Natalia Coachman, DUSP-PKG (Summer ’19)

Part 1: An Introduction

Hello! My name is Natalia Coachman, I am a Brazilian architect currently a Master’s student in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at MIT. I am part of the DATUM (Open Data of Urban Transport and Mobility) team and thanks to the DUSP-PKG Fellowship, I am working on Mapeando Santiago, a participatory mapping of public transport in the Dominican Republic this summer. Mapeando Santiago is DATUM’s pilot mapping and will be part of the online resource center, a network of knowledge on policies, data, and mobility for Latin America and the Caribbean. The goal of the project is to incentivize data collection in developing cities and create open databases to enable future urban planning, improve mobility, and increase accessibility and inclusion.

But, what exactly is a participatory mapping of public transport? How do we do that? Who is participating? How is the public transport in Santiago? Why is this important? Who is going to benefit from it? What I am learning in on the ground? I will try to answer these and other important questions, and I hope you enjoy the amazing experiences I am having throughout this fulfilling process.  

When I arrived in Santiago de los Caballeros, Dominican Republic, I could understand that the transportation system here consists of three transport modes. First, predefined routes of conchos, authorized public cars, that can take up to 6 passengers and stop anywhere along the route. Second, guaguas, minivans that can take up to 36 passengers and have interurban routes. Third, OMSAs, buses that also have interurban routes and are the only ones that have established stops. There are 30 urban routes of conchos, each one with several branches, 6 OMSAs, and 26 interurban guaguas. Each one has separate unions, Santiago city has no public transport map, no transport digital data and passengers who want to take public transport find no information or signs about routes and stops. As you can imagine, I couldn’t take public transportation at the beginning because I did not know where to wait and each route to get.

During the first week, I was really excited to see how the participatory mapping would work, and how would the participants engage in the process to collect so much data needed. For my surprise, the 30 students who showed up to help were extremely proactive, so combining our technical expertise with their local knowledge, we mapped all the urban transit routes and branches in only 4 days using open cellphone apps called MapMAp and Mapillary. While in the public car and connected to the GPS, the first app would get the route, the stops and the time spent between stops, and using the second app the participant would take georeferenced pictures of the whole path, every 10 meters. After processing the MapMap data and transforming it into GTFS format, we uploaded the data into Google Maps to allow citizens to plan trips using public transport. Additionally, we used the georeferenced pictures to make an accessibility and security audit of the public transport surroundings with a gender perspective. All this information will be transformed into transit maps, transportation policy recommendations, and the data will be open for everyone.

The idea was to invite and involve citizens and people from every sector in the project to build local capacity and co-create data and knowledge to generate a sustainable and lasting impact. The participants of the project include academia, local students, civil society, local authority, transportation unions and the DATUM team (Inter-American Development Bank, World Resources Institute, MasterCard Foundation, MIT Civic Data Design Lab and Columbia’s Earth Institute). I feel very fortunate to be participating in every activity of the project, to be learning so much about using technology in place-based projects for inclusive development and have the opportunity to build something collectively that will not only impact local communities but also foster collaboration between Latin American and Caribbean cities.

Part 2: A Learning Moment

To complement the transport routes mapping and get a deeper perspective from local people about the transportation system and its surroundings, we developed a complementary mapping of accessibility and security with a gender perspective. To do that we elaborated three qualitative methodologies:

1.      Walking focus groups with vulnerable groups:

  • Three Women Organizations
  • Blind Association
  • Community leaders from Cienfuegos

2.      A participatory audit of 3,205 geo-located images of 8 routes using 24 indicators to determine levels of:

  • Public space security
  • Sidewalk accessibility
  • Movement’s obstruction
  • Comfort and rest options
  • Pedestrians frequency

3.      An online survey about the quality of Santiago’s transportation system and characterisation of public transport users:

  • It was open for all Santiago’s citizens, spread out by email and social media, and we got around 500 responses.

The walking focus groups were one of the most important learning moments during this project. It was the moment where we could really listen to people and get their sincere impressions of the public space. The goal was to learn about their experience, hear about their sensations regarding walking on the streets and sidewalks and analyse the paths through their specific perspective. In groups of 10 people, we walked around 1.5km and talked with the participants in a non-structured way. During the path, we recorded their voices and answers using OsmAnd, a voice note application that allows geolocating the audio. Additionally, we used Mapillary to take geo-located images of the path and all the elements that the participants mentioned, so that we could analyse the audio contenting it with the public space characteristics.

