Zambia provides model for how Africa can use Artificial Intelligence to address challenges of urbanization

With cities and towns expanding every day, African governments are looking to collect geospatial information that could assist in prioritizing goals, from basic service delivery to ambitious infrastructure plans.

Geospatial information contains location information, and uses artificial intelligence and aerial or satellites to enable information about cities to be linked together based on their shared location component. This process enables effective decision-making at a local and national level.

In Zambia, three leading organizations, Ordnance Survey (OS), the International Growth Centre (IGC) and the Commonwealth Association of Architects (CAA) are responding to the challenges associated with urbanization and the availability of accurate data by piloting the creation of an automated digital base map of the capital, Lusaka.

The initiative is led by the Ministry of Local Government, which is undertaking efforts to promote prosperous and inclusive urban settlements and ensure Zambia’s towns and cities are resilient to support economic growth.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of gaining a better understanding of the city’s informal settlements, and the Ministry of Lands has also offered support.

“The Zambian Ministry of Lands is pleased to be supporting the creation of detailed mapping of Lusaka to deliver better outcomes for informal settlements and other critical uses such as land auditing and titling and effective land management,” said Joseph Minango, Surveyor General, Zambia Ministry of Lands.

Using aerial imagery provided by the Zambian Survey Department in the Ministry of Lands and Natural Resources, OS has utilized its advanced automated process to generate a new base map using artificial intelligence across 420 squared kilometers of Lusaka.

This innovative technique is a quick, accurate, and cost-effective way to create a detailed digital map with a wide range of applications, including the design and management of critical infrastructure services, land use planning, transportation planning, land tenure, ownership, and administration, and the integration of future census data.

Computers are taught what to look for in images using training data; the technology then automatically creates mapping quickly and accurately.

Africa is urbanizing so fast, to the extent that urban populations are expected to triple by 2050. Expansion of cities is also having a positive impact on the economy, with Ethiopia experiencing a 10.1% expansion of its economy in 2019, thanks to urbanization.

But as cities grow, so does the challenge of housing. The World Bank says that 54% of Sub-Saharan African urban dwellers live in informal settlements, and between 50% and 80% rely on informal jobs. Slums such as Kibera, the largest in Africa, are overcrowded, frequently polluted, and have insufficient housing as well as limited access to water and sanitation facilities. Furthermore, these unofficial sites lack the infrastructure needed to support sustainable, livable, and productive urban environments.

The solutions to these challenges could lie on artificial intelligence-driven mapping data.

OS says it mapping data will help identify informal settlements, population density, the number of built structures, the location of transport infrastructure surrounding the formal and informal neighborhoods, as well as access to electricity, sanitation facilities and clean water.

“This programme will promote the value associated with accurate and relevant spatial data. The rapid delivery of a scalable and replicable national digital base map is not only relevant to cities such as Lusaka but also has far-reaching benefits at a national and regional scale,” said Andy Wilson, Region Director of Africa OS.

A sister project, led by Patrick Lamson-Hall of New York University’s Marron Institute, is contributing to this analysis by creating a typology of the various informal settlements and tracking their expansion over time. 

Success of this project will enable the government to better target investment in critical infrastructure and services, upgrading informal settlements to provide for the most vulnerable residents. It will also aid in better planning for urban expansion, lowering overall infrastructure investment costs, limiting informality, and enabling more resilient and sustainable urban futures.

 “OS data will provide the evidence and information to support critical decisions when upgrading existing informal settlements and planning future infrastructure to promote economic prosperity,” Joseph Minango added.

If well-managed and planned, urbanisation in rapidly developing cities can be transformative, creating jobs, reducing poverty, and improving residents’ quality of life with better access to healthcare and cleaner water.

“Rapid urbanisation and unplanned settlements present an increasingly serious challenge in terms of social, economic and environmental well-being. The provision of accurate digital base maps creates a vitally important resource for use by policymakers and planners in the development of evidence-based solutions that will help deliver greater impact and at speed,” said Peter Oborn, Senior Vice President, Commonwealth Association of Architects.

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