Kenya Can Lead in the Open Transit Data Movement for Africa


Collecting Transit Data Nairobi: Courtesy Digital Matatus

Collecting Transit Data Nairobi: Courtesy Digital Matatus

Posted by Jacqueline M. Klopp 

Transportation has become a major focus of concern in Kenya. Congestion, air pollution, traffic crashes, poor air quality and insecure public transit are major problems that undermine the economic growth and well being of cities. This includes the Nairobi Metropolitan Region which some estimate produces 45% of Kenya’s GDP. The government has been responding to these concerns with attempts to regulate the public transit sector and by upgrading road infrastructure and services like rail and introducing bus rapid transit. However, creating systems that manage transit and inform these proposed changes is critical to the success of these efforts. In turn this requires good data, which needs to be shared.

Why open transport data?

  • To be effective policy, projects and planning should be driven by inclusive dialogue, technical expertise and data.

There is a global movement to make transit data open. Most often consultants collect data to input into analysis that informs transportation decisions. Yet they often do not share this data more widely with different government agencies and even across projects by the same ministry. This makes planning more expensive as each project usually has to collect data from scratch or take a lot of time to access data. This reduces efficiency as well as any possibility of independent research and analysis from the universities and think tanks that could help lead to improvements in the project. Further, it is hard for the government to benchmark changes made by the projects if good quality data is not consolidated and shared.

  • Collecting more transport data and opening it up also enables technology innovation that supports better operations and passenger experiences.

Open data allows the creation of phone and web-based applications for passengers and operators. For example, two entrepreneurs in Nairobi have developed trip planner applications- Ma3route and Flashcast Sonar- that give people better information for planning their trips and also provides other key information and a way for passengers to share information among themselves including about traffic conditions. This is also important for people from outside the city who wish to visit and do not know how to get around. Those involved in the tourism sector have been trying to create better information for visitors as well.

  • By creating data and putting it in a standard format like GTFS (General Transit Feed Specification), this allows the use of open source software to develop planning tools. These tools help planners to see how the city operates and plan better as well as gather public input more efficiently through “crowdsourcing” (gathering feedback through text messaging, websites or email).

Besides building infrastructure the government needs to create local systems to manage traffic flows, reduce congestion and make safer conditions for drivers and pedestrians. To do this they need to work with drivers, pedestrians and the rail and matatu sector to manage public transit in a more regularized way. All this requires data and visualization tools that are easy to use.  Rather than spend large sums on hiring foreign consultants the government can encourage and work with local software designers and technologists to develop systems and tools more appropriate to the local context. The universities can help cultivate local experts who can provide technical support for these systems.

How to create open transport data?

The good news is that with cellphone and GPS technology, new, lower cost methods are available to collect critical data on transport. For example, “big data” collected by telecommunications companies can help analyze traffic flows and other dynamics of cities. When the telecommunications company Orange recently released its data for Abidjan in Ivory Coast, IBM researchers were able to develop ways to better plan bus routes for the city. However, sometimes this data is not released for analysis by wider groups of people stifling the prospects of innovation.

Fortunately, teams of people with cellphones can also create useful data by using certain tools or applications. For example, in the Digital Matatu Project, the University of Nairobi with its students mapped out the matatu routes in the city of Nairobi, creating valuable information for citizens, planners and technologists. The map Kibera project created a map of Kibera that is also useful for planning for that community and the Spatial Collective has done the same for Mathare. Before these efforts Kibera and Mathare were not well represented on city maps before.

Who can create data?

 While specialized consultants will continue to collect specific data for various transport projects, their task will be simplified when good quality base data is available. Such basic data can include routes, stops, frequencies of service etc. As we have seen and the Digital Matatu project and other mapping projects prove, data creators do not need to be private consultants who work for the government. They can include government, universities, think tanks, businesses, transport operators, community groups and through crowdsourcing, citizens. Ideally, many of these groups will work together to create and share data.

Kenya is well poised to lead an open transit data movement for Africa.

digitalMatatus launches Nairobi Public Transit Map

By Jacqueline M. Klopp

Yesterday, the Kenya Alliance of Resident Association and the digitalMatatu consortium launched a comprehensive public (matatu) transit map and data base of routes and stops for Nairobi.The government in Nairobi has conducted little planning of public transit, leaving operators and drivers of matatus to shape the system. This means that many routes and stops are not officially designated and, while this allows matatus to be demand responsive and flexible, it also makes them vulnerable to police harassment and violent cartels. These dynamics contribute to the congestion problems in the city, poor conditions for matatu drivers, and inadequate and insecure public transit for this city of 3.5 million people. Collecting data needed for starting to better plan and improve this system is also challenging.

The digitalMatatu consortium consisting of  the Civic Data Design Lab MIT, C4D lab at the University of Nairobi, the Center for Sustainable Urban Development at Columbia University and Groupshot set out to leverage low cost technology to create one of the first comprehensive data sets for Nairobi’s “paratransit” system. Students with handheld devices sought out and road in matatus mapping out stops and routes. What is particularly signifiant about this work is that it demonstrates that transit systems commonly considered too “chaotic” to capture can be amenable to data collection efforts.

