PAWEŁ SZCZAP (Ulaanbaatar Studies): A few words of introduction if you may.
BATDORJ GONGOR (Ger Community Mapping Center): The Ger Community Mapping Center (GCMC) is a non–governmental organization dedicated to sustainable, equal access urban development through community engagement and participatory decision-making. The GCMC, formerly a community group named Eco Friendly Community, has been doing community mapping activities in the ger areas since 2012. We promote community mapping as a planning, awareness and outreach tool to advocate for sustainable, participatory and eco-friendly solutions to address local urban problems.
Myself I have been interested in and working with animating community participation in the ger areas since 2006. In 2012 I have participated in organizing an active group of neighbors in my own neighborhood. It was called Eco Friendly Community. That is when my efforts took on momentum. In 2015 the community activity got formalized and transformed into an NGO and that’s when GCMC was officially created. GCMC is working towards creating inclusive development and transfer of knowledge about the city to its citizens via the means of community mapping among others.
SZCZAP: Where did the initial inspiration for such a project come from in the first place, and what’s your position at the moment?
BATDORJ: When in 2006 I arrived in the ger area as a graduate freshman, just looking at the immediate surroundings was motivating enough. I think the general idea was born during the process of neighbors getting together to collaborate and resolve the problems they were facing on an everyday basis.
In 2009 there was a conference of the Community Architects Network – many people working with so-called ‘slum areas’ in Asian countries attended – architects, urban planners, social workers and others – that was a big inspiration for me. I understood that it was crucial to undertake efforts similar to their’s in Ulaanbaatar’s ger area. Our city had five General Plans designed so far. It was only in the last of them that the ger area were considered an integral part of the city organism. Before they were being left out – their existence was considered somewhat independent – left to themselves for everyone’s sake. It is important to state that the policies still fall short. The city is a concept encompassing as well as created by a lot of factors, infrastructure for one. The availability of infrastructure and services in the ger districts is insufficient. There are a lot of persisting problems here – poverty, medical care and education availability. Yet the ger districts remain a part of the city and so also from the city’s perspective these problems need addressing and subsequent solving. Of course this will not happen in a day. For me it’s been already several years of engagement.
SZCZAP: Could you tell something more about the circumstances if which GCMC was established?
BATDORJ: At that time I was living in the city center renting an apartment. When I became a father it also became difficult to continue that way, that’s why I decided to acquire land in the ger area and move there. That’s how I came to live here. And so as I said in order to take care of the problems of the immediate surroundings we started to organize as a community to better our living conditions. This is how we continued between 2012 and 2015. Along the way I talked to a lot of friends, sharing, consulting my ideas. Some of them were interested in working together. And so, at some point we decided to formalize our activity and establish an NGO to further the scope of our work. It was five people then.
SZCZAP: Could you explain more about the process of your work?
BATDORJ: What is characteristic for the GCMC is not any specific idea for this or that project. I think the most characteristic feature of our work is that we pay attention to the urban environment in which we work and try to notice those issues that hardly ever get officially mentioned and yet they are faced on a daily basis by the inhabitants of the ger districts. We take these and try to sort them out by means of community participation. Along this process ideas for solutions are born. Then we look for financing and try to carry out the project from start to end by ourselves – no outsourcing.
In terms of mapping on one of the projects we’ve realized so far was the one financed by the Local Development Fund. It was a joint project of the city authorities, the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation and the The Asia Foundation. Between 2013 and 2016 the work of mapping all the ger districts was carried out.
In the beginning we collected all the required budget data year by year from the government agencies and the district authorities. Then we took all the data and headed out into the field. Khoroo by khoroo we met with local citizens and using maps we verified whether the projects included in the budget documents have been realized or not. Next we took the verified data back to our office and used computer software to transform all of that into a unified digital format. When the data got digitalized and visualized back onto maps we took these backs to the khoroos and again we verified the outcomes of the work with the local communities asking them more about the quality of the projects undertaken and their importance for the community. After that we made final corrections and handed the ready outcomes to the city authorities. After that was done the only thing that was left was to put the outcomes up online which we did in cooperation with the Information Technology Department of Ulaanbaatar.
SZCZAP: Which website was that, the GCMC website?
BATDORJ: No, it was a municipality website.
SZCZAP: Was it Manai Khoroo? http://manaikhoroo.mn ?
BATDORJ: Yes that’scorrect, Manai Khoroo.
