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Using Smartphones for Disaster Risk Reduction in Informal Settlement Construction

By Guest Writer on October 4, 2023

informal settlement smartphone

Housing in informal settlements often lacks construction techniques that adopt criteria of resilience to natural hazards. Smartphones are rapidly diffusing in economically developing countries. How does the current use of smartphones by the masons of the informal settlements of Iringa, Tanzania, identify pathways for improving construction practices?

Challenges in Informal Settlement Construction

Informal housing is increasingly common, especially in low income countries but also in lower middle-income countries like Tanzania. Informal housing lacks the application of engineering principles, as mostly untrained masons cover the roles of architects and engineers.

Masons play a crucial role in the construction and maintenance of informal settlements, as architects, engineers, and registered contractors are usually too expensive for local communities. In addition, there is no national structural building code in Tanzania that practitioners can refer to. Therefore, the lack of quality of the built environment is problematic and even present in the formal construction sector, partly caused by the scarcity of trained workers

This results in extreme vulnerability to natural hazards. Natural hazard risks are a common threat for informal settlements. The most common risks connected to informal settlements are due to unregulated housing, untrained masons, and unplanned urbanization:

  • Unsafe location of the buildings (e.g., floodor landslide-prone areas)
  • Variable and unstable connections to services (e.g., water and electricity)
  • Low-quality building materials and construction details
  • Susceptibility to natural hazards due to poor construction quality and lack of appropriate building criteria

The typical construction techniques in Tanzania are rammed earth, adobe, quincha, burnt brick masonry, sand block masonry, and reinforced concrete. These construction materials and the structural details lead to buildings that have little ductility and deformability, which negatively affect the buildings’ performance in case of an earthquake, for example. In Tanzania, there is medium risk of seismic hazard, and high risk of flooding and drought hazards

The Use of Smartphones to Enhance the Safety of Informal Settlements in Iringa, Tanzania reflects upon the use of smartphones by local masons in the design, procurement, and construction and training process to identify novel pathways for knowledge sharing that enhance the quality and safety of housing in informal settlements.

Smartphone Use by Local Masons

Our survey revealed that 76% (16 out of 21) of the masons owned a smartphone and they all had regular Internet connection. The interviews and focus group highlighted that connectivity can be an issue, but only in remote rural areas. All the masons who did not have a smartphone expressed their desire to own one and were working to achieve that goal.

Mobile payments were a major function of smartphone usage: 80% of the masons relied on cash, 60% on mobile payments (M-Pesa), and 10% on bank transfers. The majority of the interviewees and focus group participants commented that mobile payments are extremely common in everyday life and are increasingly used in the construction sector. The owner of the architecture firm claimed that it is not uncommon to pay for an entire new dwelling just with mobile payments.

Of the smartphone owners, 87% use their phones to search for information they do not have. Even individuals who do not own a smartphone seek out information in this way: one participant indicated “I ask my son to look for information on his smartphone,” when he requires new specific technical information. This result is consistent (14 out of 21) with the number of masons who consult websites and social media when seeking construction-related knowledge.

The use of a smartphone to acquire new knowledge appears to be disconnected from English proficiency, as only two respondents are very basic English speakers. Of the smartphone owners, 81% stated that they would favorably welcome the possibility to use their smartphones to exchange knowledge through external initiatives.

Role of the Smartphone in the Design Phase

In informal settlements, cooperation with technical experts is rare. Of the 21 masons, 81% never interacted with a district engineer and 43% never or rarely cooperated with an architect or an engineer; 28% of the masons never or rarely have technical drawings, whereas 57% sometimes have.

Typically, masons decide the dimensions and features of the construction together with the homeowners, sketching the plan on paper or reusing an old design. Potential clients usually show photos or snapshots from social media as references, asking the masons to replicate something existing. As a result, smartphones enable a wide exchange of photos and desired design.

This approach does not consider any engineering evaluation. One mason claimed that “we improve thanks to homeowners” who show them images and videos of what they would like for their house. In fact, he believes “homeowners are responsible for the design.” One mason mentioned that “I copy from what I see on the streets and from the movies,” while another one said that “I visit other construction sites.”

