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technology

Technology Determined Cities or Strategic Design for Tomorrow?





Imagine if urban planners had more knowledge about cars long before automobile traffic was a common issue. Imagine if they had better understood chemistry or environmental sciences. How could that have changed the transit landscape? Could today's problems of automobile pollution or over-dependency on oil been curbed at the outset? Maybe, maybe not, but urban planners can change the future if they change their relationship to technology and the processes by which technologies are created.

Urban and socio-economic development are continually framed as a top-down or a bottom-up system of human decisions. Either the messiness of political action informs and determines the form and function of our lives or policy choices are made by experts reliant on consultation data. Yet this model fails to describe how the environment and the objects around us shape and structure our lives.  Development is not purely determined by people but also by places and things. We might believe we are designing our future, but much is predetermined by what we have designed in the past, by the technologies presently in development, and by the physical conditions of our designing. As long as urban professionals and policy makers ignore such factors, strategic design and policy will rarely accomplish what is intended.

Humans can synthesize DNA, break the sound barrier, and investigate distant galaxies. We wear computers that monitor our bodies and transport information at the speed of light. In the meanwhile, we compose our urban visions in massive paper books of zoning code and render aerial maps on a digital screen to shape the future.  Interesting technologies pop up almost daily that can provide value to urban planning and design, yet as a whole, these technologies are not thoughtfully integrated within planning practice. Certainly planners might use a given technology, but that is not the same as building a mindful socio-technical practice with the technology. Case in point, when I hear the words "how can a planner use a drone?" it is the engineer and the robot that is carving the pathways of our urban future - not the urban professional. There is also a particular moral imposition within the design of a drone - aside from the thinking of the engineer - wherein the design of the artifact delegates use and consequence.

Last week I was interviewed by a journalist on the subject of drones in urban planning and was surprised that all of the questions were focused on how planners should use these technologies. There were no questions about the possible negative results or externalities. There were no questions about the responsibility of planners to design new technologies themselves, or to work with groups of software engineers in the same way we work within community groups.

In its current form, the entire field of urban planning is reliant upon the visions of engineers at companies like ESRI, Autodesk, Microsoft, and Google. These companies showcase their products to urban planning departments stating "now you can do this thing we think is important." If the message is not clear enough, planners look at the technology and say "what do we do with this?" in an attempt to fit the solution to an unknown problem. The search by planners to incorporate drones into their work is a good example.  Certainly there can be a use, but does the drone solve a known problem or does it require the formation of a new problem? Do we want or need that new problem? The answer varies by time, place, and circumstance but I suspect these new problems often distract from more essential demands.

Consequently the technology startups, major corporations, product supply chains, and DIY hackers are designing our future cities - not designers, developers, or policy makers.  Any time a planner asks "how can I use a drone?", they are placing faith into the mind that designed the robot, the design of the robot, and the capability of the machine. Consequently we need urban professionals who are proactive in the technology creation to say "I want X to do Y so I can get Z," and sufficiently understand the technology to see this vision become reality.  If we are truly in touch with urban systems, we should have the vision and capacity to design our own tools to work with those systems.  The ability to make informs the ability to vision, and more importantly, it is the basis to executing that vision.

Planners have long been at fault for separating vision and implementation. In Yves Deforge's essay Avatars of Design: Design Before Design, the author recounts how renaissance inventors and designers for several centuries generated detailed plans with little understanding on how to implement them, leaving that task to another class of producers.  By the time of the 20th century, the role of artistry in mass production had been squashed, eclipsed by the rise of the Eiffel tower, embodying mathematics and engineering in place of design. The role of the designer whose job was to conceive new ideas fell into the shadow of the engineer who gave form to the possible.

In recent decades, the field of design and the planning profession has shifted toward human-centered methods as mathematics cannot alone solve all problems or generate positive human environments. Yet unlike planners, most of today's UX designers are more tightly connected to the DNA of their tools. They can write software and scripts to automate processes and they can construct new tools to make new visions into realities. When they are limited to produce something they envision, they share common vocabularies with engineers to give form to their intentions.  These designers do not need to be engineers, but their tacit knowledge and skills are sufficient to inform new ways of thinking, designing, and making.

So what of the future concerning new technologies in robotics, big data, and AI? Will humans be replaced by intelligent and superior machines? If the outcomes of the Darpa Grande Challenge are sufficient indicators (below), we are not at risk right now of any threats from these emerging technologies. Notably, none of the robotics teams included an architect or planner, even though every robot was tasked with managing the built environment. There is a clear demand for urban professional among the machines.

Will planners continue to react to the work of engineers, forever a decade or two behind the technology?  Already there is a deluge of books, podcasts, and news specials describing how new breakthroughs will change the economic landscape. People will lose their jobs to robots.  Cities will smolder amid collapsed economies. Or in contrast, planners could create a new preferable future, by repositioning their relationship to technology, taking hold of the materials, engaging the engineers, and embed themselves into the processes that shape our economic landscape. They can make digital tools and participate in the working groups that build the machines. They can take the lead in designing tomorrow and not just react to its arrival. They can design the future.




Designing Technology From Dust to Dust (Not Cradle to Cradle)


Tech companies might take responsibility for the workers who manufacture their goods, but do they ever think about the guy in Ghana who will buy a used mobile phone from his cousin in Canada?  What about the person inhaling toxic vapors melting down a disposed laptop 10 years after its release to sell the raw aluminum in Lagos? There are also thousands of entrepreneurs throughout the world who make a living by repairing small electronics, are they part of the equation when deciding how to lodge a battery in a tablet?

