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Nairobi’s informal transit system is first to go digital

Signal of change / Nairobi’s informal transit system is first to go digital

By Michael Zahn / 28 Oct 2015

Nairobi’s ‘matatu’ system of privately owned minibuses is now available on Google Maps – a debut for informal transit systems. It builds upon the first map of a non-formal transit system which researchers from MIT, Columbia University, and the University of Nairobi, as well as the design firm Groupshot, published in 2014. Conceived at Columbia University and supported by a grant from The Rockefeller Foundation, the project - called Digital Matatus - gathered transit data, created mobile routing applications and drafted a new transit map for the Kenyan capital. Data, apps and maps are open to the public and free of charge. Passengers can now plan journeys on their smartphones.

Matatus are the major means of transportation in Nairobi and are used by approximately 70% of the population. The buses enjoy great popularity as they are cheap and convenient. However, the network is chaotic. Fares and timetables can change randomly and finding the right stop can be difficult. The streets are congested with matatus as most services run through the city centre and the road network has not kept pace with the rapid growth of the city. At present, there are approximately 130 unregulated matatu lines in Nairobi.

Robert Cervero, a professor of city and regional planning at the University of California, Berkeley, is full of praise: “Hats off to Digital Matatus and Google for doing this. […] This is a very important pilot test demonstration and if the data can be put to good use designing better systems, it can have tremendous benefits.”

Image Credit: 7ty9 / flickr

So what?

Digital Matatus indicates how omnipresent mobile phone technology, combined with digital mapping and satellite monitoring, can be leveraged in developing countries to improve essential infrastructure and services.

“So many of our problems in developing cities where you have extreme poverty and awful environmental conditions—they’re always tied in some way to the transport sector,” Cervero said. “It’s very chaotic and unmanaged, so this is a huge first step towards enhancing those services.”

The project shows the potential of informal economies to meet public needs. What other informal sectors might also benefit from mapping? Could similar processes be applied to community-led childcare, or food distribution?

It could be a model for networks in other low-income cities and regions –particularly as the General Transit Feed Specification (GTFS) data structure and the Nairobi data are open source. The researchers involved have received multiple requests from around the globe and are already in discussion with the African cities Kampala, Accra, Lusaka, and Maputo to map their informal mass transit systems.


CityLab (2014, February 3) This Is What Informal Transit Looks Like When You Actually Map It
Digital Matatus (2015) The Digital Matatus Project
MIT (2015, August 26) Digital Matatus project makes the invisible visible
Wired (2015, August 26) How Nairobi got its ad-hoc bus system on Google Maps

What might the implications of this be? What related signals of change have you seen?

As well as transport, 'community mapping' could greatly benefit informal settlements. This is being done around the world's slums, and great tools exist to help community volunteers do this. Mapping can give communities a presence that would otherwise not be there. It's easy for authorities to disregard those who they cannot clearly see, and many have lost out on access to education, sanitation, civil engagement, and even their homes.


It's great to see that this transit mapping is being rolled out to other cities in Africa. Lets hope that such initiatives get rolled out beyond just transit too.

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I found this article is very interesting. I personnally experienced the matatu system and it's quite a mess !


It's passionnating to see how digital can improve the daily life of users -  especially in a country with one of the highest score of mobile users.


For once with this article, digital and Kenya are linked together for something else than mPesa - which remains a great example but quite old and used in evry presentation/article.


thanks for this intersting reading !

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I absolutely admire this and am so excited by its potential - mapping informal transportation systems is not only a way to improve the efficiency of what is already the dominant mode of transport in so many cities because of weak governance but to give legitimacy to these informal routes and the people travelling them, hopefully inspiring urban planners to formalise and develop them further.

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