Women Group: We invited members of three organisations that give support to women who suffer violence or discrimination: Women from Cibao, Nucleus for women support and Church Women. We walked with them in the downtown region between their organisation’s centers and focused on talking about gender perspective on the public space. They told us that it is very common that men shout at them when walking on the streets, so at the same time they prefer to walk in populated streets, they avoid passing by groups of men because they would not lose an opportunity to harass them. One of them also told us that she faces weight discrimination every day and sometimes the concho drivers would not let her in because she would occupy two places in the car.

Blind Association: Walking with a group of blind people near their association center and the stops they get public transport was a very insightful experience. While they were guiding us on the paths they perfectly know by memory, they told us all the obstacles they face every day what makes the sidewalks unsafe or inaccessible for them. It was amazing how they knew all the details on the way, the positions of each tree branch that was too low, every steel cable crossing their way, every metal box, pole, open door, street vendor, etc. I felt very bad to realize how unprepared the city was for them, but at the same time, I felt inspired by their resilience and optimism never to give up every time they hit a new obstacle. I could not believe how they could smile while showing us the scarfs they have on their face, but I knew that they were really happy to be heard and acknowledged and that our documentation will help improve their situation.

Community leaders: Cienfuegos is an informal neighborhood and the highest generator of public transport trips in Santiago. We walked there with 10 community leaders from the region, that faces a lot of problems regarding lack of sanitation, insecurity and low attention from the city government. I was completely astonished to see how prepared the leaders were to talk about their neighborhood, to articulate the reasons behind each problem they face and how they are organizing to improve the region. More than that moment sensation on the streets, they told us about their lived perceptions over the past years, about places that are prone to flood, insecure places that more than one person was killed, and the paths with no crosswalk that children use to go to school alone. Their trust in us that their voices would be heard gave me a true sense of responsibility and convinced me how important it was to include diverse people perspectives in our public transport mapping.

Part 3: Work Impact

As the Mapeando Santiago project is being finalized, and the first results are becoming concrete, I could see the impact this effort is having on Santiago city and citizens. One of the important results of this mission was to design the first transit map of Santiago based on the data we collectively collected. After designing the topologic map, including all the necessary information to be used by the public transit users, I invited some students to help review it and make additions and adjustments according to their local knowledge. It was a very special moment for me because I could show them the first concrete result of all the effort we put together during this past two months collecting and processing data. It was a symbolic moment to end our collaboration, where I could feel their happiness regarding their participation in this project that is starting to show its impact. I felt deeply thankful for their collaboration, their joy, their readiness to help and capacity to contribute. Without them, all the accomplishments we did as a team would not have been possible. I am confident that the students who collaborated in this project were positively impacted by the experience. Apart from learning new collaboration methods and technical skills, they got confidence in the impact they could have as young professionals and citizens.

Another great moment was to present the map in the local city hall. I was welcomed by the transportation director, and he got surprised and extremely happy to see the map. He told me that he was enthusiast about the Mapeando Santiago project but that until that moment everything sounded as beautiful ideas and promises and to see the map was a realization for him that all the promises were becoming true. He assured that he would coordinate to print the map and put it in the local transit stations and distribute the pocket format of the map to the tourist information centers, transit routes stations, and citizens. It was amazing to see the first positive result of our effort happening and starting to impact the city, making it more accessible and inclusive for everyone.

The most important product of this project was to create a public transport open database and to build local capacity to manage transit data. This database in GTFS format is being uploaded to Google Maps and enable people to plan their trips in public transport. Santiago will be, at the end of August 2019, the first city in the Caribbean to have this public transport tool in Google Maps. This database will also be open and available online for everyone who needs transit data: governments to plan transit or urban improvements, companies to coordinate their businesses, the academic sector to make research, citizens, etc. During the project launch, we are going to present all the results and deliverables to around 200 people representing all sectors, and we hope to create a lasting impact that will be sustainably sustained by local people. The deliverables include the project video showing the methods used, the GTFS database, the transit map, the public transport survey results, the accessibility and security maps, and the walking focus groups results. These material can enable diverse and significant long-term impact, and the capacity is built to encourage local appropriation, and open data use to improve their city for everyone.

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