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Urban Information Agenda

Urban Information Agenda

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Published by: Somnath Bandyopadhyay on Sep 04, 2008
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Using Information Technology (IT) for the development of urban poor –an action agenda
Somnath Bandyopadhyay
Senior Ecologist and Nodal Officer 
Gujarat Ecology Commission, Vadodara
Communities in urban slums are poor in fiscal terms but are rich in terms of a variety of skills. Information technology canhelp in generating better market value for services rendered using these skills. In addition, IT can play a major role inenhancement of knowledge and specialised skills at a relatively cheap rate.While IT is a useful catalyst for leap-frogging the developmental process, the core of the issue is development of humanresources. The development and strengthening of community based organisations (CBOs) at every slum is advocated. Inaddition, a mechanism for micro-enterprise ventures for marketing of services through the use of information technology isalso suggested. These information service companies (ISCos) will become the fulcrum for the economic development of the slum communities and their faster integration into the urban milieu. A five-year action agenda has been suggested for the urban centres of Gujarat, with a focus on these two local institutions. Theaction points for the first three years include surveys, database development, need assessment, setting up of the infrastructureand leasing it and orientation and training of communities to prepare them for the information age. The action points for thenext two years include mainly technical assistance to these two institutions and their capacity building.
: development, communities, information, marketing, services, training, networking, governance.
(What is needed?)
Urban areas have the potential to generate wealth. The poor in the urban areas are generally those whomigrate from the rural areas in search of improved livelihood opportunities. The fact that most choose tostay on is a pointer to the fact that they do perceive an improvement in their living conditions – compared tothe other option available to them – return to the villages.Another important conclusion may be safely drawn from the continued presence of urban poor – his abilityto specialise and integrate with the urban economy. Either he hones up his existing skills or he picks up newskills, or both, in order to provide specialised services in an economy that is discerning enough to be able tokeenly value these.The earlier stages of our economic development have focused on restricting migration of the rural poor tothe urban centres. Realisation has now dawned that this is not viable. The focus needs to shift to thedevelopment of an enabling environment that will lead to a faster integration.Rather than considering slum communities as a mere vote-bank, at best, or a breeding ground of anti-socialelements, at worst, these communities need to be regarded as a pluralistic resource-bank that provide vitalsupport to the mainstream development of the cities and, with some support, has the potential to radicallytransform the overall economic scenario.
Setting the agenda
(What should be the focus?)
A strategy to empower the urban poor through improved economic integration will be based on recognitionof the potentials, an assessment of the possibilities and a realistic evaluation of the present policies. Some of the basic elements of this strategy, where IT can be an important tool, will be mechanisms for marketing of services, enhancement of skills and participation in development programmes.
Marketing of services
: The entire range of services, such as those of domestic help, plumber, carpenter,mason, electrician, barber,
driver etc., can be made available in a value-added modethrough a computerised database. These are the services that are increasingly assumingsignificance in the modern economy. While consultants, catering industry and even beauty parlours, have been recognised as service sector industries and have been brought under theservice-tax net, we generally fail to recognise the services of the unorganised sector delivered by
2individuals who generally live in the poorer sections of the urban conglomerates. Creating amarket by providing consumers with a range of specialised services to choose from will benefit allsections of the community.
Enhancement of skills
: Since improved services will mean better economic returns, there will be anautomatic demand for skill enhancement. People will be willing to pay for training and educationthat will equip them with better, more relevant and more specialised skills. This means that they become consumers of an emergent knowledge market which provide relevant and focused training.Ultimately, a competitive market based on continuous enhancement of knowledge andspecialisation of services will provide the basis of sustained economic development.
Participation in development programmes
: The urban poor is often deprived of basic municipal servicessuch as drinking water supply and sanitation, access to infrastructure such as roads and power supply and basic human development programmes like health care and education. While thegovernment deems most of these settlements as illegal, proper markets are also not created becausesuch services demand a degree of guarantee from the residents, normally not available from theephemeral populace in these localities. A lasting solution is possible only if the government legallyrecognises the existing individual ownership of land and property. Since this is beyond the civilsociety, the second best option is to develop peoples’ institutions that provide counter-guaranteesto developmental initiatives either in the form of operation and maintenance (O&M) of infrastructure facilities or in the form of collective payments which are more secure and easy tomanage.
Elements of the action plan
(What is the road-map?)
Information technology (IT) has the potential to play a key role in translating this agenda into a viableaction programme. The basic steps will include the development of a database that is wide in scope anddeep in content, setting up a network for easy access and evaluation of comparable data and professionalmanagement that maximises economic returns.
Development of database
