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A pop-up city becomes an 80 million person laboratory

Posted by Kevin Hartnett  April 24, 2013 01:45 PM

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Every twelve years tens of millions of Hindus travel across India for a holy celebration. The event is known as the Kumbh Mela, and it is considered the largest migration of humanity on earth. It is also a unique laboratory—a kind of real-time experiment in metropolis building—that offers researchers the possibility to study just about any questions they can imagine.

“The challenge for researchers is to take this big phenomenon and reduce it to bite-size pieces, to find something to actually study and analyze,” says Tarun Khanna.

Khanna is a professor at Harvard Business School and director of Harvard’s South Asia Institute. He was among a group of about 50 Harvard faculty, staff, and students who traveled to the city of Allahabad in northern India for this year’s Kumbh Mela, which took place from January 14 to March 10. They came armed with data collection tools like geospatial mapping equipment, iPads, and even kites, and a huge range of research questions touching on everything from public health to urban design to how the price of a tomato gets set among the festival’s thousands of vendors.

As an object for social science research, the mela is irresistible. It takes place every twelve years at the confluence of the Ganges and Yamuna Rivers, where pilgrims come from all over India to participate in ritual bathing (there are also smaller melas, which take place annually in other parts of India). The scale of the event is staggering. The mela has a steady population of a few million people spread over seven-and-a-half square miles of precisely organized encampment, but on a handful of main bathing days officials estimate the population surges towards 30 million—with as many as 80 million people attending over the 53 days of the festival.

One of the most important qualities of the mela, for researchers, is the speed at which it comes together. The festival site is covered for most of the summer with water from the Ganges, which is swollen by the monsoon rains. The water begins to recede in October, leaving government officials and NGO workers with only a couple of months to build the mela’s infrastructure—the roads, electrical grid, water, sanitation, and hygiene systems that will support those millions of people. During its peak days the mela is the largest city in the world, and it’s built nearly overnight.

“The research from our perspective is focusing on the question of how a temporary city is erected,” says Rahul Mehrotra, professor of urban planning and design at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design and, along with Khanna and Diana Eck, professor of religion, one of the co-organizers of the mela research. “How does the infrastructure get embedded, what is the metabolism of the temporary city, what are the flows, how do people move.”

Beginning last July, Mehrotra and his research team mapped the evolution of the temporary city. They lofted digital cameras on kites in order to get an aerial perspective of the mela’s development, and they mounted a camera atop a car and mapped several blocks of the festival’s road grid. This effort produced a tremendous database of images, and now Mehrotra is figuring out what to do with it all.

“The challenge now is really how one organizes it to make some sense so that it can be used effectively as a planning tool for the future,” Mehrotra says. Mehrotra is doing some of that work through a research seminar he’s teaching this semester on temporary settlements, that includes case studies of the Kumbh Mela, Burning Man, and refugee and concentration camps.

Data collection was at the heart of Satchit Balsari’s time at the mela, too. Balsari is a fellow at Harvard’s FXB Center for Health and Human Rights and a physician at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. At the mela, he and his researchers wanted to develop a system that would allow for up-to-date disease surveillance at such a large, chaotic event—in order to improve the deployment of healthcare resources and head off epidemics before they started.

“The issue with most of these massive gatherings,” Balsari says, “is their inability to pick up epidemics because the volumes of people are so large and the denominator fluctuates so significantly everyday. Especially at the mela, you can be off by millions of people in a matter of days.”

If epidemiologists don’t know the size of the population they’re studying, it’s impossible to tell whether an increase in diseases like diarrhea or malaria are due to an actual epidemic, or simply to an influx of people. To parse between those possibilities, Balsari’s researchers monitored four of the mela’s 15 hospitals. Using iPads, they logged every new patient and created daily reports of disease incidence. Balsari knew that if cases of all diseases rose and fell together, the changes were likely explained by changes in the overall population of the festival. But, if one particular disease spiked while the others remained constant, it would be a good sign that an epidemic was afoot.

Overall, this year’s mela was relatively healthy, and Balsari credits the festival’s organizers for thoughtful hygiene planning that limited cases of diarrhea and e. coli infection.

“They had 35,000 temporary toilets and latrines,” he says. “But they knew that some villagers would not be comfortable using them, some of them would want to use open-defecation pits, so they factored in these 1,000 night soil sweepers whose only job was, every hour, all day long, to walk around these defecation sites, pick up the soil, and cover it with lime.”

Now back in Cambridge, the researchers’ attention has turned to data management. Tarun Khanna is working with India’s mobile phone providers to get access to cellphone records from the mela. He says it would be the largest database of its kind, and might allow organizers, for the first time, to get an accurate picture of the mela’s population: how many people come, where they come from, how long they stay. But he acknowledges that the principle challenges will be simply figuring out how to manage so much data and extract useful information from it.

Over the next few months the researchers will be tagging and sorting images, analyzing patient flows at hospitals, breaking down cellphone data, and generally trying to wrestle their mela research into something useful—both for improving the next mela, in 2025, and for understanding how temporary settlements operate anywhere in the world. They plan to release preliminary findings at a seminar hosted by the South Asia Institute in August.

*There’s no easy way to get a sense of an event as massive as the mela, but this clip of the ambient noise at the festival helps. Satchit Balsari describes the sound this way:

There is a kind of sound of the mela, where you wake up in the morning to a buzz of a million voices talking. In terms of white noise, it’s a sound you have not heard before, a din of a very concentrated dense population having regular conversation. What gives cadence to this white noise is this continuous rhythmic chanting from morning to night of names of people who have been lost.

You can read more about this research at the Harvard team's blog, Mapping the Kumbh Mela.

Audio clip courtesy of Logan Plaster for the Harvard Kumbh Mela Team.

Image courtesy of Seba Della and Sole Bossio.

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