It is rare among designers to have deeper knowledge and connection to the places and people who extract raw materials for the earth and process them into materials for design.  Yet when I talk to designers about the desire to better understand the supply chains and life-cycle of their products, they are enthusiastic and want to know about these human interactions, but lack much information.  Certainly there is much to research in this area, but much work has already been done, at least enough to expand the way designers think.
Among social anthropologists, there is deep familiarity and research in the cultures around mining for resources, their collection, local marketing and distribution. An obvious "go-to" is the zabalyn community of Cairo scavenging, repairing, and reselling consumer goods.  But throughout the world, newer models of this practice have arisen that are strongly tied to technology rather than basic consumerism. A good example can be found in the Agbogbloshie dumps of Accra Ghana. Some of the more interesting research has uncovered relationships between this method of economic survival and local mysticism. From the collision of technology and local tradition is the emergence of email scamming that is locally conceptualized as experiments in magic .

Looking at this particular case study as a designer, it is suddenly clear that the objects we craft and send into the world do not only live in the hands and homes of a single buyer - typically predetermined via persona creation.  Rather my work might have multiple lives, resurrected anew by different actors in different geographies, than ever intended.  
Unfortunately, the knowledge these emerging cultures and practices in relation to technology creation and depletion remains ignored by corporations, design schools, and even the scientific community dedicated to scientific knowledge generated within low-income nations - as evidenced by DevNet. And in darker corners of the world, there are now places - such as in Batou Mongolia - where the death of technology does not even facilitate the creation of new social and economic activity, but can only poison the people and land. Designers do not directly contribute to such environmental atrocities, but are they not somewhat accountable?
Global Witness
It is challenging to design for the afterlife of a product, but it is certainly more doable to design according to the inputs. In the last ten years, there have been efforts to make companies more responsible for supply chains and material sourcing. John Pennderghast founded the Enough Project with the intent to end crimes against humanity with a focus on conflict minerals.  Other organizations have also risen to the task, including Verite, Global Witness, and Moabi. 
The Enough Project successfully lobbied for the creation and implementation corporate responsibility relating to supply chains within the Dodd Frank Act. By law, corporations have been responsible to regularly report and make public the communities, locations, and suppliers that create and allocate the goods for production. 
But like any law, there are no clear standards on the implementation of this law, and consequently, the degree of depth and general level of responsibility enacted by corporations has varied. In best case scenarios attention has been drawn to the quality of life for workers  and in the worse case, nothing has changed at the actual sourcing or economic processing of raw materials.
It seems that we cannot rely exclusively upon law, or NGOs, to facilitate the responsible design of technology to reduce harm. That responsibility rests on the shoulders of designers. The knowledge is out there, but we need to make the connections so as not to just design for the person who buys a new phone or a new watch, but to design for the people that took part in bringing that piece of technology to life and who will again breath life into it, or harvest its organs, upon its first death. As designers we might not be able to design away all the bad systems of our world, but at least we can design the world so as to change them.

Seeing Like A State (into the Future of War)



For over a decade, the non-state actor has held the world captive. Non-state actors can take many forms. Militant groups, criminal gangs, and drug cartels have risen to power in fragile states though rarely — if ever — with the intent to replace the role of state. They have generally pursued other interests. Some urban and conflict experts predicted that the erosion of the state by non-state actors will set the path for future wars. But at some point, state-like forms of organization are prone to emerge as these groups conquer larger territories and appropriate capital to such a degree that they must now take responsibility in generating new capital. The specific intent to formulate and replace the state will emerge out of sheer necessity. There is no other path for the non-state actor once the state has eroded.

Perhaps while the late 90s and early 2000s were the era of the non-state actor, the world is now witnessing the emergence of new state models in which geography is secondary to technology and the traditionally disruptive elements of governance such as religion and migration will serve as the corner stones. The components often ignored by governments as valuable, such as the activities informal economies and social relations, are the key components of a new political order. The new state is the government of outliers. ISIS might have territorial control to assert power, but it acquired this territory by distributed networks of information and people.


Three Observations on the Rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria:

1. The Islamic State, ISIS/ISIL/IS  - daeish- controls more land than the government of the UK.

2. Tens of thousands of people have migrated from around the world to join Daeish which also uses mass migration (from Libya to EU) as a threatening tactic.

3. Daeish generates at least 90,000 (perhaps even more than 200,000) social media impressions each day.

Indicators of A Changing Conflict Landscape
History is saturated with case studies of large, formal states invading and fighting fragmented assemblages and non-state, militant social groups. It never goes well. States struggle to construct an asymmetrical fighting force to engage non-state actors, and non-state engagement never permit a clear resolution. There is no one to sign a peace treaty or to surrender on behalf of all actors. There is insufficient coordination, authority, and agreement by non-state actors to conclude war with tidy endings. These systems are resilient because they are distributed.

Notably, ISIS is not an accident. It is a strategically planned institution that builds that leverages distributed networks to establish social capacity. Recently Der Speigal uncovered a collection of documents highlighting the explicit planning of ISIS by a former Iraqi Air Force Officer. This new state was not founded on Islamic values, but on identifying and structuring informal social relationships into concrete forms of land ownership and occupancy.

The founding of ISIS began with opening non-profits in targeted locations, collecting information on local families, and building small organizations than could integrate themselves into the local fabric. Alienated youth and foreigners were specifically targeted for recruitment and militarization. By building the organization into the society, traditional community assets — such as the influence of important families — could be undermined through subterfuge.


Like A State
In its formation, ISIS may have relied upon different social elements than one would expect necessary to construct a state such as a formal constitution or codified rule of law. But notably, to appropriate the concepts of James Scott in “Seeing like a state,” ISIS has from the outset used all of the same strategies and methods of a typical, planned, and ordered society.

ISIS leverages relationships, assumptions of Islam, and private details for citizens, but at its core, ISIS is an “administrative ordering” of society. Whereas most western societies rely upon empiricism and technology to guide the organization and production of knowledge, ISIS promotes a message of religion to do the same, but in contrast mobilizes its own identity as the underpinning of social order (like a cult). This isn’t exactly high modernism (as Scott asserts), but perhaps could be considered something akin to high medievalism.

