What do Quito residents think about Habitat III? This data project has the answers.

Isabela Pineda is one of 60 volunteers surveying Quito residents about the Habitat III conference taking place here this week. (Brendon Bosworth)

QUITO, Ecuador — Twenty-one-year old architecture student Isabela Pineda has a pretty good read on what Quito’s residents think, or don’t think, about Habitat III.

For the past few days, Pineda has been walking around Ecuador’s capital city with her mobile phone asking people in public spaces questions about the massive U. N. event held here this week.

She has been punching the answers into an app designed using open-source technology called Open Data Kit. The process, she says, takes about two-minutes.

Earlier that day she had been canvassing in the city’s main square, which flanks the presidential palace. Many of the older people at the square were angry with the government and confused Habitat III with national politics, making it difficult to conduct interviews, she admits.

Interviewing in the southern part of the city in a working class area revealed that “people didn’t have any knowledge of Habitat III,” she says.

Pineda is one of 60 volunteers drawn from two local universities who have been canvassing opinions on Habitat III for a research project of the LlactaLAB, an urban research lab based at the University of Cuenca.

The full range of questions that form the survey include: Do you know what Habitat III is? Do you think that Habitat III will have any impact on city development in Quito? Do you think that these kinds of events consider citizens’ opinions?

The final question asks what issue citizens are most concerned about, from a list that includes safety, equality, public administration, urban planning, urban economy, the environment, and housing.

“It seems to me that most people care about security,” says Pineda. “The others care about equality.”

Showing the data

Data visualization — using maps and graphics to illustrate stories in urban data — has been a big theme at Habitat III. The LlactaLAB project has a unique take on this, when it comes to presenting the data Pineda and the other volunteers are collecting.

The visualization is on display in a building a few blocks away from the main conference venue. The answers collected from the interviews — which totaled almost 5,800 by mid-day Wednesday — are displayed in real-time on a screen. On the ground in front of the screen lies a plastic sheet with a map of Quito, with a bunch of helium-filled balloons on strings floating above it. Each balloon is pinned to a specific site on the city map, representing an urban issue that respondents were most concerned about.

The balloons are color-coded. For example, a green balloon bobbing above the site of Estadio Olímpico, a football stadium, indicates that people interviewed there were most concerned about safety issues.

Helium-filled balloons float above a map of Quito. The colors correspond to the urban issue residents are most concerned about. (Brendon Bosworth)

As researchers went into areas further away from the Habitat III venues, they found fewer people who knew about Habitat III, explained Andrea Parra, a researcher at LlactaLAB.

Most people who knew about it believed Habitat III would have an impact locally, she said. However, most people thought that big events like Habitat III don’t take residents’ opinions into account. This reflects on how the New Urban Agenda — the outcome document that nations will agree to here in Quito —  is “built from the top, not from the bottom,” she says.

Researchers will make the data collected for the project available for free online so that people can use it as they need.

They hope that governments will take note of this type of citizen-led data collection.

This kind of tool can help governments build understanding of public sentiment, and find out about citizen’s needs, says Parra. “This is a really simple way to increase citizen participation.”

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Brendon Bosworth is a correspondent for Citiscope based in Cape Town and is the editor of UrbanAfrica.Net, a project of the African Centre for Cities at the University of Cape Town. Full bio

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