I’m on my way back from a particularly fruitful and productive mission to Mumbai. As noted in my earlier blog, the purpose of the mission was to explore possibilities for partnership and collaboration vis-a-vis “upgrading” Mumbai city’s disaster early warning/response system. We chose to focus first on the Monsoons (which necessarily includes an important public health component).
Thanks to our fellow HHI colleague, the legendary Dr. Satchit Balsari, we met with all the key stakeholders in a whirlwind tour that included heavy rains, seemingly suicidal drivers, the amazing Ganesh festival and countless hours of near infinite traffic. All a very low price to pay for the energy and proactive engagement that emerged in our meetings, which ranged from high level political officials to leading professors based in Mumbai. Our presentations on crisis mapping platforms were also very well received, with comments including: “That’s exactly what we need.” Equally importantly, we saw numerous slums (picture below) along with the depressing conditions that slum dwellers have to live in. Naturally, they are the most vulnerable populations in Mumbai city, and our project will only be successful if it makes a difference in their lives.
Below is a picture of the control room headquarters for Mumbai city’s disaster early warning and response center. Note the red phones, each with a direct link to a government agency. It was interesting to note that apart from Autocad, the control room was not making any use of mapping software; all maps appearing in hardcopy. The center recently carried out a major vulnerability analysis of the entire city, which now comprises over fifty pages of very rich, albeit dense, structural data. This data has not been mapped.
Our proposal was rather simple: develop a web-based interface using Google Maps that allows for easy mapping of structural and dynamic (event-data). In addition to manual mapping, allow live, automated (meteorological) feeds from the control room’s computers, to be visualized within Google Maps in real time. Integrate SMS broadcasting directly within the Google Maps interface; thereby encouraging us to think of dynamic maps as communication tools in addition to tools for situational awareness. This follows Ushahidi’s approach of crowdsourcing crisis information.
The importance of two-way SMS broadcasting for this project cannot be overemphasized. Some 75% of Mumbai’s residents own a mobile phone (note that 55% of Mumbai is composed of slums). By some measures, Mumbai is the fourth largest city in the world, with a population of some 16 million. With this size comes some obvious challenges. I had pitched FrontlineSMS as a potential solution during my presentations, but I don’t know how scalable the software is. Can the platform handle millions of text messages in a matter of days? Ken Banks is kindly looking into this for us (thanks again, Ken). Another challenge is whether the bandwidth of Mumbai city will be able to handle such high traffic.
We will be following up on these questions and conversations shortly, and will be scheduling another mission to Mumbai in the next few months to formalize our partnerships and finalize the operational framework. As always, I welcome any and all (constructive) feedback.