Another key  feature of the digitalMatatu work is that the data collected is open and  in a basic standard (GTFS) which allows use of open source software to develop trip planner and other applications for passengers and planners from the data. With the rapid changes in transit in Nairobi it will be critical to develop systems to update and gather more data and host it on an open transport data portal.

The data which contains 130 routes and stops, both designated and non-designated, has already proved its usefulness. Two entrepreneurs Laban Okune and Jeremy Gordon developed useful apps Ma3route and Sonar respectively. In turn, these apps can now help gather other useful data on accidents, congestion and driving via crowdsourcing. Planners have also been asking for the digitalMatatu data.  At the launch of the map developed from the data Permanent Secretary of Transport Muli noted that “mapping of the current transit data provides a basis for proper planning and the Nairobi County government will come up with new PSV routes to help decongest the city and which will be used as a measure for issuing the new operating licences.” County Cabinet Secretary Mr. Ondieki announced that the county would adopt and use the map and data.

More information and the data is all available at

UN-Habitat’s New Report on Sustainable Mobility: Lessons for Nairobi


Published on October 10, 2013 by Jacqueline M. Klopp

This year’s UN-Habitat Global Human Settlement Report is on a topic of much debate and interest to Nairobi’s inhabitants: Planning and Design for Sustainable Mobility. The report argues strongly for cities where crucial services are available for all. Accessibility is key. This is in contrast to the idea of mobility or simply increasing ability to move, which often tends to create a narrow focus on congestion and traffic. Accessibility captures the reality that many people would rather not be forced to move to access services and employment. By better planning that puts more important services like good schools and clinics as well as small, non polluting businesses in high density and improved neighborhoods, you can reduce the need to travel and sit in traffic. This not only saves time: with thoughtful design and planning, a focus on access can lead to cities that are more livable and safe.

Overall, the UN-Habitat report provides many ideas for solid interventions that cities and their citizens can make to move in the direction of accessibility. Part of the solution lies in integrated land-use and transport planning, a strong focus on well designed public transport systems and promotion of mixed use developments and a better distribution of services. UN-Habitat happens to be headquartered in Nairobi which very much needs this paradigm shift, and it will be critical to have a real debate and discussion in policy and civic circles about these ideas. Nairobi itself is bubbling with creative local initiatives like Nai ni Who?, the Naipolitans,  Map Kibera Map Mathare and new urban thinking among cutting edge professionals that fit with the new report and its ideas.

These more democratic and progressive ideals of the accessible city fit nicely into the aspirations of Kenya’s new constitution. Sadly, they also go against the grain of over a hundred years of urban history. For example, good quality and affordable public transportation and safe streets for people who walk has never been a key part of Nairobi’s history. Nairobi began as a kind of “apartheid”, colonial “garden city” with leafy suburbs for wealthy settlers and colonial officials and poor housing or informal settlements for Africans. The colonial elite at the time were very concerned with roads for their cars to go into the city center for work and back to their exclusive homes at the end of the day. The poor were left to walk. Function in the city was as segregated as the races were supposed to be at the time with clear administrative, business, industrial and residential areas. These planning concepts still have a grip on the city with the central business district sadly devoid of residents that might keep it lively and safe at night. Instead, many residential areas including sprawling gated suburbs for the middle and upper classes are going up without basic services like shops which then forces people into unnecessary travel.

In Nairobi’s early history, municipal politics was dominated by settler and colonial officials who also were able to access land through political connections encouraging sprawl. Public transport within Nairobi was unsurprisingly not much of a focus for the car driving colonial political class, and this is why Africans developed their own systems in the form of the matatu transit system that continues to serve as the backbone of transport for the majority (although it is often too expensive for the very poor). No one can seriously imagine that today’s Nairobi would function without the matatu system and in fact, matatu drivers and owners, much maligned and rarely appreciated, do the bulk of planning for transportation at the micro-level in the city to this day, creatively redesigning routes to meet demand and figuring out where stops for passengers need to be. The city appears to be  happy to simply extract fees from matatus at terminals rather than figure out how to improve public transportation in the city.  The responsible ministries for transport simply build roads and projects as if the matatu system does not exist which explains why Thika Highway has inadequate provision for transit stops. Further, following old patterns, the ideal of a living in a suburb and driving into work in the city center still has a grip on today’s upper classes who then find themselves fighting for space on the road with matatus who carry the bulk of people around. Yet it is the matatu not the car carrying one person that is constantly banned from the city center.

So the key question will be whether with the devolved Nairobi City County, Nairobians will be able to dismantle the outdated and colonial planning system and reshape their city and its transport system to reflect their pressing needs and a more inclusive vision? Currently, the county is engaged in a new master planning process funded by the Japanese  International Cooperation Agency. A draft report was just released and a number of public meetings have taken place in accordance with the law but little information appears to be circulating, and it is unclear whether there is a strategy for community engagement. If this new planning process connects with the push for change from below and the integrated county development planning and budgeting process required by law, it could help move Nairobi in a better direction.

