Buenos Aires: bringing public services to the ‘invisible’ slums
En The Guardian
Por Carla McKirdy
In Buenos Aires’ informal housing settlements, where an estimated 275,000 of the city’s inhabitants live, invisibility on the map can be deadly.
In these labyrinthine neighbourhoods, where roads twist and turn, many residents lie outside the reach of public services. Earlier this year in the villa Rodrigo Bueno, a 13-year-old boy died after falling into a cesspit. The fall did not kill him: what took his life was the one-hour wait for an ambulance to arrive – and even then only to the outskirts of the sprawling slum.
And that is when they arrive at all: ambulances often drag their feet, blame poor urban design, muddy roads, the potential for crime – and refuse to enter. “A lot of women end up giving birth at home,” says local resident Mirella Churqi.
Some ambulance drivers are scared to enter the slums, Churqi explains, but many mention that the lack of maps, fixed addresses and GPS services to guide them into the areas is what stops them from going in.
However, a simple mapping project has set out to put these “invisible” areas on the map. In 2013, ACIJ (Civil Association for Equality and Justice) joined forces with Wingu, a hybrid IT company/non-profit that provides services for Latin American NGOs. They launched a website that allows the residents of these impoverished neighbourhoods to report lack of access to public services such as street lighting, sanitation and paving.
They wanted to create a parallel version of something that already existed for the rest of the city of Buenos Aires: called “147”. First a hotline, it then evolved to both a website and an app, through which citizens can report any problems that require the attention of the city government. The user can simply mark an X on a map and file a report.
When ACIJ and Wingu went to add the maps of Buenos Aires’ 17 slums to their new website, they could not find them anywhere online; neither on Google maps nor on the city government’s website. Logically, they went to the cartographic division of city planning. “They told us the maps weren’t public yet,” says Rosario Fassina, a representative from ACIJ.
The problem for slum residents was, according to the city government’s website and assorted apps, their neighbourhoods, much like their maps, didn’t officially exist. Long considered illegal settlements, their unofficial status as part of the city had permeated official cartography. “You don’t have the slum maps on 147,” explains Mariano Malia, from Wingu. “There are no addresses. You file a claim but where do you report its location? Somewhere within a vast, grey expanse?”
Their simple idea turned into a complex, long-term cartography project that is bearing its fruit exactly two years later. Now, Caminos de la Villa, is a fully functional platform that boasts detailed maps of every slum in Buenos Aires, that residents can use to file reports for lack of public services, which are in turn forwarded directly to city government. The non-profits worked alongside professional cartographers to map every inch of the neighbourhoods, using handheld GPS devices.
When it came to mapping Villa 31, where Churqi lives, they received additional help. Pablo Vitale, from ACIJ, had gained the trust of the residents after working on several after-school projects for the local children. He set up a special cartography programme, that had the children excitedly running up and down each of the slums’ roads, streets and passages while they actively learned about mapping, GPS tracking and building scale-models.
Once the children had traced every nook and cranny of Villa 31 on to a map, the provisional drafts were presented before the local assemblies. Block representatives then vouched for the accuracy of the maps and debated street names. Finally, each block representative carefully went over their own area and indicated all the important landmarks: from soup kitchens and sports centres to clinics and daycares. Mirella, a kindergarten teacher, recalls that the experience brought unexpected networking opportunities. “Thanks to that part, I learned about another kindergarten that existed on the other side of the neighbourhood. I got in touch with the principal, we got to know each other.”
The project was so impressive that the Buenos Aires city government has offered to turn their hard work into official city cartography, which officially acknowledges that these neighbourhoods do in fact exist, are part of the city and therefore, deserving of equal treatment when it comes to accessing public services. The maps have not only legitimised the existence of slums like Villa 31 in the eyes of district officials, but has put residents on the map – somewhere where basic public services might finally reach them.
Will these maps also help to change perceptions about the areas? Mirella sure hopes so. From the outside, the villas are fraught with poverty and violence. From the inside, it’s quite a different story.
“We like this mapping project, it’s a way to show the outside world what we really are: that we are organised, that we have many things that perhaps other neighbourhoods don’t have,” she explains. “We are and want to be seen as more than just a dangerous area to be avoided at all costs.”