ISIS is an authoritarian state that coerces and manipulates civil society. According to normative conceptions of state building, marginal members of society must be organized into to the state, and here within ISIS, we see the state goes beyond organizing its margins so as to make them central. Alienated youth around the world are the core soldiers of ISIS.

Building on Scott’s concepts, we can make some assumptions about the future of ISIS:
  1. If ISIS continues to expand using a local grass roots model of expansion, so as to always give the impression that its territorial control emerged locally, it will persevere.
  2. As long as ISIS continues to localize and centralize the peripheral actors to function at its core, it will continue to advance rapidly.
  3. As long as ISIS lacks a state-like objective — such as agricultural productivity — it will not be crippled by the necessity to build robust institutions. Note that in the 1990s, the Taliban was able to rise to become a government by means of informal channels, but it struggled to operate as a state (at least in the way most nation states are measured externally).
Long Term Horizons
In general, an organized military is designed to engage in state-to-state classical warfare. With the rise of the non-state actor, there have been attempts to transform military organizational structure into agile units, relying extensively on special forces and similar specialists, to engage distributed actors. This strategic shift to agile teams has given States the ability to win battles but not to win wars.
States, in contrast to insurgencies, are conquerable. A state can be engaged symmetrically, it can be modeled, and it can be undermined. In consequence, perhaps the key to defeating ISIS is to wait for it to grow up.

Maybe the most efficient way to defeat ISIS, unfortunately, is to waif for it to mature. This sounds counterintuitive because a more stable ISIS means it will have more robust supply chains, resilient command structures, and organizational capacity. It is risky. But as a state, it is also aligned to the capacities of global militaries. When the US invaded Iraq to defeat Saddam Hussein, it was able to take control of the entire country within only 6 weeks. The bigger problem is then what? 

Themes of Future Wars
Future conflicts will be distributed systems (like today's global war on terror), but concentrated foremost where digital urban infrastructure spatially correlates with vast gaps in wealth and hindrances to social mobility.  This exemplified by the strategic locations in which ISIS was able to gain a foothold, as social capital provided local leverage while technological connectivity provided a unique mix of autonomy and organizational structure. By slamming these two oppositional forces into the same space, we can identify immense pressures on a digital urban interface.

The significance of in geography in has forever been proportionate to the ability or inability to communicate, operate, and interact across distance.  For example, Genghis Khan was successful because he used a system of fires to distribute messages vast distances very quickly.  Or in more recent decades he US military has struggled to supply fuel to FOBs in challenging terrain, whereas the cost of fuel distribution is generally far higher than the value of the fuel itself.

Likewise the creation of the internet has revolutionized economies who no longer need to focus on industry or exports, but rather can focus on pure brainpower (such as found in India's thriving BPO industry).  For centuries whoever held Afghanistan controlled the world because it was the link between the East and West, but today it doesn't matter because we can send an email from one side to another. Everyday, the role of physical geography grows smaller.

Regarding the development of conflict, distribution of small groups will initially be affected by physical geography, but it becomes secondary to the virtual geography. If the process of actor clustering and distribution is fast enough, the physical geography melts away to leave intact high-speed, highly-connected, sprawling digital networks of semi-autonomous groups (like ISIS). The resulting threat levels are relative to the organizational capability of the group to manage these networks. Some will succeed and many will not. If you start a terrorist group, make sure to have a strong IT support team.

Predicting The Location of Future Conflicts
I suspect that in 30 years, a city like Lagos, Nairobi, or Mexico City is more likely to confront a civil war than Mogadishu. The physical terrain is completely irrelevant to the location of the conflict, thus Syria is the preview of future wars. Syria was by all means a nice country with decent infrastructure and extreme polarities between classes, though enveloped by an oppressive government. It had the right mix of technological capacity, social tension, and political corruption/ineptitude to ferment into blazing war. Syria will not end soon.

A key component of what I describe — but easily overshadowed — is that the physical distribution of the advanced communication technology is essential to undermine the value of geography. There is a strange interaction here… build a robust IT infrastructure and the typical concerns of physical geography (roads, industry, mountains) fade away. Yet this robust the IT infrastructure but be locally integrated, because if the virtual geography is inaccessible to economies of scale, the more you will find non-state actors will emerge, distribute, and virtually cluster.

Notably infrastructure distribution does not exist in a vacuum, but is determined by the logistical advantages/disadvantages of geography, which will also impose a degree of irregularity on the time-scale of the distribution. For example, with only one horrendous road linking Mombasa to Burundi, the distribution of mobile phones, towers, and routers is hindered. They become concentrated in Nairobi and Kampala. The virtual geography only leaks into the hinterlands. In the meanwhile, extreme gaps in wealth and opportunity are also found in Nairobi and Kampala. Consequently we see an emergence of conflict within the urban centers, but as the IT infrastructure expands to supersede wealth and geography gaps, the volatility of the conflict actors is reduced. A big question is ‘can the skills to leverage the technology for social mobility expand at the same rate as the physical infrastructure?’ Obviously not — and the grounds for militarization emerge.

Demand for Proactive Socio-technical Alignments
ISIS is a socio-technical response to problems of governance, capitalism, and cultural alienation. It is possible to defeat ISIS by permitting it to mature into a formal State, and thus it takes on the tropes that make states sluggish. But for now, while it remains agile and distributed — disconnected from the geography which it dominates — it will continue to thrive.