SZCZAP: So is it correct to understand that the Manai Khoroo project was created on the basis of the data you have organized and collected?
BATDORJ: Well not directly, no. We were basing on resources and the work of people from the khoroos we visited and cooperated with. So the data was brought into the project by the people from the khoroos themselves, we only facilitated parts of that process and were responsible for the technical part of the project. We were more like technicians.
SZCZAP: Who was it then, those who did most part of the data collecting?
BATDORJ: Well mostly the citizens themselves, those living in the khoroos, the supervisors of the khesegs, and of course the employees of the khoroos.
SZCZAP: So people worked on a voluntary basis?
BATDORJ: Those for who it was outside of their work duties – yes.
SZCZAP: I understand.
BATDORJ: There is also a substantial amount of work we have done in the matter of waste management. In 2012 just next to where I lived there was a big waste disposal site. Regardless of my actual feelings about it, if I wanted to do something concerning that issue, it would have been impossible for me alone. An so we organized meetings in a local group of neighbors. Examining the map of the area we named problems related to the proximity of the site. Actually in that khoroo there were 6 waste disposal sites. When we facilitate the process of discussion on such issues obviously there will be ideas coming from inside of the community itself, not from me or anyone animating a certain activity in the beginning. So also that time I actually ended up only facilitating the process. So in the end we managed to solve the problems in our khoroo and what we did next was to take the outcomes and ‘export’ them to the neighboring khoroo. Well, that was a few years ago but waste management still remains in the direct scope of our activity. At the moment we are aiming at discussing and solving problems related to waste management of the city level. Probably it will take some time but we hope it will also come to a point where it’s possible to impact the general strategies of waste disposal on a country level. And so through this example (and our hopes for the future) it becomes obvious that we represent and support a bottom-up or in other words a grassroots approach. Still, we cannot do without some kind of strategy implemented by the authorities, be it on city or country level. With our efforts we are trying to provoke and influence the development of mindful strategies.
SZCZAP: Could you elaborate more on the technical process of working with maps inside the community? Is it based on any specific techniques or tools?
BATDORJ: Well you know, when working inside a given khoroo, which is a rather limited area it is fairly easy – everyone knows what is where, so we just print a map, sit down around it, mark and discuss for example the locations of the waste disposal sites – ‘there’s one here, one here, and one more there’ etc. – so this happens in the process of a group discussion. The main activity here is that the people come together, engage in dialogue and come up with possible solutions.
SZCZAP: Well then how about generally mapping the ger districts? Do you engage in such processes as well?
BATDORJ: We do not take part in cadastral or similar works on this level, but for example the locations of all the wells, kindergartens and schools, waste disposal sites, areas potentially endangered by flooding – these are the kinds of information we collect and mark on maps together with our interlocutors from a given khoroo.
SZCZAP: So along these lines, how many and which khoroos did you work with?
BATDORJ: All of them.
SZCZAP: That’s very impressive. So how are the responses of the khoroo administration towards your work, is there interest in making further use of the data you ‘provide’ them with?
BATDORJ: Generally, as this project was implemented in cooperation with the city authorities, the khoroos were rather willing to cooperate, on different levels.
SZCZAP: How is working with maps of an area such as Ulaanbaatar unique? What difficulties are you faced with in the process of your work.
BATDORJ: Well in space-specific terms of in the context of the city-scape itself it is obviously the ger districts. But the thing that is most important is the fact that it’s impossible to call them slums. The population of the ger districts is quite mixed but in the social sense there is not much visible stratification. In terms of the natural environment it’s not much different from the rest of Mongolia – in winter it gets -30, summertime it’s +30 Celsius degrees. If precipitation is high there a substantial risk of flooding or related problems occurs– that can be quite extreme and at such times, the fact where do you live makes a difference – a ger, a house you built for yourself, a block of flats. Despite the at times harsh atmospheric conditions, the ger districts are a rather peaceful place to live in. You’re on your own, but then you are also on your own grounds, you have much freedom in creating your immediate surroundings. The presence of the ger districts to an extent impacts the visual environment of the city, some people say in a negative way, but for me it’s a very interesting phenomenon. From GCMC’s point of view one difficulty is that even if we make a thousand maps we do not have sufficient resources or infrastructure distribute the outcomes of our work to people and make the difference we would desire. If they reach the communities in question they can really make an impact. For me personally what was most inspiring, was the engagement of the community itself – people are very curious, interested to participate. When they look at their living environment on a map it’s a totally different perspective which enables people to see for example what is most needed and at the same time what is lacking in a given area and community. Another thing is that people here don’t know much about the city. They are familiar with their immediate surroundings or daily routes but often not much beyond that. So to deliver the spatial knowledge and better understanding of problems by means of maps – that’s a most exciting experience.
