The Riddle of Kerala: How radicals secured water rights where capitalists have failed
Landscape organizes everything within sight.
Today, we're counting shopfronts and apartment buildings, trying to get a rough count of how many residences are in an area so that they can make some informed assertions about community composting, waste collection, and water management. Matching the Google satellite views with houses on the ground, one of the researchers notice that the streets in the image don't line up with the streets on the ground. We do a little bit of detective work and realize that a dead-end has been filled in by a new building with a dress shop, and a through-street became a dead end when a new house was constructed. They interview the neighbors. Who remembers when these buildings went up?
Chennai has no mechanisms for overseeing the basics of community control of its streets. There is no centralized office capable of taking in the wealth of information generated by a rapidly expanding city. If Transparent Chennai becomes the arbiter of information for the city, then the NGO stands to replace many of the traditional functions of city government. Would volunteers be numerous or rigorous or committed enough for tasks as diverse as counting the census, or watching houses? Will Transparent Chennai be replaced by private city accounting firms, watching over water points and manholes? We spend the evening talking about the future of government, wondering what the experience of other mappers will tell us about their successes.
Volunteers go into the ward for 2-8 hrs every day. The 8 hr days are exhausting in Chennai's damp heat: three hours from 8 to 11 in the morning, a break for lunch, another three hours in the afternoon, and two more after a break in the evening.
The paper maps are printouts of satellite photography available via Google Maps. The volunteers draw directly onto the maps, noting uncollected garbage, water points, toilets, the number of dwellings on every building on a street, or shop fronts. They've conducted "walkability" surveys of neighborhoods in Chennai, where sidewalks are broken and huge holes gape into unsculpted pits of mud beneath, where loose electric wires hang from the trees above, where scooters and cars parked on the sidewalk force pedestrians to walk in the busy carriageway, facing down auto-rickshaws and scooters and busses flying by a few inches away. They note the speed of vehicles, the number of obstructions, the materials used in making sidewalks, the condition of the walking path, amenities such as seating, trashcans, and toilets, parking on the sidewalks, crossing points, and so on. They map the distance that people are walking to cross the road. They mark trees, storm water drainage, the number of driveways, manholes, utility boxes -- which in Chennai are in the middle of the sidewalk. Their questions are ultimately urban planner questions. Paper maps are then inputted to ArcGIS.
That morning at the office, the staff of researchers and activists have questions about the scale of mapping appropriate to different kinds of political action. When are paper maps appropriate, and when is GIS appropriate? When is it enough to map water for the neighborhood, and what sorts of questions require them to map the whole of Chennai, or the region, or indeed India, to draw together the sort of argument they need? They are in the process of matching technology to larger questions.
These are exactly the sorts of problems that the next generation of infrastructure will have to answer, questions about mobilizing political will, using information to do so, and the appropriate scale for working in such a way as to include all the constituents of a community. (Photo credit and further reading: "Civic Sens(E)itivity" by Zara Khan and Tanya Thomas.
At the forefront of many disciplines, a dialogue is emerging about the concept of common property. Converging conversations in the social sciences, applied sciences, humanities and arts have been driven by contemporary political questions like the urbanization and simultaneous water crisis in the global south, the decline of public investment in infrastructure and flood control in the global north, and more recently, more recently, the financialization of land and water as commodities as expressed by the American subprime crisis and the African land grab. At the same time, new technologies of GIS and crowdsourced mapping have driven scholars to experiment with plotting their data on a map. In fields diverse as economics, psychology, history, anthropology, and literature, a “spatial turn” has been heralded where abstract theory has centered around questions of our common responsibility for land and water and the techniques by which we come to knowledge of the space around us. Disciplinary discussions have included histories of cartography and land surveying, economic debates over the uses of land titling to enfranchise the global poor, anthropological studies about the deracination of indigenous societies from control over their land and water, archival investigations about how GIS-located archives can be mined for information about nineteenth-century cities, and technological explorations around the possible application of GIS to creating self-governing commons in land and water.
Running parallel with this history of participatory surveying are interrelated stories about other technologies that raise similar questions about when and how participatory self-governance becomes a reality. India's historical experience with infrastructure has provided stark examples of both redistribution and exclusion. In the nineteenth century, British engineers plowed the Deccan Plateau with canals that protected many communities from drought, while simultaneously netting food distribution into centralized networks of railroads, markets, and taxation that penalized local communities and proliferate famine. In resistance to the British pattern of exclusion, post-independence intellectuals labored to invent a form of governance characterized by participation.
For all that we speak of Web 2.0, peer-to-peer dynamics, and interactive everything, the nature of participation remains quite elusive. Indeed, even its basic timeline remains shrouded in mystery, for instance, the origins of the participatory map.
"The people, and the collective sense of the commons, were in the end more reliable than the market."
Delicious is the Rome, Jerusalem, and Paris of my existence as an academic these days. It's where I make my friends, how I get the news, and where I go to trade. All this from a little server that does nothing but share bookmarks in public.
...For two years I've been using Delicious as an information organizer. It's produced an impressive encyclopedia of the most interesting information, images, articles, citations, books, and subjects on the internet to which I might want to refer. Consider my dissertation tag, under which are a wide variety of online images and Google books that I'll be using for my research. Not only can I come back to them, but I can also find related subjects—dissertation material related to walking—and navigate seamlessly from one to another. As an improvement on the index card system—or on my own terrifying piles of articles, even now ornamenting my bookshelf, or even on the folders within folders within folders of word documents—this represents a definite improvement.
-- and so on. filled with enthusiasm for a culture of sharing that I saw emerging, for the strangers I met and the bibliographies I pillaged there. Delicious was, for many years, my much-preferred place for wisdom over Google. If you were looking up hot springs, for example, Google returned the most obvious result, but only Delicious would get you to Tim Wu's list of the best hot springs in the world.
When you write an abstract for a project, retweak it every time you tell someone about it. That way the story gets retooled at the speed of thought, matching your community and all the information you take in from them. Every time you retell the story for someone just on the edge of your social circle, you entertain another body of knowledge. How would this story sound to scientists? to working-class folk? Try to hear their thoughts in advance and tell them a story they'd find meaningful. Then see how they actually respond, and take on what they know.
This summer I will close up shop at the Harvard Society of Fellows, where I've enjoyed three years of uninhibited research time, and return to the life of teaching as Assistant Professor of Britain and its Empire at Brown University in Providence, RI. I'm immensely looking forward to the transition. Research time is fantastic, but teaching is generally where our best ideas and most rigorous thinking comes from. Students, even more than colleagues, challenge us to remain relevant, to take opposing points of view seriously, and to witness directly to voices from the past.