Project maps Kenyan buses with smartphones

Matatu bus.jpg
Copyright: Sven Torfinn / Panos

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Catching the bus in Nairobi can be a frustrating experience. For many people, it involves jumping aboard a matatu — one of the privately run, 14-seater buses that thread the streets of Kenya’s capital. But the government has little oversight of the matatus: since public transport was privatised in the 1980s, they have been poorly regulated and now vary wildly in quality.
Now, however, a project seeks to bring order to the chaos of Nairobi’s streets. Digital Matatus, a research collaboration between the University of Nairobi, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Columbia University in the United States, uses a range of data sources to make sense of the city’s transport system.
The team has been working with computer science students, tech companies and volunteers to map matatu routes using smartphones, mobile routing apps, satellite positioning and location- linked transport schedules. Its data-driven maps, showing Nairobi’s 130-plus matatu routes for the first time, are freely available to the public. Commuters can now navigate their city more easily and securely, and policymakers can visualise Nairobi’s transport network more clearly, thus improving urban planning.
The next step is to take the project to other places. “If we can have several other cities create data and use it to make decisions, we would be thrilled,” Sarah Williams, professor of urban studies at MIT and the project’s co-leader, explains in this audio interview. “I would love to […] start a trend where informal transit is visualised for everyone.”