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Drones Could Help Create Better Public Services In The Developing World

Why not leave it to drones to map all of the unmapped, poverty-stricken places around the world?

Millions of people face a fundamental barrier in achieving a better life: their location isn’t mapped. Their home has no recognized address and, consequently, they remain outside the realm of normal public service, which includes everything from mail deliveries to government sewage programs.

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Groups like Spatial Collective in Kenya are employing volunteers who map slums using handheld GPS devices. Médecins Sans Frontières is gathering people online to trace places from satellite images.

David Kiarie’s idea is similar, though with a twist: he’s planning to fly drones over unmapped places to get more of a bird’s eye view. “With mapping, government and development partners can plan infrastructural development, like roads, health facilities, power connections and decent housing,” he says. “We already have successful mapping projects in Kenya, but the drones will allow us to reach other slums outside Nairobi.”

Kiarie, who heads a group in Kenya’s capital called the Zoom Advocacy Organization, recently won an award at the “Drones For Good” contest, in the United Arab Emirates. With money from the UAE government and Indra, a Spanish engineering group, he’s now developing his first camera-laden prototype, and working with local government groups to work out how the idea will work in practice.

The slum areas Kiarie is targeting have grown haphazardly with no coordinated planning. When someone wants to build a house, they go ahead, with the effect that everything becomes bunched up and public areas are overrun. Eventually, the slum becomes chaotic and uncharted, so that only locals know who lives where.

Kiarie is at the starting gate with his project, but drones potentially offer a cheap, efficient way to cover a wide area quickly. “Drone mapping will make it easier [to map],” he says, “There will be improved health, increased investor confidence in the slums, cleaner water, better and wider roads, less power theft and reduced disease.” That’s the plan anyway.

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About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.

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