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How Drones Facilitate Community Engagement & Co-learning in the Global South

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July 20th, 2023

Sierra Leone Flying Labs showing the different parts of a DJI Phantom 4 aircraft to engineering students at the Milton Margai Technical University as part be

By Ciku Kimeria

When we think of certain words, different images come to mind. 'Expert,' 'beneficiary,' 'participant,' 'problem-solver,' 'capacity building,' 'community engagement.' Some words invoke an image where the skills, expertise, and knowledge are coming from one side of the world, and those stretching their hands out helplessly looking to be saved from another part. And while financial resources might often follow this one-way path, the most profound knowledge, expertise, and knowledge of what different communities need sits with them. 

A paradigm shift is needed from one where we believe communities in the global south receive knowledge from the global north. What if we dared to believe that communities have the best notion of their priorities and that the best partnerships are those built on mutual respect and co-learning?

Here are a few lessons that have been learned by Flying Labs members about both the importance and advantages of involving communities they work in throughout all the stages of drone data collection, analysis, and problem-solving:

Local kids waiting for the drone to be flown as Nepal FL pilot plans the mission 570x428

Community engagement to gauge perception of people on drones, the data it can produce and how it gets used.

Drones can be used for community engagement and development by collecting data with the community.

Drones are primarily a (geospatial) data acquisition tool that allows one to take a perspective from an aerial point of view that can add a wealth of information for a wide variety of decisions. One of the key advantages of drones over satellite imagery or geospatial information acquired by airplanes is that they allow communities to be part of the data production process. Involving communities in drone data collection enables community members to become more involved in the process, which supports higher trust in data and implications in decision-making, ultimately leading to easier ownership of decisions. Additionally, drones have multiple applications and can be used to address a diverse set of challenges affecting local communities. For different communities, there might be various priorities. Drones, as a tool, are incredibly versatile. Whether it's using drone imagery for counting crops in rural Cote d'Ivoire, mapping earthquake-damaged Minamisoma city by Japan Flying Labs, assessing mangrove forests in Pakistan's Indus Delta, or surveying and creating baselines for preliminary selection of areas for mangrove restoration in Chiriqui by Panama Flying Labs, drones allow data and human insights to come together for decision making.

"When working on a farming project in a village in rural Tanzania, the first thing to do is to engage the community," says Yussuf Said Yussuf, co-lead of Tanzania Flying Labs. "A drone isn't something you can fly in private, the reason why we involve the community from the beginning. Once we have acquired the data, the community is also very important in helping us analyze it. Our maps might show that a particular part of the fields isn't fertile or has very low yields. The community will be able to tell us more, like for example that this particular area was badly flooded two years back, the soil was eroded and that's where the problem is. The community will help us better analyze the data."

We understand our own problems and we get equipped with the right technology to work within our communities.

— Yussuf, Co-Lead, Tanzania Flying Labs

Tiamayou Radji, Head of Senegal Flying Labs, says, "I think drone technology is responding to our needs even more than to those of people in other parts of the world. In more developed parts of the world, drones might be used for maintenance and making films. In Africa, we use drones for data collection because parts of our continent do not have accurate, ready-to-use geospatial data. Lots of places on the continent are not covered by satellite and also connectivity doesn't cover some parts of the continent to access online geospatial data. We need data for decision making that is readily available and can be produced without the need of internet connectivity." 


South Africa Flying Labs has also had experience in rolling out projects that are transformative for communities that have been affected by disasters. A devastating flood hit parts of Kwa Zulu Natal (KZN) province in April 2022, resulting in more than 300 fatalities, affecting 40,000+ people, destroying over 16,000 homes, 264 schools, and various businesses, roads, bridges as well as electricity and water infrastructure. South Africa Flying Labs worked on a project with the community to help identify areas at risk of floods and fire. 

"Most of the communities in Alexandra Informal Settlement were seeing drones for the first time in their lives and learning about their ability to minimize the hazards that come with frequent disasters they keep on experiencing. They appreciated the exposure to drones as a disaster preparedness and response tool. They also valued the ownership and accountability from the joint exercise," says CEO and Managing Director Queen Ndlovu of South Africa Flying Labs. 

Local communities need to buy into projects involving them. 

This is why members of the Flying Labs network have an advantage: they live in the same geographies where they collect data, understand the local context, and speak the same language. Suppose the community is well-engaged in the process. In that case, they will also have a relationship with the data they helped collect, and a connection will be created early on where community members are active participants in discussions and problem-solving.

Yussuf also speaks of the importance of the grassroots element of the work, saying, "What Flying Labs are doing is introducing this knowledge to the local community. We don't come in with a mindset that we want to remove international expertise, but rather that since now we have a tool that is easily accessible, we can build from the ground up as we have people within each of these countries who understand the culture and the way of life for those they are working with. We understand our own problems and we get equipped with the right technology to work within our communities."

According to Flying Labs Namibia coordinator Virginie Uwimana, "The rapid growth of informal settlements and unplanned urban development poses a formidable challenge for Namibian Local Authorities, with far-reaching economic, social, and environmental consequences. This is why Flying Labs Namibia uses an approach with an unwavering focus on community engagement, uniting stakeholders, local leaders, and community members to achieve shared project goals. This collaborative process not only strengthens long-term working relationships but also uncovers additional community needs like STEM projects, which can be seamlessly integrated into ongoing or future initiatives."

This is how Namibia Flying Labs has used the power of aerial mapping of informal settlements to transform urban planning and drive positive change. One project at a time, the project partners can help shape a vibrant and inclusive future. 

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Engage the community and obtain permission before using drone technology.

Working with local communities as thought partners, implementers, or experts on projects is crucial. For the Flying Labs network, this is a requirement that is taken seriously, the reason why it is an integral part of the Drone Code of Conduct for Social Good that Flying Labs are following in their work. WeRobotics has also published an online course on Community Engagement for Flying Labs. In addition, community engagement is part of the "Ethics" standard that is part of Flying Labs' yearly self-evaluations, and open sharing on how community engagement was managed is part of all use cases. WeRobotics and Flying Labs act as role models in the drones for the social good sector, which is why making community engagement one of their 'must-do's' is a key priority.  

Queen Ndlovu says about the Alexandra Informal Settlement disaster preparedness project, "The power of local was tested to its maximum. The communities took pride in that they were consulted prior to the intervention and took part throughout the process till completion. Prior to implementation of the project, there was a disaster preparedness module followed by a change detection exercise. Unemployed youth from the community still continue to get trained on drone technology. This has become a sustainable partnership and the communities are getting exposure from media houses to attract other potential social impact investors. We have robust engagement now and partnerships with other stakeholders such as UNICEF South Africa and the City of Johannesburg."

Ciku Kimeria is sharing her storytelling talent with WeRobotics to make the many stories in our minds and hearts come alive from a different perspective. Telling these stories will contribute to changing mindsets and inspiring local talent on how drones and their applications in the hands of local experts create a positive social impact. Ciku is a Kenyan storyteller whose work spans storytelling for development agencies, journalistic writing, editing for different media houses, travel writing, and mystery novels.

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