In 2013, a social NGO and an IT company joined forces to launch a website that would allow residents of impoverished neighbourhoods in Buenos Aires to report problems that required the attention of the city government. They had no idea where the project would take them.
The original plan was straightforward enough: design a website that would let users easily place an “x” on a map to report a problem; be it with street lighting, sewers, or any such issue that was the responsibility of the municipality to resolve. As the programmers got to work, they discovered that they couldn’t upload the maps of these neighbourhoods, because they couldn’t find any.
They took up their claim before the city government. “They told us the maps weren’t public yet,” says Rosario Fassina, a representative from ACIJ, a non-profit association that supports marginalised groups. Yet they had their suspicions: did the maps even exist?
Rather than accept defeat, they began a new and far more ambitious undertaking: mapping every single one of the city’s 17 low-income neighbourhoods and informal settlements – known locally as villas – that are currently home to an estimated 200,000 people.
By 2014, Caminos de la Villa was a reality, with more and more low-income neighbourhoods being added every year. The interactive platform trumpets its mission proudly: “our aim is to give visibility to the violations of human rights perpetrated within the impoverished neighborhoods of the city of Buenos Aires. We give visibility to what nobody wants to show.” Simply stated, the goal of the project is to strengthen collective strategies and teach people how to voice their concerns before the relevant authorities so that they may ensure their right to access public services, housing, health, and education.
“We already mapped five of the villas, and we’re in the process of mapping the remaining 12,” explains Mariano Malia, the Director of Institutional Development at Wingu, a part-NGO, part-private IT company that provides technological support to other NGOs around Latin America. In the completed map, users can now annotate a myriad of claims across their own neighborhoods: from water and sanitation issues, to lack of electricity, even rubbish collection issues and lack of health services.
The city government already runs a similar website for the rest of Buenos Aires’ inhabitants, known solely by its hotline number, 147. The difference is that, until recently, if a resident of the so-called villas attempted to use 147, they would not be able to file a complaint simply because they would not be able to map it. “You don’t have the villa maps on 147. There are no addresses. You file a claim but where do you report its location? Somewhere within a vast, grey expanse?” asks Malia. That is how these low-income areas have typically appeared in many of the current city-issued maps: a blank grey area with no streets, roads, schools or health facilities. A place with no life.
A Collaborative Project
The project requires a massive joint effort from ACIJ, Wingu, and importantly, the villa residents themselves. The division of tasks is straightforward enough. Every time new data must be uploaded, Wingu comes to the rescue. Meanwhile ACIJ focuses on making sure requests for works are fulfilled and chases after the authorities responsible for performing them. And local residents act as watchdogs for their neighbourhoods and learn to clamor for their right to access the basic services that the rest of the city takes for granted.
With ACIJ’s longstanding trajectory of social work within the villas of Buenos Aires, they already had a ready network of contacts in each neighbourhood to ensure the residents’ involvement in the project. “We used hand-held GPS devices, alongside local residents,” says Juan Ignacio Lacueva, also from Wingu, explaining the mapping process.
The first neighbourhood they mapped in early 2014 was Villa 21-24, the largest one in Buenos Aires and so far – Lacueva reveals – the easiest one to map. Being heavily populated, the residents had already organised themselves to provide services the city government wouldn’t. Amongst these, they named a postman – one who happened to know every nook and cranny of 21-24 – and with his help, the GPS map of the neighbourhood was finished in record time.
But the relationship between the locals and this project went much deeper than that. “We used all the contacts and relationships that ACIJ has been nurturing for 10 years in these neighbourhoods. That gave us the much-needed mobility when it came to going in to map, run workshops and campaigns, host talks with the residents to make decisions about issues concerning the platform,” says Rosario from ACIJ. The project laid down the groundwork for collaboration within low-income neighborhoods, where often the streets have no name and such decisions require the discussion and input of all residents during local meetings.
This spirit of collaboration also runs through the tech side. Once the GPS plotting is done, all the data is uploaded to an online platform, Open Street Map, which Juan describes as “a Wikipedia for maps.” It’s a mapping project powered by open source software – as well as Google Maps’ fiercest competitor. Anybody can update Open Street Maps at any time, which is essential in low-income neighbourhoods where the path of urbanisation often takes unexpected turns.
“We hugely empowered these people symbolically, by literally putting them on the map,” says Malia. “For the Caminos de la Villa project we drafted a proposal together with ACIJ, and presented it to a call for projects. We won a grant, and they financed this project,” he explains.
From The Inside Out
For local resident and block representative in Villa 31, Mirella, this is about far more than being able to report problems with access to public services: it’s a question of life-or-death.
“Ambulance drivers are scared of coming into the villa, and they try to drag their feet about it.” A few years back an incident in which an ambulance was pelted with rocks when visiting one of these neighborhoods, gave way to a requirement that all ambulances had to be escorted by a police patrol to go in. In emergency situations, the ambulance typically drives to the edge of the villa and waits there, not just for a patrol car to arrive but for the block representative to find them and guide them both to the site of the emergency. Precious time is wasted: Gastón, a 13-year old resident of villa Rodrigo Bueno died earlier this year after he fell into an open cesspit and emergency services took over 40 minutes to arrive at the scene. “Maps like these,” Mirella says, “would help people provide emergency services with an address and eliminate the need for us representatives to go find and then guide the services in.”
The two-time elected block representative goes on to reveal an unexpected benefit of mapping the informal neighbourhoods: increased communication and forged stronger community links. “It helps you discover new places and meet new people,” Mirella asserts. “In Villa 31 the mapping was done as an after-school project for the kids. Then, we took those maps to neighborhood meetings, where we all clearly indicated places of interest, like schools, canteens, nurseries. It helped us, as residents, find out about hidden places within our own neighborhood, particularly 31bis [the newer fraction of Villa 31 that has sprouted towards the north].”
But not all residents of marginalised neighbourhoods are computer-savvy enough yet to truly profit from Caminos de la Villa. For that reason, Wingu is taking the necessary precautions to make it as user-friendly as possible, Malia says. “The user experience is the most important thing in creating these platforms. You can create something that people then don’t use.”
Another challenge is the lack of access to computer technology and education. “We don’t want this [the website] to sit here unused.” The wheels have been set in motion to request further grants that they hope will “finance training projects, not just on how to use this tool, but on what the internet is, how civic issues can be solved online, social networks. Basically, how internet can help us in our day-to-day lives as citizens,” Malia explains. “We want to take it beyond Caminos de la Villa.”
Although the maps were supposedly not public yet, the city government has made a crucial offer to the project members. “A couple of weeks ago, the Buenos Aires city government agreed to take on these maps to be used as official cartography for the city,” reveals Malia, qualifying the event as a “huge achievement” and reminding of the importance that soon, “ambulances will know where to go.”
The cartography project has brought increased access to public services, but above all, it has legitimised the existence of villa residents by putting them, literally, on the map. Yet this is still just a first step, and doesn’t mean they feel an equal part of the city of Buenos Aires. “There is still the struggle for inclusiveness, an effort which the city government doesn’t really make,” says Malia.
This is solely part of a larger problem: a lack of infrastructure and capability to cover the basic needs of long-neglected neighbourhoods. Malia reveals that “the city government has already told us that they don’t have the resources to fix these problems in an efficient manner. So they don’t want to set themselves up for failure.”
It may no longer be possible to avoid acknowledging the existence of villas in Buenos Aires, but letting residents of these impoverished areas live without access to running water or sanitary conditions – right under the watchful eye of the city’s glittering skyscrapers – is still all too common.