Perspectives on Indian creative culture.

Your Piece of Your City

Your Piece of Your City

Do you ever feel irritated with something in your neighborhood? …when you are in transit? …on a street near your workplace that you frequent often? We come across many things that annoy us and make us wish things were different. Taking a cue from Gaurav's thoughts on street side religious art, small steps to ensure civic well being can go a long way.

Neighborhood Annoyances

A situation in south Bangalore caught my attention some time ago. There was an uncleared garbage dump somewhere close to my neighborhood. Residents living in the area were used to collecting all their garbage till the daily clearance truck took them away. After a couple of months, the truck stopped clearing the dump, while the garbage kept piling up. Rotten organic waste, dead animals, the whole nine yards. The dump grew in size and became difficult to manage. It got to a stage where the authorities refused to clear the zone due to its neglected state.

Here's another situation that got me quite concerned. A lonely street, void of lights for over 3 months has been an annoyance for the local residents in the neighborhood. Requests to get the lights fixed didn't help much either. Over time, the safety of the street was in question, and it unfortunately led to an incident of “chain snatching” — a crime where one or two men on speeding mopeds snatch chains off women's necks. A seemingly innocent lapse in maintenance led to devastating consequences when not attended to.

You can find many such city wide issues in various discussion forums online. Fix Our City has some rather funny ones involving stray pigs

Pesky Businesses

Commercials all over the media promise quality and reliability for products and services. Every TV spot, radio and newspaper ads go on and on about being better than the best. Only a very few actually deliver that promise. The sheer number of customers relying on non-scalable infrastructure is reason enough to make this difficult. Lack of incentives coupled with below industry standard compensations don't help much either.

Auto-rickshaws refusing to take you to your desired destination or demanding excess fare is another frequent irritant. This is a common problem which many people and organizations are trying to tackle, but rarely see any progress. Services such as Dial-an-Auto and Rikshawale are trying to address this problem. It will be interesting to see how these services fare in the future.

On the other hand, some services that were popular and had a great beginning have started degrading over time. This could be due to many reasons, some of which could be easily identifiable. Lack of manpower, support and funding are common causes. This write-up about the inefficiency of a cab service eloborates on an experience my colleagues and I have faced several times over the last year.

Information Entropy

Some cases involving official paperwork, bill payments for various consumer services, finding information about local or national travel and resources on health education often lacks in the availability of usable information. When the swine flu caused global panic, many cities in India were on high alert and took precautions in every way possible. Smaller towns and villages had limited access to information and thus resulted in missing or inaccurate public education.

In situations where such information is made available, finding it isn't exactly straightforward and/or its accuracy is questionable. Start-ups in Bangalore, Pune and Chennai find opportunities in such issues and are working on solutions to address some of them, but these different services aren't consolidated in one place. It takes some effort to hunt them down as they're usually passed around through word of mouth.

When data isn't available or isn't accurate, it often leads to a connected chain of events, such as people embarking on wild goose chases to get things done, missing work to re-submit forms, showing up at train stations an hour late and sitting in traffic jams on the way to their third office visit to do something as seemingly simple as get a vaccination or activate a SIM card.

Everything That's Now

Many case studies have been carried out around public information access and civic concerns. Organizations such as Ushahidi, Transparency India and Janaagraha have devoted a lot of effort in identifying issues across these domains. One such effort that I've been involved with is My Piece of Chennai.

My Piece of Chennai is a new initiative that believes in creating a healthy and transparent city in south India. It is volunteer driven, and banks on the power of communities to connect people and share information that is useful in promoting civic well being. I heard about the project when I had almost completed design school, and found myself drawn towards it due to my love for Chennai (or Madras, as I'd fondly call my hometown), and as an opportunity to give something back to the city. Over a period of six months, we had a number of volunteers and hundreds of fans interested in the initiative. Volunteer engagement was a stronghold and helped us gain reasonable traction in the initial days. We learnt that the cause brought real people wanting to do real things together, which was a great feeling. The project as expected presented an exhaustive amount of work and we were interested in getting warmed up just to taste what lay ahead. In the course of figuring out its scope, we were made aware of bottlenecks involving complex systems, processes & the lack of resources.

There are numerous opportunities to improve our local environments, information access and business ethics. Even if we take small steps at home such as composting waste or ensuring hygiene in clearance, it becomes a starting point to extend such a philosophy of caring and ownership to the urban environment.