JAKARTA – For those who can remember the sound of dial-up Internet, chances are that it reminds you of the slow, painful speed at which information used to travel — and the world getting a little smaller. But, could it also be the sound of the world getting a little smarter?
The history of online social interaction, or social media, certainly extends beyond the AOL chat room — and it has grown from a humble position of entertainment to that of absolute dependence in billions of lives across the world. Over the past couple decades, a phenomenon rooted in the human desire for connectivity has transitioned, in step with technology, into a tool for community organization, monitoring, and management.
Each social media platform–Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and others–has its own set of priorities and logic that structure the way users interface with information and one another. Sorting by type and need, the networks generated by social media operate like the infrastructure of a city–connecting people, goods, and services through networks of similar interests. Consequently, in recent years, social media has played–and continues to play–a considerable role in events from social movements to risk management and aid distribution across the globe.
Cities like Jakarta present a great opportunity for social media to play a significant role as an urban infrastructure for two main reasons: Jakarta is one of the top five social media markets in the world, laying claim to the world’s largest number of Twitter users; and, with one of the world’s highest rates of urbanization, the infrastructure of this dense metropolis tends to lag behind its rate of growth while regularly facing challenges like severe, city-wide flooding. Thus, Jakarta generates both the need and means to self-organize effectively.
Last year, a new project was launched in Jakarta to test whether or not meaningful spatial data–with application for urban design and resilience–could be derived from social media. PetaJakarta.org (Map Jakarta), a collaboration between the SMART Infrastructure Facility at Australia’s University of Wollongong and Jakarta’s Disaster Management Agency (BPBD DKI Jakarta), is an open-source platform that uses community crowdsourcing to pull in flood-related information from across the city, mapping this information in real-time and making it publicly available online. As an applied research initiative, it’s usefulness extends beyond the abstract: It provides citizens and government agencies alike information that can help navigate flood conditions–whether rerouting a daily commute or deploying emergency assistance.
We connected to Twitter’s public API, and in 24 hours found 150,000 tweets that contained the word banjir. That really opened our eyes to the fact that there was a very real potential to test our ideas about geosocial intelligence here in Jakarta. This was the city where we should try the experiment! — Tomas Holderness
During the 2014-2015 monsoon season, the first full season the system was online, there were five major flood events. Of the more than 100,000 flood-related Twitter conversations across the city, PetaJakart.org was able to map 1,000 flood sites across the city in real time.
The ability of the system to distill 100,000 conversations down to 1,000 high-quality reports is one that gives meaning to otherwise nebulous online chatter and “transforms Twitter into an emergency data gathering and critical alert service,” Etienne Turpin and Tomas Holderness, co-directors of PetaJakarta.org, said in an article published by The Guardian online. The resulting online map was viewed over 160,000 times from within Jakarta; and it helped the Jakarta emergency management agency respond and communicate with residents about flood-affected areas.
In addition to Twitter reports, version 2.0 of the PetaJakarta.org platform–launched for the 2015-2016 monsoon season–incorporates flood report data from Qlue (a government-sponsored citizen-reporting app) and Detik.com (a citizen journalism app). Users can also see official government data such as river gauge readings and flood heights, providing a single reference interface for both public and emergency agencies to identify impending danger and alerts in real-time.
Building a resilient city is about more than crisis management. A city’s leaders, agencies, policies and processes must be able to withstand changes inherent to the democratic process. The PetaJakarta.org project has been designed, built, and deployed in partnership with the government–such that it belongs to the city and isn’t just a passing experiment conducted by a handful of foreigners. This year, in preparation for the rainy season, the project team held training sessions for over a thousand government employees across the metropolitan area of Jakarta.
PetaJakarta.org is built to interact with and extract information from existing platforms and modes of communication. It is not a new application and continued evolution will depend on its ability to adapt to an ever-changing field of social media networks and user patterns. To prove itself a useful tool for city-design and management, it must be designed with those that make decisions for the city and designed by and for those who use the city. So, while Jakarta awaits the arrival of the rain, the PetaJakarta.org team has an eye to what the future holds for social media and the design of cities.
Christina Leigh Geros, from Cambridge, Massachusetts, is a Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellow based in Jakarta, Indonesia. She is a designer, researcher, and educator whose project gives voice to the communities of the Ciliwung River through an interactive website mapping stories that expose the relationships between urbanism, ecology, and politics.