop teaching and offer children to join the insurgency [LINK]. 

The support of al-Shabaab through diaspora


I am pleased to announce publication of my article "The support of al-Shabaab through diaspora."  The research was conducted in two phases, in the winter of 2010/2011 and with follow up research in October of 2011.  The first phase was conducted personally in Nairobi while the second required more subtle means with the help of a local research assistant and translator whose name must be withheld to protect his identity.

The article does not go into methodology, however, research was conducted by qualitative techniques, relying upon non-participatory observation, participatory observation, unstructured and semi-structured interviews.  Research was conducted in public locations in Nairobi, Kenya.

The article posits some answers to the question, "why would those who have suffered from the actions of Somali militant group al-Shabaab be inclined to support this organization?"  Ultimately research has found that the ideology of the group to promote Islam over the interests of tribalism, the organizations socio-economic integration with the diaspora community, and its potential to provide an eventual peace are fundamental to the support of the organization.  Other initial findings include organization recruitment strategies that exploit pscho-social trauma, however additional research is necessary in this area.

Click this link to download a free .pdf copy of the Forced Migration Issue 37.  

To download a pdf of my own article,  http://www.fmreview.org/non-state/29.pdf