Data is king. In Mumbai, though, the king lives in a labyrinthine fortress and anyone wishing to enter must leap over fires, jump through revolving razor blades, slay dragons, and complete complicated quests. Or at least, it feels that way when you try to access ‘public’ data. Rather like a computer game, except it’s less fun.
Quite appropriately, a young geek has solved the maze and has made the ‘cheat codes’ available to the likes of us. Akshay Kore, a small, slim, bespectacled young man, is a student of interaction design at Indian Institute of Technology Bombay, and the data he made accessible is on MumbaiData.in — a map-based, interactive tool that helps you visualise the city’s spaces through a number of different lenses, with land use data from the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM).
Getting data is tough, sorting harder
The motivation and the knowledge, for Kore’s project — it’s his thesis as well — came when he was an urban design intern working on the city’s Development Plan 2034. “The data sets used to be a mishmash of everything. The problem is, this is not at all filterable, even on email.”
Besides, the process was laborious. If the departmental head came up with an idea like ‘let’s do a correlation between residential and water bodies’, the interns would take a printout and painstakingly mark the areas. Four interns would sit around four A0-size printouts, so huge they take up a small room, painstakingly drawing in the data. Drawing road networks, particularly, was a nightmare. “Now let’s say you don’t find anything. Then that map is discarded. This used to take up entire days.”
And then there was the data itself. Some of it would be hidden deep in websites, a concern echoed by urban planners and researchers from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS). Accessing data meant undergoing the rigorous process of multiple trips to the ward office, requesting the relevant data and paying for it at times only to find out later that the map was available online. “People can do a lot more with their time. Since I am from a technological background I know this thing is possible in a few seconds; why waste the entire day?”
The MCGM website has a lot of data, but it’s hard to find, and frequently opaque to the lay user. It’s also incomplete. This happens because Mumbai, like many megacities, has a problem: multiple authorities. For instance, the airport, railway lines and railway housing are under MMRDA; SEEPZ is under another authority.
Imagine the plight of a researcher who has to make trips to the offices of each authority to access data. “Going to an office is not a one-day job; you need to go multiple times. It’s worse for students, who need to carry multiple letters seeking permission.”
It doesn’t end there, as you may find that the data is on paper or in different data file formats, or worse, a format that a computer can’t read and sort directly.
Thanks to his internship, Kore knew how to get the data. Once he had it, most of his time was spent cleaning up the multiple inputs, parsing them, breaking them into smaller chunks so it can be easily read and sorted by a computer. Then, with Google Maps as a base, he created individual layers for different types of land use. The result: a one-stop resource for spatial data on Mumbai for architects, city planners, urban designers, or people in the field of social sciences.
A sidebar allows you to filter by categories; a user can choose to see only one kind of land use overlaid on the map, or juxtapose one against another or several simultaneously, in various permutations. Kore says it’s not just for professionals. “While it’s not really meant for the general population, I have tried to make it as simple as possible for them.”
There are 32 data sets, some of which are static like residential areas, open spaces, slums and defence areas. Other sets are ‘experimental’, like the July 26 set that shows a timeline of the Mumbai cloudburst over a decade ago. The Google Maps base provides the user with additional insights, like comparing recent satellite imagery with the land use designated for that area. For instance, an area marked as protected mangrove forest might show tell-tale signs of illegal dumping intended to kill the mangroves and encroach upon the land.
Work in progress
Kore realises he cannot add more data sets or make improvements to the code by himself, so he plans to make the project open source for others to use it as a base and build their own datasets. “I want to optimise it further, make it more interactive.”
A believer in open data, Kore says data released by the government and in the public domain should be easily accessible. “All revolutions happen when you have access to data. Most of the world revolves around who has the most data.”
Kore’s inspiration comes from the global financial hub of New York, which has made a lot of data easily available to its people. For instance, data can tell authorities which buildings will come up for repair in the next five years, and they can vacate them well in advance. Authorities can also use data to locate drug mafias simply by checking neighbourhoods with dilapidated buildings. “They’re making conscious decisions about the city.”
It’s about you and me then. About plans that involve communities and nations. “It’s not about one person controlling or giving out data like in a dictatorship, people need to decide what they want to do with data. Even if it’s for a commercial purpose, it’s affecting the economy, it’s coming back.”
With Google Maps as
a base, Kore created individual layers for different types of land use for spatial data