However, this requires the cooperation of the national government which currently has no national urban policy. The Ministry of Infrastructure and Transport, for example, should not continue to push on with large-scale transportation projects that will reshape Nairobi dramatically with few knowing about the details and design and few to no public meetings in the city and the neighborhoods impacted. How many people, for example, know about the proposed elevated highway along Uhuru Highway that is bound to have a huge impact on the city? If these kind of opaque dynamics in planning for land-use and transportation do not change, then, following its history, Nairobians will not be the master of their own planning process and their ideas and needs will not be reflected in the projects and plans that get implemented. The UN-Habitat report is thus very timely and can be very helpful- but only if it is picked up and read and  triggers more needed public conversations and policy and planning changes.

Architecture exhibitions in Nairobi: an interview with Dr. Anna Rubbo

Three architecture exhibitions were on display at the Nairobi Alliance Francaise on Loita Street from 05 June until 07 July. The exhibition opening on 05 June also saw the launch of Dr Lydia Muthuma’s book, ‘Nairobi in Pictures (1899-2000)’  which was accompanied by photographs of 100 Nairobi buildings and a number of historic settlement photos.  The book and photographs, seek to establish a link between Nairobi’s buildings and its people by cataloging the city’s transformation, and identifying elements of culture that make the city what it is. The second exhibition, ‘Architecture=Durable’ showed 10 recent projects by 10 French architects over time.

The third exhibition was titled ‘People Building Better Cities: Participation and Inclusive Urbanization‘ (PBBC). PBBC is an exhibition that is traveling around the world highlighting participatory approaches to solving contemporary urban planning challenges.  To date it has been shown in Bangkok, Rio de Janeiro, Sydney, Johannesburg and Nairobi. Over the next few months it will be shown in India, China and the USA. The driving force behind the PBBC traveling exhibition is Dr. Anna Rubbo, (Senior Scholar at the Earth Institute Center for Sustainable Urban Development and Global Studio founder). We had a chance to speak with Dr. Rubbo directly, asking her a few questions about her experience of working on the exhibition.


Nairobi Planning Innovations: How was the exhibition organized in Nairobi and what was the highlight of the Nairobi PBBC exhibition? Continue reading

Nairobi’s Future: Will it change with Devolution? Not likely.


Published by Kwame Owino in Public Policy

The conventional wisdom in Kenya today is that the implementation of devolution as anticipated in the new constitution and brought to reality by the election of 47 county governors would provide stiff competition for Nairobi and most probably slow down the rate of the city’s growth. This view has been expressed largely in the press and represents the wishes of many, but is unlikely to happen for the following reasons: Continue reading

Pedestrian Safety: An interview with Dr. Khayesi

Transportation safety is a growing concern in cities around the world. Every year more than 270,000 pedestrians lose their lives on the world’s roads, while millions are left with injuries or permanent disabilities.

The World Health Organization (WHO), FIA Foundation, Global Road Safety Partnership and the World Bank recently co-published a manual titled “Pedestrian safety: a road safety manual for decision-makers and practitioners”.  On 07 May 2013, Nairobi Planning Innovation interviewed Dr. Meleckidzedeck Khayesi, one of the lead authors of the manual, to get his perspective on the findings and intentions of the project.

Please note that Dr. Khayesi and Dr. Margie Paden from the WHO Department of Violence and Injury Prevention Disability will be hosting a live discussion about pedestrian safety on Twitter, Friday, 17 May from 17:00-19:00 Nairobi time. Join the talk or send questions as Tweets to @UNRSC using the hash tag #walksafechat. For more information contact


Nairobi Planning Innovations:: Please tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got engaged in issues of pedestrian safety as well as your role in producing this manual

Dr. Khayesi:  I am a Technical Officer in the Department of Violence and Injury at the World Health Organization (WHO). I studied at Kenyatta University earning a Bachelors degree in Education, a Master of Arts degree in Geography and a PhD in the field of Transportation Geography.  I have worked at the World Health Organization (WHO) for twelve years in the department of Violence and Injury.  Over the last seven or eight years, WHO has collaborated with the World Bank, FIA Foundation for the Automobile and Society and the Global Road Safety Partnership to produce a series of ‘how to’ manuals, which provide information on how to implement recommendations of the World report on traffic injury prevention. Included in this series are manuals on helmets (2006); drinking and driving (2007); speed management (2008); seat-belts and child restraints (2009); and data systems (2009).  The coalition’s most recent report, ‘Pedestrian safety: a road safety manual for decision-makers and practitioners’ is another step in this effort to provide information on measures to implement to pedestrian safety around the world.

Nairobi Planning Innovations: What was the most surprising aspect or finding in producing this manual? Continue reading

Nairobi’s troubles date back to 1900

Nbi1900sPublished by John Kamau in The Business Daily

The City of Nairobi has had quacks, clowns, and thieves at the top — men and women who were simply short-sighted. With the election of Governor Evans Kidero, let us hope that finally we will have administrative peace.

The leadership question in this city is not a recent problem. It goes back to 1900 when Nairobi was set up as “tinville”, and in the wrong place!

When Nairobi was hardly eight years, the administrators were warned that they had done a mistake by allowing the building of a town in a treeless windy plain where residents were constantly baked by the African sun. Continue reading