There was a time − not too long ago − when informal settlements the size of small cities were essentially invisible. Beige-grey fields, intercepted by thin blue lines signifying water and several thicker, windy white lines that showed major roads would pop up on the computer screen when searching for infamous slums such as Kibera, in Nairobi, Kenya, on Google Maps. The information void stood in stark contrast to the hundreds of thousands of people living in Kibera, an area ironically tucked away among some of the city’s most valuable and celebrated resources: the Royal Nairobi Golf Club, Ngong Forest and the Nairobi Dam.

Googling Kibera would not reveal much information about the slum, but, more significantly, there was also a lack of information within the slum. In the eyes of Kenya’s government, the slum did not exist or matter, and only a few stories, usually about gangs and murders with attention-grabbing sensational headlines bordering on sinister hilarity, were deemed newsworthy. For relevant and current happenings, residents would consult their social networks, or their neighbours, friends and family. But as the extensive literature on social capital and intelligence has shown, who you know (rather than what you know) contributes enormously to slum dwellers’ complex networks of resilience. But there are situations when those networks are simply not enough.

One of those situations presented itself on the night of December 30 2007, and the long weeks that followed. After Kenya’s general election a few days prior on December 27, hopes − and polls − were at a high for the opposition party’s Raila Odinga. But after a three-day delay, incumbent president Mwai Kibaki was unexpectedly pronounced the winner. What exactly happened next and who was to blame continues to be widely discussed, but what we do know is that inflammatory text messages and emails played a major role in inciting the violence that lasted for two months, killed more than 1 000 people and displaced 350 000. Most of what would later be called “ethnic cleansing” took place in informal settlements, including Kibera. These were areas with the least information. Nobody knew whether and when it was safe to step outside. But after only a few days, a small group of programmers released software that used the same tactics as the perpetrators − SMS and email − to create an alternative information-sharing platform. Ushahidi, Swahili for “testimony”, mapped reports of crime and violence that could easily be submitted and accessed online or by mobile phone. This “politics of witnessing” has since spread all over the world as a crisis-mapping tool.




Ushahidi shined a light on a long-existing problem that would finally be addressed: the lack of information about and for informal communities. Although slum dwellers constitute a significant urban demographic in cities of the Global South − and the majority in some, including Nairobi, where an estimated 60% of the population lives in slums − they are often ignored in city planning processes and budget allocations.

With the goal to change the situation by literally putting Kibera on the map, an international development practitioner and a programmer founded Map Kibera in 2009. Through support from local techies who helped train Kibera residents to use OpenStreetMap (OSM) techniques − including GPS surveying and satellite imagery digitising − Kibera began making an appearance. Citizen journalism efforts sprung up in the following years, developing atop the Map Kibera information on OSM. The Voice of Kibera community news website and the Kibera News Video Network journalism project indiscriminately cover everyday Kibera, from local fires and elections to a Bulgakov-esque exploration of Kibera from a dog’s perspective.

Map Kibera was the first app of its kind. By training local residents in geospatial data collection and visual storytelling through photography and video, Map Kibera significantly contributed to the democratisation of media there. It also made international news and brought much-needed attention to Kibera. The founding members of Kibera’s new initiative travelled the world, presenting their ideas and findings at research and innovation hubs. It was during one of these trips, when they visited the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab, when I first heard about the initiative. Without a doubt, Map Kibera’s novel approach and the legacy it is leaving for the Information and Communications Technologies for Development (ICT4D) community cannot be denied.

But is uncovering and making information publically available enough? The most recent decision of the City County Council of Nairobi not to include informal settlements in the new master plan of the city − the first since 1973 − indicates that it might not be. But even with a saturated map served on a silver platter such as OSM, neither the city nor its residents seemed to make much use of it. The city insisted on a dearth of quality information, while residents already knew the locations of mapped amenities such as schools, taps and pharmacies in their neighbourhoods.

What was needed was information that would allow slum dwellers to assert political agency and claim access to basic needs such as decent housing, water, education and healthcare − citizen rights that have been constitutionally backed in Kenya since 2010. One example of moving towards target-driven data collection is the Spatial Collective, a Mathare-based social enterprise founded in 2012 by several experienced mappers. Similar to Map Kibera, the Spatial Collective benefits from Kenya’s 70%+ mobile phone penetration rate and widely available cheap internet service to tap into an already existing information system to access local knowledge. The collective uses this data to map slums’ resources as well as their most basic needs. Crime and rape reports, for instance, allow for specific interventions such as installing lamps for safety. But before anything else, they conduct a needs-assessment and baseline survey to evaluate whether what they do actually makes a difference.

As international development practitioners and technology enthusiasts forge ahead with increasingly popular crowdsourcing initiatives, I would like to extend my recommendation to emphasise not only data collection but purpose-driven, accountable data collection that targets one particular goal at a time. As a foreign-founded and partially funded initiative, the Spatial Collective has drawback of its own. But if there is anything we have learned from ICT4D projects by now, it’s that nothing’s perfect.


Photo Credit: The Kibera slum in Nairobi – the capital city of Kenya, is one of Africa’s largest slums by Trocaire.



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