Making the Invisible, Visible

Making the Invisible, Visible

Dec 13, 2017
How Digital Matatus changed the way cities look at informal transit systems

This webinar was hosted on14th December, 2017, from 4:30 PM to 5:30 PM (IST).

Click here to view the webinar recording, and here to access the presentation. 

The Digital Matatus Project is iconic today for leveraging mobile technology to collect data for an essential yet informal infrastructure in a developing country, giving it out for free, and in the process, encouraging government and private sector stakeholders to develop better channels to provide access to information. The journey has been a long one, but not without challenges.

Like many cities of the developing world, Nairobi’s 3.5 million residents rely on informal/semiformal networks of minivans and buses to commute to work and transport goods to the market. Known locally as matatus, they became the main transit option after the failure of the public bus system in the 1990s. Urban planners and policy makers however, have long ignored (made invisible) the matatu system, characterizing it as chaotic and difficult to regulate. Lack of data was often cited as pretext. But that began to change starting 2011.

A collaboration between MIT, Columbia, University of Nairobi, and Groupshot Design Consultancy, the project deployed student-researchers equipped with smartphones to collect and analyse data on the network of matatus that served the entire Kenyan capital. By 2015, they had geocoded 3000 stops across 130 routes. The first product was a stylized map, that allowed residents, administrators, and matatu drivers’ associations to visualize the comprehensive network that served their city. Its benefits for transit planning became evident, but the true power of the data was realized when it was made into an open resource for public good – helping many navigate the matatu system more efficiently. The map is also being used by UN HABITAT to help guide the BRT system they are developing for Nairobi.

Rendering the data in the standard, open, machine-readable format that Google uses for formal transportation schedules (GTFS) was challenging. The matatu system has multiple operators, no operating schedules, and fares and stop locations that fluctuate as per congestion, police checks or harsh weather. Over time, the project developed a modified GTFS standard flexible enough for Nairobi’s informal system yet robust enough for Google. It also launched a debate to update GTFS, allowing for data on informal paratransit networks to be incorporated onto Google Maps, Open Street Maps and other mobile routing applications. Today, several applications in Nairobi actively provide routing information to the public on the matatu system, including Ma3route, Flashcast sonar, digitalmatatu, matatumap and more recently developed apps.

WRI India invites you to join co-founder Adam White, responsible for mobilizing the Nairobi tech community, as he shares the Digital Matatus story, its challenges and milestones, and highlights learnings that can be replicated in other cities of the Global South. 

This webinar focussed on: 

  • Ways in which mobile technology can be leveraged to collect data on informal transport systems
  • How mapping and digitizing informal transport improves access to the service and also legitimizes it
  • Challenges and opportunities in mobilizing the tech-community in Nairobi to build apps around the Matatu system
  • The map as a critical tool for planning, community engagement, and development. 
  • The role of the Digital Matatu map in developing the future of BRT 

About Adam White: Adam White is a technologist, designer and researcher who investigates ideas of development, urbanisation, and collaboration. As the founder of Groupshot, a design and research firm, he’s worked at the intersection of informal communities, technology adoption, social entrepreneurship, and community development in over a dozen countries. He is one of the founders of the infamous Digital Matatus project, that gave Africa its first comprehensive digital transit map and made Nairobi the first city in the world to have mapped and scheduled its informal transport system. Adam is also the founder and CEO of Atlas Workshops, an international travel-research company that guides students and organizations through real-world projects that inspire world changing innovations. Adam is trained as an engineer from the Tufts School with a focus in Development and Technology and holds a Master’s Degree in City Design and Social Science from the London School of Economics.

Click here to view the webinar recording, and here to access the presentation. 

Dec 13, 2017