Living in the slums is a challenging life, and lack of land tenure and fear of evictions do not make that life easier. Although there is a will to improve people’s lives, many suffer because their opinion is not taken into consideration. As the years have passed, the slums have only gotten bigger. Almost eight years have passed since Kenya decided to work on slum upgrading as part of meeting the Millennium Development Goals. Only eight more years remain until the deadline. Unless progress improves, those goals will likely not be achieved.
In Nairobi, the Kibera projects have been stalled for over two years due to legal complications. If there were enough political will, these matters could have been fast-tracked through the legal system. In the meantime, people have been shut off from the project and are not getting any news about what is going to happen to their lives in the near future. As a result, people have lost hope and faith in a project that was to improve their living standard.
The absence of citizen participation is still a problem in the slum upgrade projects. People are involved in the beginning, but as the implementation phase arrives and as problems arise, they are pushed aside. Corruption and political manipulation are still a problem in the slums, but a glimpse of hope can be found in technological solutions, such as Kuhonga and other innovative local technology projects like those coming out of iHub, allow the citizens to expose these issues.
For people in the slums, the mobile phone is not only a communication device, but also their bank and their news provider. It is important when attempting to leverage technology to get citizens more involved that the solutions used are designed for the technology that people currently have. While urban planners in developed countries have for years utilized web sites for sharing information and receiving feedback about their plans, urban planners in developing countries need to leverage mobile enabled solutions to reach citizens in slums.
Technology enabled citizen participation in developing countries is possible today in terms of available technology. Innovative solutions to enable this will most likely be developed by people who fully understand the environment that these people live in. Innovation hubs such as iHub in Nairobi that fosters technology entrepreneurs from Nairobi need to be supported and encouraged to create solutions that can be used as part of the slum upgrade projects.
Maps can play a critical role in describing the environment and the problems faced in the slums in a visual manner. By gaining access to the maps from projects, such as Map Kibera and Map Mathare, the people have a “weapon” in their hands, a physical visual map of what problems they are facing and how their livelihoods can be improved even just by knowing where the nearest water tap is.
It is important that awareness, about projects like Map Kibera is increased by community leaders, donors, government agencies and NGOs working in the slums and that the maps are further leveraged as part of the slum upgrade process. It is also important that this information is utilized by urban planners, who are working on slum upgrade projects.
Furthermore it is important that maps and other data collected by the government as part of the slum upgrade process is shared openly and made readily available, for example through the Kenya Open Data initiative (Kenya Open Data, 2011).
Further research is needed to help improve citizen participation in slum upgrades. Within iHub, a research project is underway to look at mobile governance (Ford, 2011). This project will likely provide further insight into how mobile technology can be utilized in developing countries to increase citizen participation at all stages, not only in the slum upgrade projects, but in determining many aspects of their life.
Further research is needed on how citizen mapping projects, like Map Kibera, can help improve the environment and the livelihood of slum dwellers. One aspect to look at is whether engaging the citizens themselves as part of the mapping process increases the likelihood of them sharing their opinion about the slum upgrades as they become more aware of the environment they live in.
It is my hope that future generations, especially the young people of the slums, will live to tell about the difference made by technology and the extra power it gave them to improve their living conditions in more effective ways than their parents could.
Just like technology has supported citizen-driven revolutions in countries of Northern Africa it may become the “weapon” needed for slum dwellers to overcome the weaknesses of their government institutions, the rampant political corruption and the irresponsible politicians that conspire to ruin the upgrade projects.