Taxonomy of informality



 UN Habitat recognized in its Global Report on Human Settlements an effort to address informality with unconventional approaches, focusing on the up-scaling and replication of successful strategies identified in recent years. To extrapolate these strategies, it becomes mandatory to fully understand the communities and their inhabitants to create policies and technologies accountable for its citizens. Nowadays urban communities are able to solve existing problems, become more efficient, and make better decisions by using data-driving evidence based tools like the CityScope platforms that analyze, understand, and forecast human dynamics by correlating the data collected in urban ecosystems.  However, informal settlements lack the infrastructure and technological tools needed to gather this type of data. 

The complexity and broad scope of assessing informality has led world organizations such as UN-Habitat, to leave the data gathering and assessment task in the hands of local partners that use a diverse and very different (not normalized) set of methodologies and metrics, giving rise to unequal evaluations. As such, unified field- research inhibits potential comparisons between communities, and thus inhibits ways to extrapolate successful strategies learned in a settlement that might benefit other locations and communities.

The purpose of our Taxonomy is to better understand informality, so more informed policies and technologies can be developed and deployed “by and for” the communities. In order to achieve this goal we are collaborating directly with informal communities, and building the tools that will allow us to crowdsource the data needed to create this taxonomy. Moreover, this tool will give visibility to “invisible communities” while helping researchers understand the challenges of informality.

At City Science we propose a non-traditional methodology that collects and groups the different indicators and definitions of informality found in existing research and reports. By doing so, the new taxonomy will enable the development of unified standards that will allow researchers on the ground to assess informal settlements with a degree of commonality across the globe. It presents the initial steps to understand informality and infringement to Human rights globally with a unique set of variables. In parallel, this taxonomy provides the tool for unknown communities to raise awareness about their situations and will be a good excuse for making “visible” the “invisible communities"; this taxonomy will provide local leaders, citizens from the communities, and to NGOs a platform for sharing their challenges, ideas, solutions, and data in an international network of informal settlements.

Although settlements might have distinctive features, there are overall characteristics that might help to identify patterns of certain typologies that are common for some of them to a diverse set of communities. This will make it easier to address problems and face challenges universally. The criteria and groups identified for the taxonomy correspond to different scales that can be parallel to the morphology of the built environment: 

(1) The environment scale, or site 

(2) The street scale, or architecture 

(3) At the person scale, or populace 

These three scales intend to understand informality as a whole while identifying common challenges and strengths/advantages of the different settlements. 

To gather the data from the communities we have created an online platform that surveys users through a series of qualitative and quantitative questions. Consequently, the data will be simultaneously geographically located and aggregated in the visualization part of the website.

One of the main goals of this platform is to empower the communities, making them the lead source of information. This research intends to create a mutually beneficial situation, where the community helps and contributes to raise awareness by defining the problems they are facing, while allowing researchers, institutions and governments to understand the challenges that these communities are facing and to identify successful strategies that can be replicated in other informal settlements. 

Finally, the latest edition of the Global Sustainable Development Report proposes a global call for action that would be especially helpful for the implementation of all 17 SDGs altogether. As the report states: “organizations should facilitate the exchange of information and dissemination of lessons learned on the use of the Sustainable Development Goals framework among countries”; through the taxonomy of informality, the City Science group aims to contribute in this direction.