SZCZAP: Assuming that it’s possible for you to reach a desired portion of the population, what other kinds of impact (apart from those already mentioned) would you hope to make?
BATDORJ: Well, it’s not that our work’s outcomes don’t return to the communities, they do, but even if they impact the perception of a certain amount of people, there is still the question of the amount of time needed for change to take root. We do have some successes we could talk about, like the ones discussed before. When a map or a resource is ready it still takes time for it to be utilized, and have a chance to make an impact. All of that depends on the problem in question and solutions the maps are to be a tool for. As I said we began in 2012 dealing with the waste disposal and related issues. Today in 2017 we are still working on that problem.
SZCZAP: How about technical aspects of your work ? What kind of tools or technologies do you make use of?
BATDORJ: When talking about work in the ger districts you need to remember that if we go out into the field you are most likely to encounter Dorj. Dorj, an average person from the ger district community is likely to have little computer or qualified technical skills so it doesn’t make sense to rely too much on laptops or fancy gear – it will make it harder for us to find a mutual language with the community. So our basic technology are human-to-human communication skills. Obviously later in the process we transfer the data into digital form via means of software, we try to use free and open source software and support its development. The software however varies depending on the situation for example we might use ArcGIS for on project and QGIS for another one. All depends on the nature of the project, the group etc. What is most important is that after the work in the field is finished, the feeling of accomplishing or creating something remains. That is most crucial. This way people get interested in further participation. They see that their involvement makes a difference that they take part in something that actually stems tangible outcomes.
SZCZAP: So there is no notion to make use of the some simple yet useful tools among the communities or in the field? You don’t use drones, GPS, any apps for smartphones etc.?
BATDORJ: Well, at the moment for example we do not have high resolution satellite or aerial maps of the city. So we use a drone for photographing areas in question, we are also in the process of developing websites and software/apps. So for example we are working on an app that enables you to get information on waste disposal services in your area, the companies responsible, the timetable of waste pick-up etc.
SZCZAP: How about courses and workshops? Does the GCMC engage in these kinds of educational activities?
BATDORJ: At the moment we’re not really that focused on organizing workshops or courses for the sake of themselves. We rather pass knowledge on during the process inside the community while working toward some defined goal. We do teach using OpenStreetMap to school and high-school youths. So, we are trying to bring maps to people in a more interesting, interactive way.
SZCZAP: Any additional remarks in terms of cooperating with the communities in the ger districts?
BATDORJ: Well, when we arrived and started work at the some of the khoroos, for many people it was their first contact with the medium of a map. It was a new idea for them. Now they got used to it, but that doesn’t mean that there is less enthusiasm. When we come into the community with an idea of goal we’d like to introduce and work with the people are usually very quick to make it happen. It was very important to see this change happen, that’s an indicator of actual impact
The other thing is – it you get to know something better, you develop an emotional bond to it. Only then you can begin to truly respect it. It’s the same with the city. If you respect your surroundings you will also be more likely to contribute to the city’s development, participate in the process. So by means of maps we deliver knowledge and help develop a bond to the place represented on th map, we make you come closer with your immediate surroundings or your neighbor, engage both of you in a mutual process. That’s the proper process of development. For example, in the communities we work with before there might not have been a water kiosk or a kindergarten and the people depended only on the possible interest of the politicians. In my case – since as I said myself I also live in the ger district – thanks to the use of maps within the community my own knowledge of my khoroo improved and now I am able to explain what is lacking where and why it is needed. So when meeting with administration or local government representatives I’m not talking about a problem I have, I’m talking about a problem WE have. Because of my knowledge of the characteristic of the problem in question it is also easier for the administration employees or policy-makers to work towards solving the issue, with this kind of expertize on entry point it is easier from the beginning. For me in turn that means that I am able of realizing specific goals and doing my job. Also because I am speaking in the name of a community, my voice is stronger.
SZCZAP: So apart from this kind of work flow do you also make use of other mapping tools or techniques, for example sketch maps, surveys etc.? These are obviously very useful in getting a better idea of how a community perceives and imagines their immediate surroundings.