: An urban slum profile is created through the development of a detailed databaseon the human resources and the physical infrastructure. The data on human resources will focus onindividual skills and professional abilities. Aggregation will be available at the household level andthe entire slum level. Data on physical infrastructure will be available at the slum level, to belinked to the household level at a later date.The development of the database on human resources will begin with the census records and thevoters’ list – their verification and validation – and move on towards details on individuals. Dataon health will be most important, particularly for children below the age of fifteen, and willinclude medical history pertaining to vaccination, major diseases and any known genetic traits. Inaddition, reproductive health data for women between the age group of 15-45 will be collected andcollated. At the social level, incidences of malaria, water-borne, air-borne and other specific healthhazards will be documented.Data on education will not be restricted only to the formal mode, but also assess the skill levelsacquired through experience and other non-formal modes of learning. Relating this to livelihood,in terms of nature of work, mode of operation and available references, will be a more precisemethod of assessing the knowledge level. Given the fact that a large number of individuals in thiscountry are under-employed, rather than unemployed, it is also necessary to probe for skills thatare not self-evident to the individuals themselves, e.g. traditional songs, dances, handicraft etc.Data on physical infrastructure will include details on roads, water supply, drainage, electricity etc.In addition, details of the available public facilities like health centres, educational institutions etc.are important. An important aspect will be the details on cost – both capital as well as recurring – of infrastructure. Related to the costs will be the institutional mechanisms for meeting theseexpenses. The role of civic authorities, people’s representatives and funding agencies need to bespelt out clearly with regard to each available infrastructure in a particular slum area.
Networking of information
: This is needed at three different levels – the intra-community network, theslum-city network and the worldwide network.The intra-community network will seek to enhance the basic awareness of the communitiesregarding developmental programmes, their costs and management framework. Communityownership and decentralised management mechanisms will lead to reduced transaction costs at the
3macro level while ensuring better utilisation of facilities at the micro level. Transparency inadherence to norms developed by the communities, particularly with respect to the payment of individual user charges, will be a major disincentive for default. On the economic front,individuals will have the option to pool their resources in order to generate better opportunities.Even from the social perspective, objective information will replace half-baked information andgossip, thus leading to better decision-making in issues such as marriage.The slum-city network will seek to improve the marketing of services available from the slumareas by increasing the reliability of the services, improving valuation through an evaluation of theservices and raising the standards of services by inducing competition. Registration of the service providers at the community level and referrals from previous clients will go a long way to providereliability of the services offered – something that becomes a major bottleneck in an economictransaction in the urban setting. The prospect of positive reference from a client, especially in acompetitive environment, will ensure higher quality of services. Thus, the system will work through a set of positive feedback that will ensure proper valuation of services and a constanteffort towards increased value-addition.The world-wide network may seem redundant in the initial stages. However, it is a low-cost optionthat offers a fabulous choice to the enterprising individuals to explore larger vistas. Increasedglobal awareness is also likely to bring about an impetus for faster development through the use of innovative strategies. Also, the international developmental agencies are more likely to assist suchcommunities, since these are more visible, lend themselves to independent evaluation and aretransparent in their operations.
Management of information
: In the information age, management of information has to be a profit-making business venture – a challenging task indeed given the poor understanding of whatconstitutes valued information, particularly in the context of the urban poor.The basic information has to be detailed, multi-sectoral and free. It is the depth and the breadth of this database that will determine the success of a business model based on value-added servicesthereafter. This critical step needs imaginative leadership, professional management and financialresources. The investments are bound to be front heavy and the returns will only start tricklingafter some time-gap.The value-added services will be in the form of facilitating transactions, providing customisedinformation and back-end services. Each successful transaction, be it hiring a rickshaw or hiring adomestic help, will entail a service charge levied on either the provider or the consumer, or both.Even before an actual transaction, a consumer might like to obtain a comparative statement of thevarious service providers in a particular manner, which may merit an additional payment.Development of skills through specialised training programmes, obtaining feedback fromconsumers for use as future references and other forms of documentation will constitute some of the back-end services.
Operationalising the action agenda
(How to go about?)
There will be two clear phases of operation: the first needs heavy investment in terms of human andinfrastructure development while the second needs effective governance and technical assistance.
Phase I (0-3 years)
: A competent development agency is an absolute pre-requisite to spearhead the process.In the present context, it could either be a professional NGOs or socially oriented businessestablishment, or both, in order to bring in the financial resources, management skills and socialsensitivity. The major action points in this phase will include:
Survey and data collection
may be done by a professional agency, in collaboration with thespearhead agency. There are three major sub-components – (i) human resources, (ii) civicamenities and infrastructure and (iii) policies, programmes and institutional set-ups. Governmentand civic records, group interviews and questionnaire surveys, and mechanisms for volunteeringinformation will have to be used. Active participation of local persons, preferably those who wouldlater play an important role in managing the information kiosk, would be important.
 Assessment of needs
maybe done through a competent market-research agency, along with thespearhead agency. The assessment will seek to explore the nature and diversity of servicesrequired, degree of skills demanded and willingness to pay.

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