Map & App Help People Track Transit in Nairobi

by |August 26, 2015
An informal system of minivans and buses provides most of the transport around Nairobi and many other cities in Africa. Photo: Kevin Krajick

An informal system of minivans and buses provides most of the transport around Nairobi and many other cities in Africa. Photo: Kevin Krajick

Commuters and others traveling in and around Nairobi often rely on an unofficial network of minibuses and minivans, called matatus, that have no centrally controlled schedules, fares or route plans. But a new application developed for use on cellphones with Google Maps can now help them find their way.

Digital Matatus, a novel research project involving Columbia University, MIT, the University of Nairobi and Groupshot Design Consultancy, sent researchers with smart phones around the Kenyan capital city to collect data on some 130 matatu routes, covering more than 3,000 stops. The open-source data was transformed into a stylized paper map, now widely popular, and used to create a searchable transit function in the popular Google Maps application.

Besides the benefit to the 3.5 million people traveling around Nairobi, the project could help urban planners deal with the city’s chronic congestion. And it can serve as a model for other informal transportation systems in cities around the world.

Transforming data into useful maps may help urban planners deal with Nairobi's chronic congestion. Photo: Kevin Krajick

Transforming data into useful maps may help urban planners deal with Nairobi’s chronic congestion. Photo: Kevin Krajick

Informal systems like Nairobi’s matatus 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 pick-up 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,” said Jacqueline Klopp, a research scholar at Columbia University’s Center for Sustainable Urban Development and the principal investigator on Digital Matatus. “Now we have that data.”

“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,” said Sarah Williams, an assistant professor of information technology and urban planning at MIT. “Perhaps more importantly, this essential data is now available for transportation planning initiatives in a city that struggles with congestion.”

Supported by a grant from The Rockefeller Foundation, the Digital Matatus project was conceived at Columbia University, where Williams worked as director of the Spatial Information Design Laboratory through August 2012, when she moved to MIT. Klopp reached out to colleagues at the University of Nairobi, in the Kenyan government, and at UN Habitat and The World Bank. Williams, who directs the Civic Data Design Laboratory at MIT, worked with her laboratory to determine how the collected data would be analyzed and rendered. Their colleague Adam White, founder of Groupshot, sounded out the Nairobi tech community for coders who could eventually develop apps around the Digital Matatus data.

Digital Matatus released a stylized map of the matatu routes in January 2014, and the map was downloaded more than 5,000 times in the first six months.

“Development tends to ignore public transportation,” said Klopp. “We can make these new cities more equitable and cleaner if we focus more on public transport. And making these informal systems visible is a critical first step.”

Some information for this post was provided by MIT News.

The matatus of New York: The New York equivalent of matatus, “dollar vans,” have been operating in Brooklyn, Queens and Chinatown for years. A Wall Street Journal story described the phenomenon a few years ago. The New Yorker ran an interactive piece about dollar vans, with maps and video.

A matatu route worked out on Google Maps.

A matatu route in Nairobi worked out on Google Maps.

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