Does Data Tell Us the Truth About Urban Informal Settlements?

Outdated and technology-driven data often excludes crucial information necessary to understand communities and their local political economies.

The recently released National Urban Innovation Stack (NUIS) attempts to address the issues of urban governance through the use of a technology-enabled stack. Urban informality interacts with the process of data gathering and is deeply enmeshed in local political economies.

The most critical problem is the absence of good data on informal urban settlements that have a direct impact on the implementation of NUIS. This absence can be attributed to several factors. First, informal settlements are dynamic, and any information collected on them needs constant updating.

Our current, most detailed insights are derived from the 2011 census, which is outdated. More recently, GIS research, such as what is used in this paper and several others, can be a critical input to identify the locations and extent of informal settlements, though this knowledge cannot tell us who lives there or shed light on the socio-political relationships within.

Second, the migratory nature of informal settlements is hard to capture. Rapid urbanisation in the last two decades has meant a corresponding growth in these settlements. The residents, seeking work, inhabit informal settlements both seasonally and permanently.

Third, there are several types of informal settlements, some of which are not recognised by the government, and the residents in them, do not have access to security in tenure. It is difficult to prove residence in these settlements, making it difficult to secure the documents that are required for bureaucratic legitimacy. This has an impact on the implementation of urban redevelopment policies, especially those which require proof of duration of residence (eg JNNURM).

Also Read: Where are India’s Citizens in the National Urban Innovation Stack?

Fourth, the incentives for the government to collect data on informal settlements are limited and the data couldpoint to their poor service delivery. Sustaining the issue of informal settlements allows politicians to use the promise of housing, and mediated access to utilities to seek and earn votes. Local politicians insert themselves to mediate access to utilities and services. They are also relevant in ensuring continued occupation of land and negotiating, in turn, with police and senior politicians to prevent eviction. This political entrenchment is deep and our work in one informal settlement in Bangalore shows that almost all residents vote for the party suggested by the intermediary.

Further, data-driven innovations such as NUIS rely on the regular and reliable supply of data from residents and assume similar abilities to build rich databases. Residents of informal settlements are invariably economically and informationally marginalised and may not have access to smartphones, or awareness about the ways in which data can be generated and therefore, try to reduce the visibility of issues that impact them.

For instance, the Delhi government launched the Swacch Dilli app, so that residents can register complaints against littering or garbage and municipal issues to the government by clicking a photograph of the problem. Given the inequality of technology access and awareness, it is possible that issues from informal settlements are not registered, thus skewing the data to show that there are no such problems in the informal settlements. 

As a result of these factors at play, the data collected on these settlements is potentially problematic. First, the idea that the data records are even, unmediated and transparent, may not be true. Second, there is an issue of who can secure bureaucratic legitimacy in the city. While biometric identities can play a significant role in moving the debate forward on this, other aspects of identity, such as duration of residence etc. cannot be proven because these systems are still new.

Also Read: Reflecting on India’s Urban Transformation

In order to proceed with building systems that depend on complicated data, it is critical to start with how technology systems intersect with local political economies. It is tempting to seek silver bullet solutions, but the answer is in the hard work of going out to communities, mapping exclusions, and building systems that account for this.

This process is also critical to building capacities in people, civil society and the government to understand, navigate and adapt their needs by controlling the data that inhabits these technologies. This kind of knowledge can help build resilient systems that understand and respond to socio-political conditions.

Sarayu Natarajan is the founder, and Astha Kapoor is the co-founder of Aapti Institute, a strategic research institute on technology and society, based in Bengaluru. Find Sarayu at @iissarayu and Astha at @KapoorAstha.