Archive for the ‘community development’ Category

GIS applications: Providing a better understanding of San José’s, CA infrastructure

Thursday, December 11th, 2008

From TRS, Intro to GIS

Geographic Information Systems is useful in a broad range of domains because users can acquire, display and organize layers of spatial and non-spatial data. GIS has been used, for example, in environmental conservation or population demographics, and is even used in more restrained areas such as military or government usages. GIS is also very commonly used in city related projects to access an urban problem or any form or urban development. In this case, I will elaborate on GIS and its applications and what they bring to the capital of Silicon Valley, San José, California. There are many situations in which GIS provides a clearer understanding of city related issues in the San José area, such as infrastructure inventory, sewer flow analysis, and emergency responses. Specific applications will now be accessed in more detail.

One of the applications GIS brings towards the San José community is providing a vector data on parks and recreation in the city boundaries. There are a multitude of maps available on the city’s website representing closed, open and developing green spaces in and around the city. I think this is a great way to use GIS, because maps under this tool can be modified to appeal to different audiences and provide essential information to citizens and/or “out of towners”.

Another very interesting application I discovered was the urban redevelopment projects in San José and how GIS provided in-depth maps on the various neighbourhoods or districts that will or who are currently under a process of renewal. Evidently, maps found on the website’s database range in a multitude of topics. Downtown project areas undergoing redevelopment, business districts, redevelopment of downtown housing, and industrial projects are all acquired, organized and displayed with the help of geographic information systems. The department of planning provides traditional GIS based maps and Google Earth/Maps related kmls on, for example, particular zoning areas (city limits), census blocks, and city council district maps. I believe these are very useful for observing the current urban structure and infrastructures of the San José area.

To conclude, GIS can have applications in many different sectors, and this short text provided an insight on what GIS can provide and benefit for a city and urban planning.

Please… Stop working and start conversing!

Sunday, November 23rd, 2008

(A reply to An environmentally friendly world, made possible with GIS)

You and I work very hard and we often do not take the time to chill out and talk… Conversation is one of the most important social activities but because of time, we forget how important this social act is for us! We are social animals…

Anyway, on a usual Friday diner, my dad, little brother and I opened a nice bottle of wine (I must say that it was a real discovery. For those of you interested Don Pascual reserve Shiraz Tannat 2007 produced in Uruguay available at SAQ). We were discussing about the week main news as we like to do when we get together. We discussed about the US government’s possibility of helping the car industry with $25 billion (owners went to Washington D.C. with private planes), economic crash, Québec election, etc. Later on, when my mother joined us, we opened a second bottle of wine and we did not leave the table at that time.  Haha! We kept discussing and the point that I want to go is the importance of discussing because we can share our opinions but also share news that hit home everyone single one of us (I do not know if his sentence make sense, hope you got it).

I am not telling new thing here but pay attention to this… My dad mentioned that Google continues of getting crazy. After revolutionized the World Wide Wed search engine by adding search options like scholar, images, news, Google Earth, etc, Google can now helps out epidemiologist predicting pandemic. How? Well, I will ask you a question… When people get sick, what do you think they are typing in Google search tool bar? Hahaha! Exactly! I was almost shocked when I heard that from my dad… I just looked online to prove if this is true and was again really surprised to notice that this information is even published in the NATURE website! Wow! Is it surprising or scary? It becomes really powerful and Google possibilities are unlimited as GIS is also. But if I think on that a little bit… in fact, I am not really surprised of this discovery. I am more surprised of the persons that made the link between flu fluctuation and the amount of Google searches over time. See the graph taken from the Nature website.

GIS, Google, … what’s next? This world becomes really crazy! These technologies performed really well but it is our obligation to use them in the right direction.

Cuban hurricane risk management; could Western countries learn a thing or two from socialist Cuba?