BATDORJ: Oh yes, we use sketch maps all the time. If we want to know how do people envision their living environment we can do it by means of visual representation not only dialogue. Another example is 3D mapping – something we actually did not use yet, but this year we are going to try it in Arkhangai, where we will be working on a project aiming to map people’s memories of climate change. But sketch maps as well as modeling clay – we use them all the time. When we talk about mapping the understanding a lot of people have is of a strictly scientific activity making use of GPS equipment, complicated, expensive software and such.
SZCZAP: It looks like you are working on quite many diverse issues. With limited resources it probably will be not possible to successfully develop in all the directions one might hope for. What kind of help could you use from an external party – a community, an NGO or other agent willing to cooperate with the GCMC? In which areas would you hope for assistance, support or higher activity on the side of third party agents?
BATDORJ: Well, as you are saying – our city faces various problems on many fronts. Of course one small NGO cannot solve all of these problems. How we see our mission is to provoke and stimulate social participation by means of maps, trying to create a method with which citizens can have adequate access to formal procedures and impact them. If we succeed in creating such a model it means that most of the future problems can be approached by means of that model and at least an attempt can be made at solving them in that more participatory way.
SZCZAP: So where would you see space for other community-oriented groups in this process of creating more healthy communities and arming them with useful social change tools?
BATDORJ: When talking about a community first we need to answer what do we mean by the term itself? A district (düüreg) population? A khoroo population? A khoroo can be anywhere from around eight up to maybe fifteen thousand people. All of them can’t meet at a given moment and talk through the burning problems of that particular community. Maybe we should be talking about a community on the level of neighbors from one street then? Where I’m getting at is that we need to prepare those communities first. So we would be looking forward to seeing more groups working with healthy community formation, information processes, facilitating such learning and creation processes, be in outside agents or ones from within the communities themselves. When there is an integrated community in place our work becomes way easier so obviously we are open to cooperation with everyone working towards achieving similar goals. There is quite some people or companies that are capable of creating beautiful, advanced maps, but none of them is working in such a community-oriented way as the GCMC. Even though as an organization we have at our disposal tools such as the abilities of community mapping facilitation, community organizing or other social skills, sometimes we look at problems from an open perspective and situate or understand them on a city level, yet we are unable to identify conditions intrinsic to a given community which is the basic need in such work as ours. It would be useful to be able to deal with common issues that have already been identified as such by the community itself or facilitators working within a given community. We are glad to work it from there.
SZCZAP: So how can people support your endeavors?
BATDORJ: Generally, we are open to all forms of cooperation. We look forward to creative individuals coming forward with ideas they would like to cooperate on and are interested in looking for common grounds. For us the most important is that all parties involved are doing what they know best and can realize their particular goals through a given collaboration possibility which breeds some concrete outcome. For those without specific projects planned, we are open to their contributions in a volunteer capacity as part of our own projects. Of course, it is also possible to support us by donating money but we are not the kind of organization that will organize its message to the outside world around requesting donations. ‘Human resources’ is what we are more interested in – we see true value in the collective energy and one’s own efforts to support a given project be it photographer, doctor, cartographer or anyone else. The problems of a densely populated urban organism are not only those of traffic or air quality. There is so many areas of expertise which can contribute to creating a pleasant living environment that almost everyone’s input can be crucial. Those interested in any form of cooperation with GCMC should contact us via e-mail and we can take it from there.
SZCZAP: Apart from those mentioned before, what kinds of links have you established so far? Who are you working with at the moment? You mentioned engagement with school youths, do you have any other connections to education institutions?
BATDORJ: I’d say you could divide them into two main categories: those agents (both private and institutional) we work with while implementing specific projects, and those that are in a similar position to ours – grassroots groups with limited funding, working towards a generally understood mutual goal. We have cooperated with several researchers, mostly foreign ones working on issues related to the ger districts. Obviously they have their own funding and research agenda independent from our work, so this kind of cooperation is at times somewhat informal but we try to support them on a concrete level and make their work more rooted it real life circumstances. If thanks to our support their research outcomes end up being of better quality that means more professional insight into the vast ocean of issues related to the ger districts, improved future expertise and more successful work for us as well. We are in the constant process of learning, so such experiences, even though they tend to be informal are of much much value to us as well. Not to mention other ger districts’ community members – self-knowledge is a crucial tool for change.
SZCZAP: How about the pros and cons of working with state agencies and administration?