The most important question is not how to defeat ISIS, rather the biggest question is how to prevent the next iteration. It might sound simplistic, but education is the critical piece of the puzzle. High technology infrastructures are permeating the globe at a faster rate than people can learn to utilize them for social mobility. While the issue of militarization is more complex than social mobility and alienation, these are well known components of the mix than can be better accommodated. Notably these alignments need to come from both supply and demand sides of the equation. People need to be educated to better use and integrate with new technology, but new technologies must be designed with the responsibility to better and integrate within society and social context. This isn’t a new idea, in fact, one country has already taken measures to do this.

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.

Designing The Perfect Glass of Wine in 3023



The audio piece below contains a fictional story I wrote and situated in a soundscape I composed in Logic.  The story is a snapshot of a professional wine taster, a sommelier, working at some point in the future when the production of wine has been technologically perfected.   The title might be a little too cheeky with the overt Huxley reference, but I just couldn't help myself. 




What does this have to do with urban planning?  Everything.  I realize my writing has been getting a bit apocalyptic lately, but it is merely the consequence of all the books I've been reading in the realm of Science, Technology and Society.  I am a big proponent of technology and my livelihood is dependent on the interface between the physical and the digital, yet it is necessary to be critical of the new technologies that we create given the inevitability of the feedback loop we build with each new piece of tech.  

Where urban theorist Mike Davis argues the world will become dominated by slums, I contend that just the opposite is more likely, whereas we might over-design cities and life in general into an overly mediocre and bland existence.  Where David Kilcullen believes that the future of war is will be found in coastal urban hotspots, I advocate that the location of future wars will have less to do with the land and more to do with the communications and energy infrastructure.   I'm not afraid of this particular vision, considering my own biggest nightmare is to live in a world designed by Richard Florida.   Personally I'm still hoping for something more like BladeRunner and with all the time I've spend in Detroit, Dubai and Bangkok in the last 10 years, I feel like we are getting fairly close.

We press ever onward into the unknown. Only an absurd and naive individual would advocate that previous eras could ever supersede the present or future in terms of moral or cultural authority, the venture forward does necessarily designate a better quality of life.  We must be careful, but of course, we do not truly know how to do so.  Not really.  But I do know one thing; where the technological horizon collides with the dusty roads of the developing world - thats where you will find me.

The Human Latency of Smart Cities and Data Driven Reward Systems


Last week the number of participants registered with the US healthcare website were released and the results were unimpressive. This could be for many reasons, although personally, I have not enrolled simply because the website, like all technologies, is an iterative process.  Whenever a new operating system rolls out for my laptop or ipad, I'm always excited, but I'm never an immediate adopter.  I typically wait until an update is launched, which is typically about 2 weeks later.  I'm rather excited by the healthcare initiative, but it would be foolish to rush into enrollment.  The website, like all technologies is a work in progress.

The constant media coverage about the dismal enrollment numbers has been paralleled only by NSA scandals which has done much to raise the social dialogue on issues of connectivity, surveillance, and our data driven lives.  In a few previous blog posts I've reflected on the persistence of data beyond communal memory.  This week I've had some time to read some of Anthony Townsend's new book Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia.  Concurrently I've also been reading Addiction By Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas by Natasha Dow Schüll.  While both of these texts appear to handle different subjects, I'd argue that their is actually a strong link between these works and the current issues of technology in society.

Within Smart Cities, Townsend begins with a historical overview of urban technology development and describes the evolution of major corporations presently working with these issues such as Siemens, Cisco, and IBM.  He identifies established and emerging systems to contend with urban planning issues of climate change, traffic, and economic growth.  But Townsend isn't advocating for these mega-companies to dominate data-driven urban development.  Rather, he advocates for a more widely distributed net of stakeholders, consisting of empowered everyday citizens who use technology to interface with their governments and businesses to create a bottom-up model of a well designed urban landscape.  

I've met Anthony a couple times and have followed his work for many years.  Last June I sat in the audience at Poptech The City Resilient and listened to his talk on designing a wireless network in New Jersey that will continue to function under threat of natural disaster.  His faith in smart systems is optimistic, yet carefully hesitant, and I believe his argument for the creation of smart cities to be a more democratic process to be on target.   

Yet my own concern about smart cities is less about the actors involved in the creation of the technology and the control of the data, but is more interested in the actual "recipes" used to streamline the city.  When I lived in Cincinnati, I recall it had demographic and economic qualities nearly identical to the city of St. Louis.  Consequently, it was common for these two city governments to simply share or sell each other studies on their own cities (such as research on industrial clusters) rather than conduct the work internally.  If somethings works in St. Louis, then it should work in Cincinnati!  On a different scale, I've also sat in several meetings with members of the United Nations advocating a similar boiler-plate approach to urban development - even if the project failed in the first instance, it would be replicated and applied to the second.  

Consequently I believe that an extensive level of qualitative research must be done before any quantitive system can be constructed and applied to a given city.  Of course this is expensive and methodical mess, so probably not in the interest of companies like IBM.  This is where Anthony and I overlap.  If the work is done by the local communities, then the outputs will likely best conform to the local demands.  

Anthony advocates and hopes for the widespread participation of urban citizens in the creation of smarter cities.  He does well to identify many small organizations working to teach programming and give momentum to local-scale smart city development.  But here we differ again... my outlook is gloomier.

For much of internet history, we have mostly lived under the 90-9-1 rule - wherein 1% of internet users create content, 9% curate, and 90% consume.  In the 20 years we have had the internet, this has improved as online content creation has risen with the advent of social media.   In 2004, The Pew Research center found that 44% of internet users had actually created content on the internet.  Now, Pew has found that number has drifted upward to 54% in 2013. I should add that the Pew Research Center released another study identifying that 15% of Americans are not even online.    I realize this is a a very small snapshot, but does this rate imply that it will take 99 years for 100% of internet users to also become content creators?  But what is a more reasonable number? 50 years? 20?  

