There was a time—not too long ago—when informal settlements the size of small cities were practically invisible. Large and empty beige-gray fields, intercepted by an occasional thin blue line, signifying water, and several thicker, windy white lines that stood for major roads, would pop up on the computer screen when searching for infamous slums such as “Kibera” on Google Maps. The information void stood in stark contrast to the hundreds of thousands of people living in Kibera, ironically tucked away between 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, information also lacked within the slum. In the eyes of the government, the slum did not exist or matter and only few stories, usually about gangs and murders with attention-grabbing sensational headlines bordering sinister hilarity, were deemed newsworthy. For relevant and current happenings, residents would therefore consult their social networks: neighbors, friends and family. 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 the 30th of December 2007. After Kenya’s general election on the 27th of December, hopes—and polls—were at a peak 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 is to blame continues to be widely debated, but what we do know today is that inflammatory text messages and emails had played a major role in inciting the violence that lasted for two months, resulted in the death of over 1,000 people and the displacement of 350,000. Most of what would later be called “ethnic cleansing” took place in informal settlements, including Kibera, the same areas with the least access to information. Nobody knew whether and when it was safe to step outside the house. After only several days, a small group of programmers released software that would use the same tactics as the perpetrators of violence—SMS and emails—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. In both, the global South and its North, crowdsourced crisis-mapping has served as populist tool for asserting political contestation and for checking state violence, in effect producing a “politics of witnessing” at a global scale.
Ushahidi shined a spotlight on a long ignored problem: the lack of information on and for informal communities. Although constituting 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—slum residents are often ignored in 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 MapKibera in 2009. Through support from local techies who helped train Kibera residents in using OpenStreetMap (OSM) techniques—including GPS surveying and satellite imagery digitizing—Kibera began making a geospatial appearance. In the years to follow, citizen journalism efforts ensued, developing atop the MapKibera 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 marvelous Bulgakov-esque exploration of Kibera from a dog’s perspective.
MapKibera was the first mapping initiative of its kind. By training local residents in geospatial data collection and visual storytelling through photography and video, MapKibera has significantly contributed to the democratization of media. It also made international news and brought much-needed attention to Kibera. Kibera’s data and founding members traveled the world, presenting their initiative and findings at research and innovation hubs. It was actually at one of those trips to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab where I first heard about MapKibera. Without a doubt, MapKibera’s approach and legacy for the Information and Communications Technologies for Development (ICT4D) community cannot be denied.
But is uncovering and making information publicly 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. With a saturated map served on the OSM silver platter, neither the city nor residents seemed to make much use of it. The City insisted on a dearth of quality information, thus justifying its denial of actively planning for informal residents’ needs and wants in the city’s future development. Residents already knew the locations of basic mapped amenities such as schools, taps and pharmacies in their neighborhoods.
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 health care—citizen rights that are constitutionally backed since 2010. One example of pro-slum advocates moving towards this target-driven data collection direction is the Spatial Collective, a Mathare-based social enterprise, founded in 2012 by several experienced participatory mappers. Similar to MapKibera, the Spatial Collective benefits from Kenya’s mobile phone penetration rate--more than 77% of Kenyans regularly use a mobile phone--and widely available cheap Internet service to tap into an already existing information system to access local knowledge. They use this data to map slum resources but also their most basic needs. Crime and rape reports, for instance, allow for specific interventions such as installing lamps for safety. But before anything else, the Spatial Collective conducts 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 recommend the community engage not only in data collection, but in also purpose-driven, accountable data-collection that targets one particular goal at a time. A foreign-founded and partially–funded initiative, the Spatial Collective has drawbacks of its own. But if there is anything we have learned from ICT4D projects by now, it’s that nothing’s perfect.
Christina Gossmann is a Master of City Planning student at UC Berkeley. Before returning to graduate school, she worked as a freelance journalist and researcher in cities of the Global South. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her at @chrisgossmann.