Getting on the Map

Big Data is a buzz word, but it doesn’t look to be going anywhere too soon.  Businesses are seeing the value in being able to analyse huge amounts of information and use it to gain a competitive advantage by having an in depth knowledge of markets, industries and customer behaviour. 

That’s the business side of things, but I recently came across a story which put a very human face on Big Data, and the impact that it can have on a community.

There’s a slum in Kolkata in India which up until recently was notorious only for its level of crime and lack of public services.  A group of children were in a classroom using the internet one day when one of them noticed that the slum could not be located on Google Maps.

The slum wasn’t on some faraway site; it was in an urbanised area, but the neighbourhood simply didn’t exist according to Google.   Due to this ‘non-existence’ they weren’t getting access to the public services they needed.

The enterprising group of students were aggrieved by this and, led on by their teacher, sought to find a way to ensure that their home was, literally, placed on the map.

Naming the project ‘Awaz’ (or ‘Voice’), the children used traditional mapping tools at first to put together an initial view of their neighbourhood which consisted of 9000 residents.  

After a while, they were able to learn how to use innovative mobile technology which had been developed by Matt Berg at Columbia University’s Earth Institute (the purpose of which was to gather information on communities that were impoverished). 

With this technology the children went door to door and conducted a survey; asking residents how many people lived there, what age they were, and their occupation.  They also took the opportunity to ask about any health issues they might have had and what public services they would like to have access to. 

As they were conducting the door to door visits, they also took all the necessary photos that would be needed for Google Maps.

Once they had gathered all of the enormous amounts of survey data in its variety of formats, it came to the task of analysing it.  Through this they found out things like there were 71 sources of water, but all of them undrinkable.  Access to vaccinations against diseases like Polio were very low – the rate of vaccinations was around 40%.

Using this information, the children galvanised supporters and took to the streets to draw attention to these alarming facts.  They met with key public service figures and addressed the issues about water, public hygiene, and the amount of impoverished children who weren’t going to school.

As a result, polio vaccination rates have gone from 40% to 80%, there are portable water hook-ups to serve the neighbourhood, and a trash heap has been transformed into a football pitch for the local children.

One of the children, named Salim Sheikh (aged 13) led the design of the map.  He said, “With this map, everyone in the world will know we are here.  We are a community with many issues just like anybody.”

We are all generating huge amounts of data today – be it on social networks, the cloud, through our mobile devices – the mechanisms to share data are now endless.  

And I think what this scenario shows is the implications of data completeness – Google collects an absolutely enormous amount of data which comes in all sorts of formats, it’s live, and it’s extremely difficult to analyse.   What can happen as a result is that information gets overlooked – such as the case here when the slum was missed off Google Maps.

The important thing with data – whether it’s ‘Big’ or otherwise – is, no matter how convoluted the information you collect, you set clear objectives at the outset to ensure that you collect and analyse it in such a format that allows you to take action.

The residents of the slum in Kolkata, through a combination of a passionate group of students and supporters and the right application of technology, really did take action and they have been able to be part of the impact that this can make.