BATDORJ: At the moment most of our work is organized in an exchange manner. The pros are definitely: they are the prime source of official data and statistics so tapping into their data resources is of crucial importance for the accuracy of our work. On the cons side its mostly the inconsistency of their work due to the election-induced staff changes as well as ideological issues. But I guess we are already used to that (laughs).
SZCZAP: How about the situation of official statistical, quantitative data in Mongolia. Is it satisfactory?
BATDORJ: Generally its satisfactory, and a lot of the data is freely available on governmental websites so that is also good. Of course we can discuss how much biased some of the data is but that’s a different story. We need to remember that official statistics are also what represents a given country on an international level also so their accuracy and availability generally is of crucial importance. I do not see the statistics sector’s level as unsatisfactory.
SZCZAP: How about the question of the ger districts’ redevelopment strategies? What are your views on the issue and how can these perspectives affect your work?
BATDORJ: Well, this topic is a bit outside of my area of expertise, I am not much interested in the strategies and plans for redevelopment. If I was o speak my mind, I’d say that to a certain extent such strategies are needed. But specific solutions that are to be applied also need to be re-examined. For example, most of the social housing that is to replace the current housing resembles square boxes. This mode of construction will impact both the city’s image as well as issues related, for example those of emergency situations be it earthquakes or other emergencies. On another note it seems like there is not much reflection upon the questions of cultural heritage or creating and preserving some kind of a unique Mongolian city-scape. And by that I don’t mean that we should all start living in gers in the city. I’m talking more about intangible elements of the city landscape – traditions, human relations all of which affect the approach to questions of land and settlements we have as nomads. Instead of eradicating one element and replacing it with another, we should reflect upon creating something new out of their union, something suitable to our local characteristic and needs. The related question of the ger districts as tangible heritage is yet another thing.
SZCZAP: There is this saying that if you weren’t born in a round house (i.e. a Mongolian ger), but in a house that has corners you’re not going to understand a Mongol...
BATDORJ: Ah that’s gibberish, I was born in a hospital (laughs). But yes, to an extent that does truth to the fact that the environment in which you were brought up shapes who you become.
SZCZAP: Speaking about different environments inside the city, what’s your take on the city zoning strategy?
BATDORJ: Here it’s still a rather fresh idea, you could say it’s raw, unprocessed. Even though I’m not able to speak to it in detail, generally my opinion is that we should approach th question of zoning from an organic starting point. What this means is that instead of creating artificial zones we first need to pay attention to supporting existing elements and divisions of the city, those that stay in tune with their surroundings and internal functioning as well as refrain from dividing communities by means of artificially delimiting zones. But that is a big topic, I actually doubt that it will move shortly and bring much change to the city in the immediate future.
SZCZAP: What do you think about what3words (w3w)? Can this technology be of help with your work or is it just going to make things more messed up?
BATDORJ: What can I say, it seems just a “cool” service, thats all. If people get accustomed to it and it becomes a common technology it might be useful, but how long is that going to take? You know well how it is in Mongolia, ways of and attitudes towards spatial and temporal reference are quite unique. Maybe w3w could fill some kind of niche? I seriously have no idea, I guess some habits are embedded too deep in our common psyche and so w3w will probably remain an unimportant novelty. Maybe for the businesses it could make more sense, but for a average Ulaanbaatar citizen not that much.
SZCZAP: How about w3w vis-à-vis the efforts to establish proper addresses (хаягжих), what are your thoughts on the relation of these two phenomena ?
BATDORJ: Establishing proper addresses is something that should be further implemented in order to better organize the city space but with taking the city-scape into consideration. I don’t see much how these two should be related, they should stay separate domains, it’s a bit scary to think that w3w could interfere with official addressing strategies. I guess it can be helpful, so if you want to – use it, it is of course your free choice, but personally I don’t think it would be of help for me.
SZCZAP: Changing the topic – how about your plans for the near and more distant future? What is GCMC planning on focusing on?
BATDORJ: Our main goal was always to increase the civic involvement in decision making processes affecting a given community. In the long run I guess that is what we are aiming for – to constantly strive towards increasing that civic involvement and keeping it possibly high.
In a shorter perspective I’d say what we are looking forward to is developing a mapping methodology suited to local needs and by its means creating a platform enabling further work with Ulaanbaatar’s problems – those related to the urban, the human, the natural, the economical and all other aspects of the city environment.
SZCZAP: Thank you very much for this insightful and inspiring talk! Wishing the whole GCMC crew nothing less but success in all fields.
BATDORJ: Thank you !