Engaging youth and technology in improving the urban environment

Julie Arrighi
American Red Cross, Kenya

Aynur Kadihasanoglu
American Red Cross, USA

Pablo Suarez
Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Centre, USA

Globally, people are moving into cities at an increasing rate in search of a better life. High growth rates, particularly in medium and small sized cities in Asia and Africa pose a strain on human, technical and financial resources of local governments. However, these high growth rates also provide tremendous opportunities for investing in resilience-building actions now that will contribute toward positive growth trajectories of many of the world’s fastest growing cities. As the world’s largest volunteer-led network, the Red Cross and Red Crescent (RCRC) Movement is working towards fostering more resilient, self-organizing communities in urban centers in order to leverage this opportunity.

The nature of urban space is changing, as is the role of information about it. Changing environmental conditions, from local ecosystem degradation to global climate change, pose new threats to urban residents, especially those in hazard-prone, informal settlements that lack basic services. There was a time when volunteers were needed to primarily support direct service delivery to people in need, e.g., to provide water, shelter, or health services. Yet now, and in the decades to come, due to rapidly changing conditions, humanitarian organizations will increasingly depend on volunteers to collect, process and disseminate information about location-specific, dynamic risks and opportunities. Digital technology can help: it offers tools that employ different ways of knowing and experiencing space, not just a different tool for visualization. As noted by Gordon and De Souza e Silva, cyberspace has colonized the physical world; urban spaces are becoming hybridized, constructed through a combination of physical and digital practices. The concept of geographic scale is rendered more fluid, with digital devices compressing scales as more and more information becomes accessible from a distance.

Within the next decades, cities in Africa and Asia will be home to another 2 billion people. Much of the young population in these densely populated cities will be facing high rates of unemployment and very limited opportunities for learning, growing and engaging with their physical and social environment. Youth have always been the driving force behind Red Cross and Red Crescent actions, whether in community education, disaster preparedness or response, and their potential as a force to create positive change should not be underestimated or overlooked in opportunities for positive urban growth. With only 7% of African youth and 17% of Asian youth currently able to access tertiary education, investments in building the capacity of today’s young people to be leaders in their communities tomorrow, although growing, are still disgracefully low. Creating opportunities for engaging urban youth in a productive way will create tremendous direct benefits to many young people, while also positively impacting the wider community and city itself.

Engaging urban youth requires many rooted organizations, including the Red Cross Red Crescent, to fine tune their approach to be relevant in the daily lives and aspirations of today’s young people. The accelerating state of digital connectedness creates huge opportunities to engage people in information gathering, planning and decisions-making processes for positive social change, at scales that were previously unthinkable. Open data and participatory mapping are particularly important in this regard. Many of the world’s cities remain unmapped with even fewer mapped in publicly available, open data formats. This means that for a large portion of the world’s population, both decision makers and broader communities, do not have access to accurate and holistic information about their spatial environment. Maps are very powerful visual and information analysis tools that can help to put a neighborhood or community into a wider city context. They can help highlight inequities and disparities across neighborhoods, especially with regard to land tenure access, service provision and disaster risks. When used as a visual tool, maps can also tell a story and serve to advocate decreasing these divides. The American Red Cross, British Red Cross, Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team and Médecins Sans Frontièries recently launched the Missing Maps initiative, with a goal of accelerating the creation of community-led, open source digital maps for every single settlement on Earth. The experience of OpenStreetMap in Haiti demonstrated that volunteers who collaborated around open data could quickly create accurate and trusted information, far surpassing any commercially available products. Since its launch in November 2014, 4.5 million people have been put on the map with the aim of reaching 20 million by 2017.

Also in 2014, the Red Cross Red Crescent launched the Global Dialogue on Emerging Technology for Emerging Needs, aimed at identifying changing humanitarian needs and emerging technologies that can meet new demands. As part of the global consultations for this initiative, residents of Mukuru, Kenya, a large informal settlement in Nairobi, prioritized fire outbreaks as their primary disaster challenge. Together with local companies and entrepreneurs, they also identified low-cost, networked fire sensors, based on cutting-edge smart home technologies, as a solution to address this issue. Despite the frequency and large-scale devastation caused by fires, low-cost technology with the ability to warn residents of fire outbreaks does not currently exist on the market. Through this initiative a series of technology companies and entrepreneurs will develop a home sensor that can reliably warn against fire outbreak, at a price point low enough to minimize the barrier to entry so community members will have the power to protect themselves. In the changing landscape of urban needs, humanitarian organizations can play an important role in facilitating connections between urban residents and private companies as a means of ensuring relevant products to protect against priority risks are available.

Another avenue for humanitarian organizations to improve our ability to recognize and act on emerging risks is to start investing in emerging opportunities like Big Data and human computation. Heat-waves and urban floods are of particular relevance, as global trends of more frequent and extreme events are exacerbated by local effects such as the urban heat island effect and poor drainage. Big data from social media is increasingly seen as a potential source of real-time data that can help detect anomalies in urban settings, from climate-related risks to patterns of violent crime. We know that more and more youth engage in modalities of interaction that create output with the four big ‘V’s of Big Data: high Volume; high Velocity (produced and usable in real time); high Variety; and high Veracity. Recognizing, filtering, and processing what matters most will not be easy, but the growing field of human computation offers promising ways to address these challenges by harnessing the unprecedented potential of combining human and computer brainpower to collect, analyze, disseminate and act upon information.

Emerging technologies and youth engagement will play an important role in facilitating community-level organization and resilience building in a constantly evolving, urban context. Helping communities generate primary information about their social and physical environment through participatory, digital mapping has enormous potential to change behaviors and influence policies at the neighborhood and city scale. Creating opportunities for urban youth to take a leading role in resilience-building activities will create tremendous direct individual benefits for many while also positively impacting the wider community and city itself. Urban resilience-building is a long-term, low-visibility process requiring every individual, household, and organization to collaborate in new and creative ways. Investing in areas such as digital community mapping, emerging technology development, big data and human computation will help community residents and humanitarian organizations to be able to evolve along with changing risks and needs.

Julie Arrighi is Resilience Adviser for American Red Cross programs in Africa.

Aynur Kadihasanoglu is the Senior Adviser for Urban Disaster Management for the American Red Cross, International Services.

Pablo Suarez is the Associate Director for Research and Innovation at the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre.

Header Image: Nairobi, Kenya.  Credit: meunierd/Shutterstock.com

One thought on “Engaging youth and technology in improving the urban environment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s