Wednesday, November 19th, 2008

On the topic of adaptive management for climate change, I came across an article about Cuba’s hurricane evacuation policy. This article highlights Cuban hurricane management procedures and frameworks, and compares them with those of the United States. I have sent the brief article to you via our McGill emails. The main point is that Cuba has adapted to the high threat of hurricanes and hurricane related disasters (flooding, heavy rains, high winds) in the Caribbean. The number of deaths/ hurricane in Cuba compared to the rest of the Caribbean countries and the United States in significantly lower (there is a chart in the article illustrating this fact with figures). These results are contributed to three major factors: 1. public awareness of hazard risk, 2. public policy commitment, and 3. applied scientific knowledge. Public awareness refers to the citizens’ knowledge of hurricane risk and how to act when a hurricane approaches. Moreover, it reflects the citizens’ personal response to hurricane warnings (i.e. heeding the warning rather than staying at home). Public policy is a unique quality to Cuba due to its long standing socialist government. Cuba;s political structure is relatively stable compared to democratic governments, in the sense that one party is long lived and there are few internal struggles. It is this institutional stability that allows for the implementation and evolution of long-term, practical plans, be they for hurricane risk management, education or health care (all of Cuba is far ahead of the United States). Lastly, applied scientific knowledge, refers to Cuba’s history of meteorological scientific research; during the 19th century the Spanish government and the Catholic Church developed in Havana the first meteorological service in the Caribbean region, around the same time as the Cold War, Cuba became self-sufficient in predicting hurricanes, with a network of hundreds of weather stations.
I will not go into detail about the chain that gets information about hurricane warnings to the Cuban citizens beyond mentioning that when there is a hurricane risk, the warming system is run by the National Defense Council and all media are fully subordinate to this council to broadcast the warnings an instruction to the public (there are no private networks).
I understand that Cuba operates under a system of social, economic and ideological frameworks unique from Western countries, and that these differences pose challenges for implementation of similar hurricane management plans. But, what is stopping Western countries from creating hurricane and other natural disaster adaptation plans that are efficient within their own frameworks? An interesting raised in this article was that Cuba developed such a strong plan out of necessity; Cuba has to be highly concerned about protecting its people due to severe economic constrains imposed by the US embargo. I found this interesting when compared to the damages and lives lost in Hurricane Katrina, where it seemed that human life, at least certain human life, was disposable in the United States (I am sure we are all aware of the demographics of New Orleans and wont dive into this as it is a whole other topic).
This example of hurricane management is the closest thing I have come across for actual policy implications for adapting to environmental disasters, which are set to increase in frequency and severity the world round. I wonder then, could ‘democratic’ developed countries learn a thing or two about environmental and social protection from socialist Cuba?

Differences Aside: Coming Together for a Common Good

Saturday, November 15th, 2008

It has been said, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend”; it is a quote that I understand to be an Arabian proverb (  I would argue our “enemy” is environmental degradation.

November 10, 2008, there was the talk given by Rabbi Michael Cohen explaining the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies program.  Here, students come together for the common goal of researching on the environment.  There are tensions in the Middle East, but these students are able to discuss the environment and cooperate together.  The program is a chance for the different nationalities to come together and dispel myths of each other.  Rabbi Cohen suggests the program can function because the students are able to meet fellow citizens, get past labels, build trust and cooperate as a community.  This is made easier by the fact that the students are not in deep city and that the environmental issues transcend any boundaries.

You could pose several questions on the subject of cooperation.  First of all, when working towards a common goal will you always get people who agree with you 100%?  I paraphrase that it was mentioned in the talk that to come about change, you won’t always meet up with people in complete accord.  In my opinion It wouldn’t be a discussion.  And dealing with people who have the same ideas makes the decision process easier, but I’d argue that this lessens the amount of solutions you come by, and increases the possibility you’ll run into an insurmountable brick wall.  What’s absolutely necessary is the ability to still listen to who you do not agree with.

This poses another question.  How do you talk about an issue when facing conflicting insights?  You don’t want to abruptly come across as “I’m right, you’re wrong, and that’s all there is to it.”  Without giving up what you believe, you try to see these questions from the worldview of the person posing it.  Then you attempt to explain how you view the question from your worldview.  Either way you cannot be blinded in your own bubble.  You listen by seeing.

Is it possible to solve the global issue of environmental degradation on your own?  No.  Environmental degradation may have one impact on a certain area of the world and a different impact elsewhere.  Deforestation would increase runoff on hill tops and increase salinization in the valleys down below.  You need the consideration of all who are involved to reach a complete solution.

