Beating urban poverty with geospatial data

Informal settlements can demonstrate cities growing faster than urban administrators can plan for; our geospatial solutions can help develop the necessary infrastructure.

1 minute read
While Africa is one of the least urbanised continents in the world today, by 2050, its cities will be home to an additional 950 million people.

Driven by rapid urbanisation and the fastest population growth in the world, in some African cities, the majority of residents live in informal settlements. This means that municipal governments face unique challenges, such as sanitation issues, unsafe housing, and a lack of social mobility, but also opportunities to upgrade neglected parts of their city using data-driven insights.

What is an informal settlement?

Slums, favelas and shanty towns are all names for unplanned urban housing, also referred to as informal settlements. Residents in informal settlements usually do not own the land their property is built on. The housing in informal settlements is built without centralised urban planning, and may not comply with planning and building laws and regulations. Informal settlements may form a ring around the outside of existing cities, or they might be limited to specific districts of a city.

Smiling people
Geospatial data helps communities access critical services.

Informal settlements are a sign that cities are growing faster than urban administrators can plan for, meaning they often lack basic infrastructure. This lack of service provision perpetuates the cycle of poverty, which is why cities should consider integrating informal settlements quickly when they do arise, as retrofitting infrastructure is significantly more expensive than installing it concurrently with housing construction.

Due to the speed with which informal settlements can form, they are often unmapped urban spaces. Mapping these spaces, and collecting data on them, can act as a powerful catalyst for positive change, as many of the functions of mapping can unlock economic activity downstream, and provide the foundations for progress against the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Authoritative digital base maps are the basis of effective land administration, including agreed property boundaries, which provide a shared ground-truth for establishing ownership and resolving land disputes. These land rights make it easier for residents to secure employment, loans and other financial services.

The UN has said that it is almost impossible for individuals to be part of society without a legal identity, and that establishing such an identity often depends on having an official address. Without a permanent and official address, it is much more difficult to secure mortgages and loans, and there is even some evidence that official addresses improve education outcomes. When people have an address, they can more easily register to vote and register for healthcare.

Establishing a digital base map of informal settlements is vital for connecting those neighbourhoods with new infrastructure like roads, and basic utilities like clean water and power. Provision of such utilities plays an important part in sustainable development and is central to SDG6; clean water and sanitation for all. Geospatial data can also help municipal governments better manage infrastructure and services, to broaden access and increase efficiency. Geospatial insights have been proven to reduce the cost of service provision for urban residents while transforming their prospects and living conditions, leading to:

  • Reduced commute times by up to 65%1
  • 40% reduction of time taken to deliver public services2
  • Reduced operating costs in public transport by 10%3
  • 6x increased return on investment in utility asset management
Railway tracks and trains
Geospatial insights have greatly benefited in developing everyday services, such as public transport.

Ordnance Survey is uniquely placed to help municipal governments that are trying to tackle urban poverty and better integrate informal settlements. In Lusaka, Zambia’s capital city, we recently completed a project to build a new digital base map, with a focus on identifying informal settlements, using artificial intelligence and satellite imagery. Working with the International Growth Centre (IGC) and the Commonwealth Association of Architects (CAA), we built a digital map for Lusaka using aerial imagery provided by the Zambia Survey Department in the Ministry of Lands and Natural Resources. Automated base map generation is faster and more resource efficient than traditional mapping methods, saving Lusaka’s city government money and time.

Whether your city’s priority is tackling urban poverty, expanding your utility and transport networks to informal settlements, or improving efficiency in public services, Ordnance Survey can help you build your city’s geospatial data capabilities, giving your city an advantage.

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Headshot of Andy Wilson
By Andy Wilson

Region Director, Europe, Central Asia, Africa and the Americas, Ordnance Survey