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Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Rebuilding Mogadishu with Local Knowledge

Underneath the bombed-out buildings and bullet-riddled doorways of Mogadishu lies a vibrant marketplace and hidden infrastructure known only to locals. Mitchell Sipus is trying to make that data public that with his “project to digitally map Mogadishu, encoding not just geography but also businesses, infrastructure, and people” (Wired).

The Freeman has covered Somalia many times, with an eye to how society there functions in the absence of a state. In recent times, it appears anarchy might be preferable to formal states there, at least to the kind of state that has held power historically. Ben Powell has done a great job covering the internal effectiveness of Somali customary law and how living standards seem to have improved since the state collapsed.

Most of these articles are a few years old, or rely on stale data. So where is Somalia today?

Two years ago this month, the militant group al Shabaab abandoned Mogadishu. Since then the “world’s most dangerous city” has seen a serious economic boom. Since the unrest has died down, community groups have started cleaning and rebuilding the city. Even so, Mogadishu is hardly a kind of place you want to pack up and move to. Yet. Sipus may help change that.

“We’re not just trying to make a map,” said Sipus of his technology.

I mean, we get a map, and that’s cool, but through this map we are creating a business-registration system. We are creating a system for houses to have a title. There’s a census component. What condition is this building in? Is there a business there? Who’s the owner? Where are markets? Wells? There’s infrastructure left over from when the Italians operated Somalia, sewers from 1950. A lot of them just need to be cleaned out; they’re full of sand. Right now there’s none of that information.

In essence, Sipus has found a way to encode residents’ local knowledge and make it publicly available—which should dramatically decrease search costs and uncertainty for would-be investors, business owners, and residents.

This is huge—and not just for Somalis. A system like this takes us one step closer to private management of cities. Take Detroit: Residents could feed information directly to contractors who would bid to fix the issue, cutting out the bankrupt government middlemen.

In the case of public-private partnerships in which cities outsource services to private firms, residents could easily find which company has responsibility for which service. Feedback mechanisms can in turn provide on-the-ground information about problems directly to the relevant company’s internal information systems.

Uses of Sipus’s technology could extend further than physical infrastructure. At this stage, it could also collect information on the jurisdiction of different forms of non-state Somali customary law, Xeer, and where the clan elders preside. Or, because some of these groups are pastoral, their jurisdictions could be updated in real time. If someone knows where a crime took place, a citizen (or victim) could look up the nearest clan elder and seek faster resolution.

Imagine how useful something like this would be for startup cities and seasteads. Such areas are designed for innovation, rapid development, and testing, knowing in real time who owns which property, which independent court has jurisdiction over a given part of the city, and which laws or codes affect certain areas, not to mention all of the physical infrastructure benefits mentioned above. Residents could see which organizational rules nearby groups are testing, how they are performing relative to theirs, and possibly make an exit. Such information would be at their fingertips.

Technology like that Sipus is developing is streamlining public administration and bringing us closer to private, competitive cities. There are still many kinks to be worked out, but day by day we are slowly outcompeting the State, that legacy system for managing physical space.”