If 20 years of global internet access has resulted in only 50% of all internet users to become content creators, how will this translate to more technical processes such as coding?  Yes - there are many high quality online tools today for people to learn computer programming skills for free.  I am personally a frequent user of such tools.  But this stuff is not easy, requires discipline, and is not a skill set available in a readily consumable manner.  More importantly - there is an issue of incentive.

Participation in any enterprise requires an incentive, but the situation darkens when the enterprise has a steep learning curve.  Apparently health care and national security are not a sufficient incentive for most Americans to use a website or forsake personal data.  But in contrast, millions of Facebook users supply very personal details of their lives to the Facebook company for the satisfaction of gossip, shared photos, and adorable cat videos.  What incentives exist for a democratized process of urban systems design?

This is where I feel Schüll's research on human addiction to casino machine gambling might provide light.  Casino machines are highly refined to maximize the amount of time an individual spends on the machine.  Casinos also employ various design techniques to drive customers toward machines and increase time of play.  But many casino's now feature data driven analytics to refine the experience further, to create new machines, and to ultimately derive far higher profits.  An excellent example is the use of rewards cards.

Subscribed loyalty rewards programs encourage repeat visits but they also give customers a reason to share data.  By providing customers with free rooms, meals and tickets to special events - or even paid weekend resort getaways for high rollers - casinos provide a series of convenience and in exchange, capitalize on the windfall of collected data.  Many casinos maintain 90 different demographic categories on each customer, can predict future calendars and budgets, and generate behavior reports to assemble the best package of rewards to offer each individual.  If a customer strays from pattern... for example, a habitual gambler stops making visits, that person will be emailed, snail mailed, and telephone called with enticing offers to return.  

This creepy surveillant system has been of great value to the casino industry.  It works.  But it also appears to be popular with patrons.  According to Schüll, in Las Vegas casinos, "70% of gamblers use loyalty club cards" and the number continues to rise.  Apparently the provision of personal information to a corporation is okay in exchange for a hotel room and a prime-rib dinner.  But website enrollment for affordable healthcare?  Snooze.

A distinct difference between the task/reward systems of the casinos and the healthcare enterprise is that in the healthcare website, an individual must still express a level of work and payment in exchange for the reward.  Whereas in the casino system, it appears to consist entirely of rewards for the user.  The array of losses are behind the scenes.

So returning to the issue of "who" leads the charge in the creation of smart cities, I honestly don't see a great degree of grass-roots design unless the amount of effort is reduced and a direct system of ongoing incentives is increased.   The success of the Citi Bike initiative in New York City is a good example. Users enjoy the convenience of an affordable system, brought about through public-private partnership, and the primary sponsor CitiBank maintains a constant influx on user data with which to capitalize. Perhaps in the end the only real winner will be the bank, but right now it appears as a worthwhile exchange for over 100,000 enrolled bike users. 

Perhaps this rewards model can be applied somewhere as we continue down the road of data driven city optimization.  Maybe a clear system of direct incentives can be provided in exchange for citizens to contribute to the creation of better neighborhoods and the sharing of personal data.  Maybe one day, however, the simple rewards of a safer, cleaner neighborhood will be enough?  

The persistence of data and slow urban death



One day you may never again sit in traffic at 4pm in the rain, hear that song from 20 years ago on the radio and then wonder whatever happened to your ex from college. There is no need because you will never sit in traffic, the radio is customized to your listening profile, and you still talk to your college ex on Facebook. You still talk to all your exes actually, so you never need wonder "what might have happened?" had you stayed with that person.  The relationship never died.

Urban planners use tools like zoning, economic development hubs, urban design, and historic preservation to create a better living environment.  Yet better for whom? The question of values has frequently been discussed within planning theory, and over the years planning has shifted to include participatory processes, advocacy models, and mixed systems of governance.  There is no universal definition of better, and yet, I would argue while attempts have been made to diversify the planning process, a preconceived ideal still dominates the outcome.  

Today the "big thing" is the creation of smart cities.  Distributed systems of digital sensors and wifi networks blanket over 140 cities in the world to create highly efficient traffic systems, disaster relief, and energy efficiency.  Computing heavy weights like IBM and Microsoft are heavily involved in creating the technologies and working with governments on such systems.  Media channels cycle through progressive articles on these smart systems.  Whoever designs the software designs the future.

I have a love/hate relationship with these technological systems for urban management.   I am a technology creator so obviously I subscribe to many of the benefits.  Yet for smart cities, it seems that all of these efficiencies are narrowly fine tuned to accommodate a universally implied yet generally undefined ideal. Replicated across cities, and undercurrent of imposed values channel all societies toward a particular standard for living and all cities eventually conform.  By putting efficiency before humanity, the buzzing chaos of auto-rickshaws in New Delhi or the thumbing bass of Kenyan matatu's ripping down the city streets could easily become a thing of the past.

The economic advantages are obvious.  We could solve the problem of climate change.  But I foresee that these technologies allow us to mechanize cities to achieve maximum capital valuation of land and space.  While Hernando De Soto advocated the creation of legal documents to turn shanties into real estate, these newer technologies transform real estate into machines. Mechanized and optimized, our buildings generate lower carbon footprints and buses run unobstructed. 

But the data never dies.  It simply accumulates, ever minute of every day, for hundreds of years.  Every fluctuation of weather is documented, and so is every criminal act and social protests.  Market fluctuations are recorded and correlations are identified deep within the data architecture that would be considered by most observers to be entirely spurious.  But the algorithm knows.  It builds it's own programs within programs.  It doesn't need us to understand.  In the essence of being participatory, our urban technology centers dump terabytes of data back into cyberspace every quarter second to be picked up by sophisticated trading algorithms.

Perhaps eventually the persistence of digital memory supersedes the collective.  We forget ourselves and we forget the notion of environmental change.  The city can no longer transform across time because it is too hyper-efficient to necessitate change and civilization is halted as every social process. We forget ourselves and fade away.  All that is left is a digital memory, factored into a NASDAQ exchange, stored in a hard drive,  and then lodged away in darkness.