I’d finally like to comment on whether there are instances when people should not be included in a cooperative effort.  During the question period of the seminar, the issue was raised on receiving funding from an organization, certain members of the talk perceived as racist.  If you disagree with the views of one of your supporters would they be capable of making a decision requiring you to discontinue acceptance of any future funding?  Would this instability still be considered progressive?  Are there any conflicts of interest in cooperation?  Could you still “listen”?

From this blog I hope I have not succeeded in preaching to the choir.  I also hope I have not put words in anyone’s mouth.  What I do hope to achieve is the discussion of the issues of cooperation, especially on an issue as global as the environment.  To add one more cliché to this commentary, two heads are better than one, and working together to help the earth would be better than working alone.

Building Activism, Stripping Corporate Power, Recognising the Rights of Nature

Wednesday, September 24th, 2008

On September 15, Thomas Linzey gave a seminar on how communities are working to preserve their environment without being trumped by the government, or corporate rules and rights.  Communal and municipal actions and regulations can be overruled by the following; preemption from the federal and state government; Dillon’s rule, generally stating that the community or municipality is like a child which the state allows certain actions, and; corporate rights which lawfully personify company structures.  Problems would arise when a community would attempt to prevent structures such as a waste incinerator from being built in the area; the community was interfering with the corporate rights of the incinerator company from managing their business, and they were being preempted by the government’s issue of a permit to build.  Thus the pollution that such a structure might cause would impede the environment and the community.  The Community Environment Legal Defence Fund (CELDF) was created to give free legal services to communities with not enough lawyers to fight these trials.  In addition, one of their goals is to aid communities in making constitutional laws that would give nature the right to flourish.

The seminar may have been biased, under representing the balance between the needs of the community and corporations.  It was delivered enthusiastically and was not difficult to listen to.

I enjoyed the concept of the seminar, however I failed to grasp the effectiveness of the program to strip corporate power.  If communities create a constitution of environmental policy that the government is in disagreement with, what’s to stop the government from preempting the environmental legislation for what they consider more economically favorable?  The seminar gave me the impression that these civil changes are more effectively obtained through active protests, rioting and sometimes civil war.  The seminar gave examples of the protests of the suffragettes in the women’s rights movement or the civil war to abolish slavery.  Note this is not to say that CELDF advocates or opposes these tactics; their position was not mentioned, only the examples were given.  However, given the increasing popularity of environmental discussions, it may be in the interest of the government to consider their own policies to protect the government.  Still it appears they will have the final say.

While the concept of giving nature rights is brought up in the article Ecology in Ecuador, the question of whether assigning rights is the correct mode of action is brought up in The Return of Goodness by Skidelsky.  What I’ve obtained from Skidelsky’s article is that morality is not completely covered by a set of rights and rules.  If our actions interfere with the standards protecting others, this is immoral.  But if all we do is follow rules and regulations without having our own definition of virtue, do we lose our own innate ability to determine morality?  Skidelsky uses the example of the man watching porn:  He has the right to do so, and others may frown on his outlook, but he is not immoral (Skidelsky, 2008).  Take (for lack of a better one) the example of a river.  We have the right to use rivers for water (in general terms to use the river), but if we deplete the river are we immoral?  We are exercising our right to water (justified and positive) but we our using up our resource (a negative).  Our innate definition of morality would determine the balance.  It is society’s innate morality that makes our just laws.


Wednesday, July 2nd, 2008

I was pleasantly surprised to find this organization: Habitatmap.

In their own words: “Habitatmap is an environmental health justice organization that leverages community knowledge to achieve just and sustainable urban spaces. Our collaborative mapping and social networking tools are designed to maximize the impact of community voices on city planning. Currently we are focusing on Newtown Creek, the slim body of water dividing western Queens from northern Brooklyn, and its surrounding neighborhoods.”

fascinating phones, the real diversity

Thursday, February 28th, 2008

Fritjof Capra, author of “The Web of Life” and, more famously, “The Tao of Physics”, gave a course Feb. 22-24 in Dehradun, Uttranchal State, India. It explored the dimensions of a new, emerging sustainability science based on ecological design… but I won’t go too deep into that here.

