How Cell Phones Can Improve Transportation in Africa: An Interview with Jacqueline Klopp


24 October 2016 posted by Philippe DELLEUR
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What is the biggest opportunity for crowdsourcing data in African cities?

Cellphone use is rapidly expanding in African cities and produces one of the biggest opportunities to collect critical data. In Nairobi, almost every adult has a phone, increasingly smartphones.

Citizens can collect data in two main ways. First, the phone’s “digital exhaust” phone – geo-location data from calls – can be analyzed to see how the city moves. In Abidjan, IBM’s research arm used data from Orange to optimize bus routes. However, telecommunications companies often do not like to make this data open – even when it’s anonymous.

The second way to generate data is to share information through social media, as in the popular Nairobi transport app ma3route or by even through gamification, which is how Mapaton in Mexico City is collecting data on public transit. There will still be a need for moderating, cleaning, and groundtruthing this kind of data, but the potential is enormous. One beautiful example is the Nairobi accident map that uses five months of crowdsourced data on crashes, validates it using police records, and shows visually where there are clear safety problems that require design interventions.

How can more cities get involved in the Digital Matatus project?

Since Digital Matatus successfully mapped out the Nairobi minibus (matatu) system, cities are already replicating this process with transit systems that have never before been mapped. These include Kampala (with ITDP involvement), Maputo, Accra, Lusaka, Amman, Cairo, and Managua. Digital Matatus has been providing informal support for a number of these cities, but we would like to scale this effort up, build better tools, and provide a resource center where groups in different cities can share and help each other.

What are the challenges of mapping informal transit networks (that may not even see themselves as networks)?

Stops can change location and are sometimes not marked or named. Routes may not have names or numbers and may not be fixed, so you have to take many trips to learn the most common one. Fares are often not set and fluctuate based on factors like rain. In addition, most common data format for transit (the general transit feed specification) was developed for formal systems, so it needs to be modified to take into account some of these factors.

What are the lessons learned from your project in Nairobi?

We learned that creating quality transit data for cities like Nairobi that have high levels of informality is challenging but possible, and that there is demand for this information from citizens and planners. Once we had proof of concept, we thought our institutional users, like the World Bank, would understand the need to create more data and update existing datasets. Instead, getting financial and institutional support for these initiatives involved a serious struggle: Who is responsible for creating data? Who will pay for maintenance? How do we ensure data will be open to the public?

How do we find a way to mainstream this kind of data collection into “capacity building” work and evaluation in the transportation sector especially as we strive to meet the new sustianable transport systems target for the Sustainable Development Goals?

How is crowdsourcing data different in places like Lusaka versus Santo Domingo versus Amman?Are there regional variations? Or variations based on the democratic nature of governments?

In Nairobi routes are numbered, but in many cities this is not the case. A team in the Accra Metropolitan Assembly was active in mapping trotros; in other cities local government is standoffish about transit mapping by citizens. A lot of variations exist based on the political interests and institutions involved in the transit system, how the system is regulated, the mapping strategy, and who is involved.

How does crowdsourcing in low- and middle-income countries empower communities and help with engaging people in the planning process?

Good information about transport is critical for citizens in any place. It is unacceptable that in places like Africa, where the majorities rely on transit, that these services are ignored. If people can’t even see their routes as routes and their system as a system, it gets harder to engage in conversations about improvements.

Transportation planning in so many cities is top-down, a kind of tyranny of experts. In cities like Nairobi when the mass transit system was not even on a map, planners could easily ignore the stops and routes that people rely on. This happened on one of the major highway projects in Kenya – the stops that everyone uses were not catered for in the designs, with terrible consequences.

How can we ensure that data is updated over time to reflect changes in mobility patterns?

Transit systems are dynamic and always changing, and it is critical that data is constantly updated.  In the near future, we will be moving to real-time data across the globe. Mexico City just mandated this. Kigali is starting such a system. Eco-Mobility and UC Berkeley are experimenting with technology in Nairobi supported by bus owners who wish to see where their vehicles are at any moment. However, this will take some time, and regardless you still want basic data on the structure of the system so Digital Matatus is also experimenting with crowdsourcing.  We are exploring a new app called ma3tycoon developed by students of Sarah Williams, Assistant Professor of Urban Planning at MIT/Digital Matatus.

This interview, part of a partnership series between ITDP (Institute for Transportation & Development Policy) and Volvo Research and Education Foundations (VREF), is on line on ITDP site.

Jacqueline M. Klopp is an Associate Research Scholar at the Center for Sustainable Urban Development at Columbia University. A political scientist by training, she previously taught the politics of development for many years at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University. Her research focuses on the political economy of sustainable land use, transportation, public health, and urban planning in African cities.  A founder and active member of Cairo from Below and Nairobi Planning Innovations, she is an active public commentator on sustainable transportation in Africa. She holds an AB from Harvard University and a PhD from McGill University.

Jacqueline put together the Digital Matatus team which produced the first public transport data for a minibus or paratransit (matatu) system in Africa and is the author of numerous academic articles in diverse journals from the “Journal of Transport Geography to World Policy Review”.

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