Democracy 2.0 - Asking the People in Syria for their Input


Before taking any further steps in Syria, why not ask the people in Syria what they want to happen?Sounds outlandish, but with a little imagination and some basic technologies, its completely possible.  It even has a precedent.

Many city governments such as in New York City have discovered the value of combing the landscape for metrics and using this data for city management while organizations like Datakind specialize in extracting and interpreting information from neighborhoods. From mapping the spatial distribution of poverty at the World Bank to Kenyan citizens reporting violence with tools like Ushahidi, lots of organizations have discovered the value of obtaining and leveraging local level information to make informed decisions.

The technologies used to collect and organize this data do more than provide a picture to experts. These technologies also open the floor for broader participation.  I am in no way saying that technology solves all problems, but as a tool for communication, it can make voices heard that would have otherwise remained in the shadows. 

At this moment the world is in panic and American's are distraught over the decisions regarding Syrian intervention.  The decision making process is reliant now upon the influence of popular opinion, congressional interests, media storms, intelligence collection, international agreements, and back room discussions.  Yet among all the talk, the most important voice has been excluded from the conversation - the voices of people living in Syria.

Engaging an entire national population, let a alone a population under pressure from the horrors of war, is no easy task. But it is possible, at least to a degree, to use a mobile phone technology like rapidsms for citizens to vote by text message just like popular tv programs that ask audiences to vote for their favorite performer.  I was informed this morning by a friend with family in Syria that the mobile communications infrastructure in Syria is not steady, but over the last year it has been working off and on.   With a little ingenuity it would be possible to create a window for voting and to filter messages.  A little bit of scripting and it is possible to cancel multiple-votes from the same number and even to map the distribution of votes across the landscape. 

A simple text message voting system will not capture popular opinion of everyone in country, but it can provide a statistically viable sample.  More significantly, implementing a tool such this could refigure the entire future of foreign policy and global security.  International policy makers already have the tools at their disposal to engage those populations most affected by military intervention, leaving imagination as the only missing piece to the puzzle.

After the Robot Wars: Drones, Interface Design, and Urban Reconstruction


I use Urban Planning methods for conflict stabilization and post-war reconstruction.  This focus demands that I also maintain an ongoing understanding of trends in contemporary warfare, whereas I seek to create an urban environment goes beyond physical reconstruction, but also facilitates the psychological healing of afflicted populations.

Lately I have been investigating how to apply concepts from service and interface design to conflict and post-conflict environments.  Service and UI design both are rooted in understanding user approaches and psychological impulses to craft a satisfying user experience in retail or online.  If we can craft a retail experience to facilitate greater customer satisfaction, such as how Apple uses of free-floating associates who can provide sell you an iphone at the display table, then we can apply the same steps and research methods to shape urban environments to maximize the urban experience of the citizens.  Likewise I believe we can use these steps to create opportunities for pacification, identity construction, and community healing.

But today while researching concepts in service and UI design from Carnegie Mellon University (famous for robotics), a new concept came to mind.  As drone warfare continues to escalate in use and force, the conflict cities of the future may have little evidence of human destruction.  Those initiating the war may be thousands of miles away, yet the perpetrators of war in the eyes of the local community, will become more abstract.  

I'm not claiming the future will look like the battlefields of Terminator 2 or The Matrix, but rather I have a few new questions:

Can we facilitate community healing after destruction waged by technology?

Does the identity of the perpetrator matter when reshaping a conflicted landscape to manage memory?

Does the use of high-tech, non-human weapons of war negate our ability to learn from war or overcome the resulting trauma?

Stories of Change in Mogadishu Somalia


When you hear the word Mogadishu, what do you think?  Probably nothing positive.  Perhaps violence, pirates, child soldiers, and a desolate wasteland.  But is this accurate?  Does your idea of Mogadishu match the reality of the city today? I am pleased to launch the site, rebirthofmogadishu.com, a collaborative effort between myself, Urban Interactive Studio, and the Benadiir Regional Administration.

Through this site, those who have been to Mogadishu, plan to visit, currently live there, or simply maintain an interest in the city have an opportunity to participate in reshaping its perception.  Journalists are not always accurate, nor are governments, so this is a way for anybody and everybody to contribute to redefining the city.

 So visit Rebirth of Mogadishu and spread the word! You can also find us on twitter or on facebook.

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 in Kabul with a Low-tech Drone: #kabul, #urbanplanning, #gis


Earlier today I wrote a post about the idea of utilizing drones for urban planning and design. Although little more than a digital camera connected to a flying helicopter, the idea of a personal "eye in the sky" would allow urban planners to collect real-time spatial information for analysis.  However, while this might be an excellent improvement over the traditional use of weather balloons for aerial photography, the high-profile nature of drone research would not be suitable for hostile environments.  As drones vary in size, from large aircraft to small bird-like robots and gliders (or even as small as insects), the role of drones within contemporary combat undermines the ability to use one for spatial urban research.  

A couple hours later I was driving through Kabul when I saw some children playing in the street and a new idea struck.

Kites.  

Every night the Kabul skyline is dotted with kites of all shapes, sizes, and colors. Children and adults fly kites at a range of altitudes from the street, rooftops, mountaintops, ruins and street corners.  Kites are a common feature throughout the city and while they lack the specificity of a remote-controlled craft, a sufficiently strong kite and a small/light camera would easily allow one to photograph the city from the sky without objection.  It would not attract any unwanted attention and could be flown at any time of day.  Of course one would need a super small, lightweight camera, but such a thing a possible.   I've seen tiny cameras in big box stores in the US and all over the internet. Acquiring one on the spot in Afghanistan or elsewhere simply requires a little advance planning.