The site chosen was Navdanya, and organic ‘conservation’ farm that functions as a living seed bank – that is, the crops are not locked away, but actively cultivated. Vandana Shiva named the many pure varieties we ate for breakfast, lunch, and dinner (incidentally, Carlo Petrini was among the 30-odd participants as well).

So, if you ever get your hands on amaranth, I recommend you sauté it and fold it with honey.

But I digress. The sweetest part of the course was the bike ride through the neighboring villages I took during our afternoon siesta. I could not sleep or chat or read, and there was a clunker of a bike with my name on it. I made friends with Babalu, the go-to-guy on the farm with all the keys, and I rolled down to the ‘main road’ for a long ride.

Let me tell you what I saw:

  • A 600 litre water tank on wheels (portable but not potable) with a tropical sunset scene done in acrylics that graced the front. A cellphone icon and not 1 but 2 cellular numbers were painted on as well.
  • One boy biking on the other side of the street whistled, “Hallo,” which is not uncommon, except he was talking into an microphone wire on his red-dirt shirt.
  • The rental wedding band taking a break by the side of the road. Their marching band attire includes large red ankle bands and vests, on which the cellular number for the dispatcher was embroidered in gold thread.
  • 3-wheeled scooter taxis, AKA autorickshaws, seldom have mobile phones. However, the passenger in one was handing his phone to the driver-wallah so the person on the other end could discuss with him appropriate directions.*
  • Mechanics using mobile phones with white LED lights embedded in the front to see into a motorcycle engine. The Nokia 1100 and 1200 models, which have these mini-flashlights built in, are among the most popular model of phone sold in India and Africa, I’ve been told. My friend uses one to manuever his keys in his front door at night.
  • Many people sitting around, drinking tea, walking, biking, etc. while holding their mobile phone as it plays loud Hindustani music from a non-toll-free number.
  • It goes without saying that the course was excellent, enjoyable, enriching, etc., but it was all very abstract – Dr. Capra is a systems theorist and physicist by training. What was much more apparent was how low-cost mobile phones are facilitating a different, digital web of life. The implications for ‘sustainability’ are large though hard to define from a cursory village cruise on a bike, but are certainly food for thought.

    * This deserves an elaboration: the strategy of calling someone fluent in Hindi at or near your destination has been the salvation of many an expatriate, myself included. Often, the driver or you will have to figure out the route by landmarks. If you are lucky, a shopkeeper or passerby in the neighborhood can direct you once you get close. But – if you and the driver are lost, or you can’t remember the name of this or that street, temple, etc., or your rudimentary Hindi is inadequate for describing the particular location, a mobile phone can leapfrog these problems, saving time, money, and frustration.

    Google Earth in Second Life

    Wednesday, March 28th, 2007

    Via Cyburbia, the blog on urban planning: Google Earth in Second Life

    This is an interesting twist. Instead of making Google Earth into Second Life, why not make a virtual version of Google Earth inside of Second Life? Second Life is an alternative 3D universe (or Metaverse) which lets you have an alternate version of yourself and explore a different 3D world. Josh Knauer has developed a virtual version of a Google Earth like interface which he calls GeoGlobe. He announced GeoGlobe on his blog here. You need to have Second Life installed, and then follow this special link to teleport yourself into Second Life to let you view content such as Google Earth’s KML placemarks or GeoRSS.

    Never thought I’d see recursion in virtuality. Question is, while the Second Life avatars are wandering GeoGlobe, will they be able to bring up Google Earth on their virtual laptops or handhelds?

    mobile commerce for community economic development

    Wednesday, March 21st, 2007

    From time to time, I’ll write about opportunities for information technology to advance community development. How do you encourage local economic development when so much of your populace is excluded from mainstream financial institutions? Kenya has become the first country to allow cell phone users to send cash to other phone users via text messages.

    Update: lest you think that mobile phones would be largely out of reach of poor Kenyans, here are some statistics from the article:

    19% Adult Kenyans with bank accounts

    54% Adult Kenyans with a mobile phone or access to one