68 Uni-Fi: Reimagining Technologies for the Urban Poor

Santosh Kesavan, Crosslinks Foundation, India

Slum Integration in Smart City initiatives source: Civil Society Online

Slum Integration in Smart City initiatives source: Civil Society Online

People-centered economic transformation will play an important role in realizing inclusive and sustainable development in an increasingly urbanizing world. UN member states have therefore accorded a central place to “Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable” as Goal 11 on the “road to dignity” in the December Synthesis report of the Secretary-General on the post-2015 sustainable development agenda [1]. According to UN-Habitat, the UN agency for human settlements, around 33% of the urban population in the developing world in 2012 were living in slums.

Urbanization in most low-income and lower-middle-income developing countries has been characterized by environmental degradation, deepening economic divide and rampant proliferation of slum settlements. Slum dwellers have a poor quality of life and are deprived of access to basic services in the area of water and sanitation, electric power, street lights, healthcare and education [2]. Slum settlements have also been reported to have become breeding grounds for criminal incidents and other unlawful activities thus jeopardizing public safety in the neighborhood [3].  Urban slum dwellers suffer from a persistent digital and financial exclusion that prevents the fruits of larger economic growth from truly percolating to them. Recent developments in the area of “smart cities” offer a great opportunity to renew focus on the neglected urban poor.

For example, Government of India has recently embarked on an ambitious multi-year program to create 100 smart cities with an investment of over USD 1 Billion every year. The proposed initiative aims to harness the power of technology to create profound changes in how cities operate and to deliver more effective governance to its residents. As the smart city program has a strong focus on increased competitiveness and economic growth through technology-driven urban improvements, the challenges faced by slum settlements too can be appropriately integrated right at the specifications stage. The National Optical Fiber Network (NOFN) is Government of India’s largest nation-wide optical network initiative that aims to extend broadband connectivity to 600 million rural citizens of India by 2017 [4]. NOFN is realized by using the 2.5 lac village offices as last-mile concentrators of Internet traffic from neighboring villages before further transportation to state service centers. A similar connectivity template may be used in an urban context by setting up multipurpose “slum service centers” that communicate with a central municipal office of the city. There is a need to reimagine conventional broadband and mobile technologies to address the empowerment needs of the urban poor.

Uni-Fi Architecture: Uni-Fi is a universal and cost-effective broadband network that is geared towards advancing the needs of slum settlements in Indian cities through superior service provisioning, improved governance and better quality of life for the urban disadvantaged in India. The Uni-Fi architecture comprises three key components:

Multipurpose Streetlights: Recent advances in technologies permit the cost-effective integration of surveillance cameras, energy-efficient streetlights and wireless broadband capabilities in a small form factor. The low profile camera is networked through a high-speed wireless connection so that the camera view can be observed remotely by public safety personnel for crime prevention and monitoring purposes. Use of such multipurpose devices can enhance the sense of safety and security of slum areas and deliver “livable streets” for the urban poor.

Community Kiosks: Uni-Fi includes shared broadband kiosks that serve as “broadband experience centers” to communicate the benefits of broadband to the poor through hands-on usage of computers and tablets pre-loaded with mobile governance apps. The broadband experience center will thus stimulate consumer interest in the service and enhance perceived utility of broadband with relevant applications and content. It also provides a two-way community channel for slum dwellers to voice their grievances to respective ward executives and for municipal officers to publicize civil works and other local initiatives. In addition, the kiosk serves as a single-window service center to facilitate awareness of and access to government benefits to unorganised (informal-sector) workers living in the slums.

Online Shopping Access: The broadband service center will host an online classifieds and local deals website that is designed exclusively for slum dwellers. It enables higher-income households, neighborhood stores and small businesses to list and sell daily-use items and other services at deep discounts to low-income buyers who are registered on the website. The website is coupled with a mobile shopping application with an integrated digital wallet facility for mobile payments that work on basic feature phones and low-cost (sub-$40) smartphones using Android or Firefox OS. It provides an easy user-experience for slum dwellers to browse items on sale, discover attractive offers and receive automatic notifications about local deals.

Uni-Fi nodes in a city can be networked and managed centrally with an easy-to-use, drag-and-drop interface for transferring municipal content to these devices.

Key Benefits of Uni-Fi:

  1. Lack of broadband/Internet access imposes a “non-adoption tax” on the digitally excluded [5] by raising their relative costs of various activities such as shopping, travel and communication. UniFi benefits low-income communities that remain largely excluded from India’s eCommerce revolution due to a pervasive digital divide.
  2. Unification of lighting with wireless enables new public-private partnership models whereby cash-strapped municipalities can join forces with mobile operators to significantly reduce their upfront investments for street light rollouts while advancing the operators’ objective of cost-effectively expanding mobile broadband coverage
  3. By locating an IP camera inside of the lighting device, one achieves a bird’s eye view of the area, ideal for surveillance applications. Higher-quality lighting is also critical for enhancing detection for pro-active public safety interventions in public spaces.
  4. The network backhaul connection has additional benefits such as transferring device related conditional data on energy consumption, temperature etc that can be used to detect impending failure events and enable pro-active fault management of the device.
  5. Muncipalities can leverage the Uni-Fi system to explore other monetization opportunities such as location-based advertising, merchant subscription fees, sales commissions on high-value transactions, income from other service providers leasing spare capacity from the Uni-Fi network.
  6. Uni-Fi generates opportunities to mobilize, develop and empower low-income communities around the management and governance issues of their neighborhoods, thus improving their quality of life.

References

[1] “The Road to Dignity by 2030: Ending Poverty, Transforming All Lives and Protecting the Planet,” Synthesis Report of the Secretary-General on the Post-2015 Agenda, New York, December 2014.

[2] “2011 Primary Census Abstract for Slums,” Office of the Registrar General and Census Commissioner, India, New Delhi, September 2013.

[3] “Streets as Public Spaces and Drives of Urban Prosperity,” Published in Nairobi by UN-Habitat, 2013.

[4] “Report of the Committee on National Optical Fibre Network (NOFN),” Department of Telecommunications (India) Report, March 31, 2015.

[5] “Broadband Adoption in Low-Income Communities,” Dharma Dailey, Amelia Bryne, Alison Powell, Joe Karaganis, and Jaewon Chung. SSRC Report, March 6, 2010.

Author Biography

Santosh Kesavan is the founding trustee of Crosslinks Foundation, a non-profit organisation that focuses on inter-disciplinary social sector challenges and sustainable development. Crosslinks’ vision is of a world where technology is deeply integrated into every aspect of our life to generate substantial socio-economic benefits. Santosh is a telecommunications engineer by training with over eighteen years of practical experience in both government and commercial establishments and has held positions in research, program management and marketing. Santosh holds an MBA from University of Maryland, College Park and was a research fellow at Harvard Kennedy School from 2012-2014.

Contact email: skesav@crosslinksfoundation.org

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