One of the interviewed homeowners shared his experience of building a small cinema. Since the masons were not familiar with that building typology, he shared YouTube videos via WhatsApp (e.g., showing acoustic insulation types and installation techniques).

Role of the Smartphone in the Procurement Phase

Procurement refers to the practice of obtaining goods and services in relation to the construction. The interviews and the focus group revealed that banks seldom provide microcredit to households and financial limitations are an issue. Construction is usually started as soon as there is a small budget available; as a result, a large number of buildings stand incomplete and exposed to the weather for considerable time, jeopardizing the final quality of the house.

Each fundi is specialized in a different trade; thus, homeowners liaise with several masons. Of the 21 masons, 76% believe their estimations are well-assessed. Nonetheless, the interviewed stakeholders claimed that the pricings coming from the masons are generally variable and unreliable. Furthermore, during the focus group discussion some of the masons reported that it is challenging to request extra money from the homeowners, and it is common to reduce the quality of the materials to not exceed the budget during the construction.

In this context, “word of mouth” is the most common procurement strategy, followed by social networks: 43% of the masons advertise their work on Facebook or Instagram, using photos that include their contact details. One mason confirmed that the large majority of his clients were acquired through Facebook and “I received requests even from outside my region.”

Role of Smartphones in the Construction Process

The city of Iringa is home to the Ifunda Technical School and the Vocational Training Centre, which are managed by the Vocational and Education Training Authority. The interviewees and the focus group reported that they are inaccessible to most of the masons, due to their cost. The survey results indicate that 81% of the mafundi did not receive any formal training but learned from other masons (67%) or a family member (14%). They usually approach the construction sector as helpers and then slowly gain independency. The Internet is not a source of knowledge in the first phase (0%), while NGOs are (19%), but they do not retain the same role for follow-up questions (0%).

When masons search for new technical information, the most traditional method (“ask other mafundi”) and the most innovative one (“consult the Internet”) showed the same attractiveness (67%); 29% look on social media (mainly Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest) and only 19% try to contact experts.

Spontaneous utilization of smartphones in the construction process is observable, although there are no specific applications designed to provide information to the masons. Only two participants over the age of 40 mentioned paper-based guidelines, whereas the consultation of the Internet is well distributed across all ages, and only masons over 50 have no interest in social media.

Social media, websites, and construction sites managed by registered contractors are a source of information especially for “borrowing” aesthetic features. Visual content seems to appeal the most. When asked, the masons indicated that written text found on websites is too complex, while images and videos are more immediate and entertaining. The TV program Ujenzi, which was created by the government to train masons, was mentioned as a source of new knowledge by 3 (14%) of the masons. This result is aligned with the latest governmental DRR strategies, whose efforts are focused on launching a new radio and TV program to raise awareness of natural hazards.

Almost all participants (90%) expressed a desire to be more knowledgeable in a certain field. Remarkably, almost 25% of the respondents would like to be more knowledgeable on Tall or modern buildings. Only one person out of 21 mentioned Safe structural details; 33% indicated Good toilet facilities, 24% Water tightness for heavy rain, and 14% Good light and air circulation. None of the natural hazards that affect the area were mentioned. This result aligns with previous research, that claims that households are predominantly influenced by aesthetic/design criteria and societal standards during construction.

A lightly edited version of The Use of Smartphones to Enhance the Safety of Informal Settlements in Iringa, Tanzania by Giulia Jole Sechi, Eefje Hendriks, Maria Pregnolato

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One Comment to “Using Smartphones for Disaster Risk Reduction in Informal Settlement Construction”

  1. Gawain Kripke Kripke says:

    really interesting. I would read more on this – especially why govt tv program has such low penetration. And ideas or initiatives to integrate better DRR and engineering into masons’ planning. Also- would be interested to learn more about how significant the mason’s role is in structural survival – is it mostly a design issue, or is actual performance an important variable.

    Anyway – thanks for posting.