It does raise questions about invasion of privacy, but I would posit it depends on how one uses this strategy.   If it is merely to analyze urban infrastructure and broad social patterns such as traffic, then it really isn't an invasion of privacy any more than google earth.  The only difference is that it is faster, cheaper, and provides more immediate flexibility.  

Certainly much work would be necessary to adjust the images into an accurate rendering of the landscape, but ultimately the necessity of accuracy is relative to the demand.  This would not be a good method to map property boundaries or any surveying work, yet it would be a great way to determine times of traffic congestion or bottlenecks.

The idea of using a kite for aerial photography and video makes me wonder as to what other local-technologies might offer for urban research within conflict.  Of course this strategy won't work everywhere, but I am certainly curious about the results this experiment will yield in Kabul in the near future.

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.  

Refugee Camp International Development Consultancy

Some Good News

What a week!  Busy, productive, and satisfied.

The last couple months have been rather frustrating, as my search for a new and interesting employment opportunity has been rather tiresome.  Although there have been plenty of jobs to apply for, it has taken incredibly long for to hear responses, arrange interviews, and get results.

However, last night I officially accepted a position.   Although I was initially uncertain about the capacity of this organization to undertake the ambitious projects they are pursuing throughout the world, I have come to the conclusion that their ambitious work is backed with by a talented, brilliant, and dedicated staff whose objectives correlate greatly to my own.  I am quite pleased to join the team, and look forward the further expansion of this partnership.

This NGO approaches international development and aid from a different perspective than might be traditionally assumed.  Rather than giving aid, they give work.  In their words, it is a micro-work organization, that brings computer based work to women, youth, and refugees living in poverty.  Over several years, I have witnessed individuals within an array of companies work hard to acquire skills necessary to participate in the global economy, yet with few opportunities to put these skills to use, these efforts have remained unmerited.  It works to target the locations where skilled populations with limited economic activity are located, and collaborates with various institutions and business partners to generate income facilitating activities by means of online data entry, research, or product testing.  Samasource is a global operation, pursuing projects throughout Africa, Asia, and low in-come communities within the United States, such as within rural south-west Mississippi.

I will now oversee all projects within Kenya.  This includes 18 projects located within Nairobi, 2 within the Dadaab Refugee Camps, and the potential expansion of camps within other towns or nearby countries in the future.  This is a very exciting opportunity for Samasource, the Kenyan and Refugee populations, and myself.


Pursuing development within a protracted refugee settlement is a complicated issue.  In the classic model of humanitarian aid, the disaster happens and international agencies show up to dump lots of stuff on people - food, skills development programs, micro-loans, building materials, security, and clean water.  Certainly these things are important, because we have a responsibility to help one another in the world, and no problem can be solved if people are dying of starvation, sickness, and war.  But after awhile, new problems emerge. The infusion of food aid, might undermine the ability for the food markets to recover. For example, as free sugar will always cost less than the locally grown or sold product.  People who might have made a living growing, shipping, or selling sugar, will no longer have a livelihood and will need to find new methods to stay afloat.  Such problems have a way of spiraling out of control.  Clearly at a certain point, adding more stuff is no longer the answer.  The trick is to then start identifying strengths and to work toward removing the obstacles that keep these strengths from blossoming.  Problem is, so far no one has been able figure out how to determine this 'point of transition.'

When I was in Dadaab I noticed that the construction of a

cell-phone tower had become a major strength within the development of these camps.  After is was constructed, thousands of individuals scraped up whatever money they could find to get some sort of cell phone.  Maybe several families would buy one together, while others could be purchased through loan programs.  With a cell phone, refugees could stay in contact with relatives abroad, make arrangements for money to be wired, learn about weather conditions before grazing animals and a multitude of other advantages.  Money began to flow into the camps, and then new businesses emerged.One man would purchase an electric generator and re-charge your phone batter for a fee, while another would get hold of a used computer and provide email access via the cell phone network.  Next another man would start a business teaching computer classes so that interested men and women could expand their opportunities.  Keep in mind that people living in circumstances of conflict induced displacement are not 'poor illiterate farmers.'  These people had livelihoods and professions in their nation of origin.  Many were carpenters, lawyers, truck drivers, secretaries, and mechanics. Seeking to improve their livelihood and support their family, people always seek to adapt to market demands.  The problem with a refugee camp however, is that government policies restrict viable economic growth.  Although someone might acquire an array of computer skills and have access to a computer, it does not necessarily translate into having a job.  Someone else will need to provide that.

By giving work, they are providing a means to for individuals to help themselves.  By opening the door to the global economy, a major obstacle on the pathway toward stability and development has become available to that population.  Projects such as those undertaken by Samasource might be the essential element within overcoming the gaps between humanitarian relief, development, and a functioning stable economy.  I am grateful to have this oppurtunity to work on the forefront of such a project, and look forward to a healthy and vibrant experience in the near future.

I will be relocating to Nairobi within the next couple weeks.



Dadaab, Kenya: The Worlds Largest Refugee Camp

[caption id="attachment_106" align="alignleft" width="280" caption="Kenya"]Kenya[/caption]

Dadaab is the largest refugee camp in the world.  Composed of three individual camps (Ifo, Hagadera, and Dagahaley), it contains over 250,000 people and has been declared by Oxfam as unfit for humans.   Founded in the early 90's,  the camps were established with the intended lifespan of only one to two years, the continued growth of the population and expansion of the camps has required continuous adjustments to camp infrastructure, management, and policy.

