Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Digital roadmap to build liveable cities

For good governance, the first step is to reform our information system, not our infrastructure. Here is a roadmap to improve information in our urban centers to make them liveable and to ensure we move from bad governance to good governance

There are five Nagar Panchayats, seven Cantonment Boards, 23 Municipal Corporations, 221 Municipal Councils, and 278 Gram Panchayats that govern 537 urban centers in Maharashtra. Most of these were created post independence. Not one of them is livable. 
Problems relating to food, water, energy, mobility, opportunity and even shelter plague our urban centers. They lack self-sufficiency of resources and need to mobilize more and more resources from further and further away. They generate waste at an exponential level, which they barely treat, reuse or recycle. Our civic services frequently break down, plaguing residents every day. Increasing hours are spent in commutes, as urban centers get denser and chaotic.
Less than 30% of our city plans are implemented. Worse, the urban areas continue to expand like unstoppable cancer. The life in our urban centers lacks dignity; in fact, it erodes the dignity of all who seek to make a life in it. 
Our urban centers are increasingly plagued by global problems too. They are increasingly targets of terrorism. Global pandemics bring our urban centers to a halt. The global energy crisis has been paralyzing economic activity in our urban centers. Global environmental challenges are destroying the buffers of fresh air, water, food in our urban centres.
Our urban administrators are increasing the costs of living in urban centers at compounding rates. They create infrastructure projects that are not in the city plans, not within the budget or even completely counter-productive to making the city livable.  They are also schizophrenic or have different responses at different times; they have no integral principles; no clarity of purpose, no commitment to public interest. They are also non-collaborative, attention deficient, indifferent, exclusive. They have completely eroded the trust citizens placed in their intentions, competence, incorruptibility and ability to protect public interest.
Unfortunately, we are continuing to make our urban centers increasingly unlivable, and building even more based on the same broken model. Our urban governance creates silos of information making them fragmented with multiple independent interaction points; no unity of direction; no shared practices. It is therefore little wonder that the result is bad governance.
How can we begin to reform this model? 
Information is the basis for life, sustainability, resilience, anti-fragility and livability itself. For good governance, the first step is to reform our information system, not our infrastructure. Here is a roadmap to drive information in our urban centers to make them livable and to ensure we move from bad governance to good governance.
Currently multiple agencies and departments create and spend money on similar projects at the same locations. Besides, there is a disproportionate distribution of money across different administrative or electoral wards. A simple requirement to geotag each budget item before funds can be allocated or released will help bring in transparency in local government spending. The budget should then be made public on a ward wise and urban-center wise google map at a website, such as Government assets, particularly offices, land, equipment, and vehicles owned by various government agencies should also be geotagged so that they are public at, simplifying the process of auditing them.
Land Use
One of the biggest failures in cities is the inability to implement their respective Development Plans (DP), the cities blueprints to ensure proper land use, create livable cities, and safeguard public spaces (open grounds, gardens, hills, streams, lakes, bus-stands, schools, hospitals etc.). To ensure that the DP’s are implemented, the local bodies need to display the survey maps with ward boundaries, land-use desired as per the DP, ownership details, and any legal issues on a single website, to overlay on Google maps and Google Earth. The maps should additionally display the project approval and completion details for each project on the corresponding survey number or road on the Public Google Map. A link to a Floor Space Index (FSI or how much you can build on a plot of land) and Transfer of Development Rights (TDR or where your additional building rights have been transformed from) database should highlight congestion and decongestion effected by the FSI/TDR. The site should provide a means to receive anonymous feedback on violations of DP for each survey number.
Environment Protection
Most of our streams and rivers are being converted to gutters in land grabs and sewage disposal scams. Hills, hill slopes and trees are being razed to ease congestion in the name of development. All stream, river, lake, mountain and forest area boundaries should be geotagged with physical markers at their boundaries to ensure a public alert on any alteration. Trees must be tagged with a RFID (Radio frequency ID, or a small chip that stores information that can be read from a distance by a RFID reader and can be used to do a periodic tree census) along with its geolocation to protect the trees and ensure the country’s valuable assets are not stolen or destroyed. 
All these assets should be displayed on a Google Map at The maps should also display in color-coding survey numbers, roads and waterbodies with inadequate trees as per the Maharashtra (Urban Areas) Protection and Preservation of Trees Act, 1975. The maps should show an alert for trees that are under consideration for transplanting or removal, with reasons, requestors details and a means to raise objections and also provide a means for citizens to add untagged assets or to alert anonymously about exploited, encroached or missing assets.
Public transport routes are frequently poorly laid out. The routes are often barely known to citizens. It is difficult or impossible to have busses ply to and from locations of demand. Not only should public transport route and timetable be available on google maps and through sms query, but a website should allow route and time scheduling for bulk users to schools, work-place, and markets.
RFID based prepaid bus passes for the whole year, month or day that help build real-time origin-destination demand data and make traveling by busses accessible. The website should allow citizens to log failure, breakdown or inadequate public transportation or inadequate pavements and display them on Google map at in order to facilitate amelioration of the situation.
All public vehicles – buses, trucks, heavy machines, cabs, autos, should have a GPRS to track and show their movements on  
Water distribution
Inequitable and irregular water supply plagues the cities. To ensure that the water supply is equitable and regular, IP based motorized valves for water distribution and monitoring of water released in various parts of the city are necessary. Ward-wise water availability and demand should be on maps at Citizens should be able to log failure, breakdown or inadequate water supply and display on google maps at 
Waste Management
There is no feedback about the amount of waste generated or collected in each ward. A ward-wise map of the wet and dry waste generated and collected should be displayed at
There is no mechanism currently to ensure waste is collected before it overflows. Local bodies should be required to enable IP based bins with sensors that alert the collection system when they are ¾ full. Citizens should be able to log failure, breakdown or inadequate waste collection and display on Google map at 
Civic works
Each ongoing project should be displayed on with budget code, in addition to its purpose, details, status and citizen comments. Each department should be made to update the projects status every week so that there is a common shared map of the projects on in the city.
Resident Registry and Passbook
It is common knowledge that the UID is merely a random number assigned to unverified and unaudited data submitted by third parties paid per record. Since the UID is not a proof of identity, address or even a proof of existence, the use of such unauditable, unverifiable and unauthentic-able number to authenticate identity, to serve as the basis for governance, to be used to deliver benefits, rights and entitlements, to be used to open bank accounts and transfer money, to create citizen registers or electoral rolls is seriously compromising governance, national security and the rule of law. 
The government can enable a Shared ID at, as was designed in Pune to allow citizens to create, own and share their own ID with complete control on who can see or use the ID and logs of access by third parties to their information. They can also access information on demography, energy use, water use, land use, mobility and other details in their neighbourhood after logging in to their account on Citizens can also track the taxes paid, services, benefits available and availed from the local body. They can also access to their certificates and documents issued by the local body. 
The opportunity
Will the Chief Minister of Maharashtra seize the opportunity to make Maharashtra’s urban centres livable, usher in good governance and improve the lot for all of us?

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