An aerial view of Nairobi City Matatus on the streets
Most cities in the developing world rely on informal networks of minivans and buses to bring labourers to work and goods to market. Yet little information or data are available about these networks, where bus stops can change by the minute and fares can quadruple when it rains. In cities from Bogotá to Addis Ababa, commuters and suppliers can only find their way through word of mouth and these informal but essential networks are almost invisible to planners who pilot urban expansion and development. Now, this may change, thanks to Digital Matatus a novel research project in Nairobi, Kenya. Design Consultancy and Digital Matatus deployed Kenyan researchers equipped with smartphones to collect and analyze data from the network of Matatus privately owned minivans that service the Kenyan capital. The open-source data, which were initially transformed into a popular paper map, are now searchable on Google Maps as a transit option, making it possible for anyone with a smartphone to navigate the city using a Matatus. “Roughly 3.5 million people depend on Matatus every day in Nairobi but have little information on the more than 130 different routes.
Pictures of the digital layout of the public bus (Matatus) stages and routes in Nairobi
Providing this information via Google Maps, not only increases accessibility to the transit system but also serves as a model for how to create information on public transport for cities across Africa where people depend on Matatu-like transit systems.
Informal transportation systems are often the main transit option for most commuters and residents, but they can seem chaotic, with many different operators’ independently creating routes and setting pickup and drop-off times. As a result, urban planners and policy makers in these cities tend to ignore the systems, finding them hard to regulate and manage. “Before, the biggest excuse for not considering these informal systems in planning was a lack of data,” says Jacqueline, a research scholar at Columbia University’s Center for Sustainable Urban Development and the principal investigator on Digital Matatus. “Now we have that data.”
One of the students from the University of Nairobi showing how the project works
“The majority of the groundwork was done by Kenyan students and we didn’t just drop in overnight. We spent a lot of time reaching out to various stakeholders so they would support the project. Right now, our data is being used by five apps in Nairobi.” Digital Matatus released a stylized transport system map resembling subway maps from developed world capitals like London, New York, and Paris. The map was wildly popular, with over 5,000 downloads registered in the first six months and one local start-up tied its advertising strategy to the Matatu data.
Google maps showing the digital Matatus layout on a smart phone
“We believe that visualization, such as the map we developed, is essential for making policy,” says Williams, who also directs the Civic Data Design Laboratory at MIT. “The data was available long before we released the map. But people only got excited about using the data only after we released the stylized transit map that looked like something they would see in New York or London. Big data alone is not going to change the world but rather how you synthesize it into tools that can be used by communities.” While pleased to have set a precedent with Google Maps, the Digital Matatus team hopes that their research will eventually influence policy as cities like Nairobi develop and expand. We can make these new cities more equitable and cleaner if we focus more on public transport as well as making these informal systems visible is a critical first step.” Jacqueline says.
What other ways can African cities drive towards having a digital map system like Nairobi?