The camps are located in a semi-arid region that is otherwise largely inhabited by a nomadic pastoralists.  This environment greatly limits livelihood opportunities within the camps, and it is highly unlikely that the refugees would survive there without assistance from international and national organizations.  At the same time it is highly unlikely that the refugees would survive there without the assistance from international and national organizations.  At the same time, it is highly unlikely that they could survive only on the assistance from the international community.  Food distributions include maize, pulses, wheat, oil, and salt, along with a few non-food items.  The agencies offer ‘incentive’ job opportunities for refugees, which pay a maximum monthly amount of 6,000 Ksh.  The only jobs in which the refugees can engage legally, as they are not allowed to formally work in Kenya.  Alternatively, refugees engage in business or at times are employed by other refugees for manual work and household tasks.  According to researcher Cindy Horst, earlier research suggested 10-15 percent to receive remittances, although this has certainly expanded.

[caption id="attachment_109" align="alignright" width="368" caption="WFP Rations Distribution at Ifo Camp"]WFP Rations Distribution at Ifo Camp[/caption]

The main reason why improvements in socio-economic conditions in the camps are very gradual and levels of self-sufficiency are still limited is obvious; the refugees are confined in a semi-desert area with very limited economic opportunities.  Agencies working to improve livelihoods within Dadaab must address the structural constraints that refugees face within the camp as well the value of their interventions for a future outside of the camps.   However, upgrading the physical infrastructure of the camps is a daunting tasks, not only due to expected financial costs, but also because of the legal and political complications.  With no legal right to the land, the refugee populations and international agencies bear tremendous risks to invest in camp developments, especially as the Kenyan government would just as likely prefer the refugees to repatriate to Somalia.  Clearly, new ideas of "infrastructure" must be explored for the advancement of economic health within the Dadaab camps.

Not only are prospects for economic growth limited by the physical and political constraints, but so are opportunities for social justice and environmental health.  I have attached a power point presentation that provides an overview of how all three of these issues are interconnected within the camps.

[slideshare id=2252252&doc=justiceequityandsustainability-091016213057-phpapp02]

Afghanistan: Development & Communication Technology




[caption id="attachment_41" align="alignleft" width="280" caption="Afghanistan"]Afghanistan[/caption]

Earlier today I was reading a blog entry by Peter Bergan, the CNN Security Analyst, about the improvements Afghanistan has experienced within the last couple years.  He highlighted various improvements in security, mine clearance, education, economic development, and refugee repatriation. There was also a great deal of applause for the construction of a large, modern airport.

Reading this column initially made me cringe, as it brought to mind a story I once heard from my grandfather about an experience he had in Vietnam in the early 60's.  In short, the Americans had constructed a massive modern airport while the Russians provided instruction to the local population about better ways to fatten and breed chickens.  It doesn't take much thought to recognize why the general public, who could never see themselves ever riding in airplane, were more receptive to the Soviets.

However one additional point mentioned by Bergan was that "One in six Afghans now have a cell phone. Under the Taliban there was no phone system."  With a population of over 32 million people, this means that nearly 5.5 million people have access to cellular communication within this generally rural province.  While its likely that most Afghans remain uninterested in the new airport, with 5.5 million users in about 5 years, mobile phones are clearly a winner.

Certainly the expansion of cellular networks posits significant social benefits for the Afghan population. Prior to 2003, it was common for many villagers to have never once used a telephone. Now it is possible for this family-centric culture to maintain ties over greater distances. In addition, this cellular network may be a key component with the ongoing stabilization and development of the nation.

Cell phones and Security
One of the major benefits to arise from the establishment of mobile technology within Afghanistan was the capability for armed forced to locate Taliban insurgents by tracking phone signals within the countryside.  And lately, as mobile phones became more prominent throughout the public, individuals have been more willing to provide authorities with information regarding insurgent activity because this information can be provided anonymously.  Although Taliban fighters have made efforts to destroy cell towers, the general public has been frustrated as such destruction now interferes with their own lives.

Lessons from Grameen Phone
Established in 1996 by Iqbal Quadir, the founder and Director of the Lagatum Center for Development and Entrepreneurship at MIT, and Nobel Laureate Mohamed Yunus, the Grameen Phone company has served as the primary cellular phone provider within Bangledesh for the last 13 years.  In addition to standard phone services, Grameen Phone was further created with the intention of utilizing mobile technology as a tool for economic development.  Most notably, Grammeen established the program Village Phone,  assisting interested entrepreneurs in rural villages to sell telephone services to villagers.  Additionally, phones had been made available by means of micro-finance projects, while internet access could be acquired by means of community information centers.  With enhanced connectivity, individuals could better operate their own businesses, such as by determining the going market price in advance of goods delivery, or by knowing the upcoming weather conditions.  Individuals may also start businesses selling phone credit, mobile phones, or providing battery charging services

Capitalizing on Remittances
Nearly all migratory populations are dependent upon, or in some way participate within, the ongoing international flow of financial remittances.  As displaced families, unable to obtain sustainable incomes, remain dependent upon relatives and friends for financial assistance, it is obvious that cellular communications serve an important role within the stabilization of the Afghan economy.  With over 3.3 million displaced individuals within and outside of Afghanistan, the ability for these individuals to access  cellular technology now provides financial services well beyond the use of traditional money wiring services.

In the near future Afghans could utilize this technology to buy goods, pay bills, and move cash in the same manner found throughout the African continent.   By establishing bank accounts via mobile providers, Afghans will have the ability to secure their finances and easily transfer funds for the purpose of remittances by uploading purchased phone credit, transferring it to another account, and then exchanging that credit for cash or goods.

SWOT
Although increased cellular connectivity strengthens family ties, improves security, and could provide a means for future economic development, there are nonetheless major obstacles.  The prominence of low incomes and illiteracy greatly undermines the distribution and use of cell phones, yet with innovative programming by international agencies these problems may be mitigated.  Through the distribution of cell phones via micro-finance and entrepreneurial services, and in coordination with the further development of the nationwide education system - which has been noted as improving - the role of mobile communications may continue to serve an important role within the reconstruction of Afghanistan.