Two and a half years in Africa, Part 2

Children exploring new technologies

This is the second in a series of blog posts (here’s the first blog) describing my involvement and experiences working in the field of Information Communications Technology in Africa.

At the end of 2010, I became the programs director of Map Kibera, a pioneering collaborative mapping project that engaged local communities to map one of the largest and poorest slums in Africa. My main goal was to develop and implement programs that would serve communities, organizations and the government by addressing relevant issues and stories, providing more targeted data collection and narrowing the gap between service providers and citizens.

Through this work I had the privilege to work at the forefront of the ICT revolution in Africa by mapping urban vulnerability and industrial encroachment in Mukuru slums, setting up social accountability platforms in Kwale county, supporting various organizations in data collection and visualization in Mathare and Kibera slums, initiating a multi-media project focusing on video and storytelling in Mathare and consulting for the World Bank on water, development and ICT issues.

In the first couple of months I realized that ensuring that the programs would have the desired impact was going to be the toughest part of the job. The most important lesson I learned prior to my new position was that the vast amount of data available openly does not necessarily lead to any type of action. People are impressed and at the same time overwhelmed by the amount of data freely available. The platform which we used, OpenStreetMap, is not very intuitive when it comes to extracting data, and oftentimes community based organizations lack the skills and know-how to gain from the data which could be relevant for their work. As I wrote in this blog post apart from a small number of individuals, mostly foreign, that have used the data for their academic research, the data mostly stayed untouched. My colleague Jamie and I took over the responsibility to run the organization and we realized that we had to change the game plan if we were to make any sort of an impact within the communities in which we were working.

We made a plan to focus on community development, outreach and networking, identifying the main state and non-state actors in order to figure out how we could help their cause and at the same time make our cause relevant. We understood that different entities need different types of data. For example, an NGO dealing with water and sanitation needs different data than a City Council employee working on security, or a group of community members collecting trash. I wrote some of my thoughts down in a blog mentioned in the previous paragraph, where I brainstormed possible solutions to this problem.

Our first target was Mathare, the second largest slum in Kenya; I took a personal interest to set up operations there. Mathare is in many ways different from Kibera. It’s an urban jungle situated about 5 km east from the city center, and is notorious for drugs, gangs, lack of services and jobs; it also has much fewer NGOs working in the area.

With the help of my colleagues Jamie Lundine and Simon Kokoyo, I led the creation of a base map of Mathare, which consisted of all the major roads and pathways, and all the major landmarks, such as schools, hospitals, religious institutions, market places, restaurants and businesses, etc. (Here’s the list of relevant blog posts). In a nutshell, we trained the residents in GPS data collection and OpenStreetMap, and created social media and video programs. Our goal was to train Mathare residents in mapping and social media tools so they could relate their stories to an audience outside of the slum, and beyond the borders of the nation. The project succeeded largely due to our approach: we had an open door policy, meaning everybody who was interested in learning about mapping or social media (or anything else we were doing) could join. We kicked off the project with a huge open forum, which was in itself the climax of weeks – even months – of community engagement by Simon and myself. In the months prior to the start of the project we walked all across Mathare, met various youth groups, NGOs, community leaders and government representatives. As part of the open door policy, we decided to rotate the venues of meetings and trainings, so that residents from different parts of the community would feel welcome, be able to participate, ask questions, and give us feedback on a regular basis. This turned out to be a very important step, as we were able to recalibrate the project according to the communities’ needs and wishes. As a result, the community came to own the project more, and organizations, for example our local partner, Community Cleaning Services, immediately used the data for advocacy purposes. This was truly a community mapping initiative!

Mathare Community Forum

From the community feedback we received from Mathare residents, we learned that the community wanted to focus especially on water and sanitation issues. The Map Mathare participants and the community members came up with the plan to tackle these issues. They created a detailed Water and Sanitation map of Mathare, especially four villages in Mathare: Mabatini, Mashimoni, Thayu and No10 (relevant blog posts are here, here, here and here). Since then, the maps have been used repeatedly by different NGO’s and local authorities such as ward managers; one visit to a ward manager or D.O.’s office confirms the map’s significance, as these respected community leaders all have the maps hanging on their walls.

We didn’t just stop at mapping. With the help of Nathaniel Canuel, a freelance Canadian videographer working with the Environmental Youth Alliance and Up With Hope, we formed a video program called Mathare In Motion, where residents could unleash their creativity. Freedom of expression was the major goal of the initiative; as long as the videos were somehow connected to Mathare, they were good enough! The highlight of this initiative was an amazing educational movie: Poa Rowe (see Nathaniel’s blog and the movie below). Written and directed by Jeff Mohammed, the film addressed environmental issues faced by people living in Mathare.

POA ROWE from Nat Can on Vimeo.

During this period I got really attached to Mathare. When the funding for the program ended I still went there mostly in my free time to experiment on different initiatives. I grew close with most of the participants and some community members, which was expected after an intense, almost a year-long personal engagement. We held numerous discussions on life in the slum, brainstormed different ideas of how to highlight community members’ work, and promote themselves better. We realized that if they were to become true advocates of Mathare they had to turn the attention to themselves, and use the technology and time to learn about how they lived their lives. One such initiative was what we called “mobility mapping” described here. We initiated this method of mapping to answer the following questions: how do people negotiate the spaces in which they live? Does poverty influences mobility, and if so, in what ways? While we were in the process of developing this idea, we came across a group of architects and reporters – called Live in Slums – who were at the time working in Mathare. They were building a kitchen and a garden at the Why Not Primary School, and were interested to learn about what we were doing; they decided to help out by tracking some of the local garbage collection and water delivery groups. This project is ongoing and could be expanded to other areas in the future.

Mobility mapping

During this period of time, another architect friend of mine visited Kenya. Thomas Chapman, who was at the time running Backdoors to the City, came to Kenya to do some work and research in Taita Hills. He had an idea to create a 3D map of Mathare. As I wrote in this blog post 3D city models have many purposes ranging from urban planning, simulation, navigation systems, modeling, change detection, etc. They are in general used to visualize reality. The slums especially lie in geographically (and otherwise) challenging areas and a 3D model could help to understand some of the challenges people there face. So one weekend in September some of the Mathare residents and I collected field measurements, such as the heights of structures (shacks, brick buildings, etc.) and the topography of the terrain. The topography of Mathare is unique in a way that the most of the slum actually lies inside a deserted quarry. Mathare itself has two levels, one above the quarry near Juja road (Kosovo village also falls into this category because of the proximity to Thika road) and one inside the quarry. One interesting observation was that this topography influences – amongst other things – the rent that people pay for housing. Inside the quarry – in the valley – the rent ranges from Ksh 500 – 1000 ($6 – $12), along Juja road it’s Ksh 2500 – 5000 ($30 – $60), and in Kosovo Ksh 1500 – 3000 ($18 – $35). April Hiebert, another architect friend of mine from Canada, created a 3D map using this data. This project showed that a collaboration between people working oceans apart is possible, and also that high quality products that combine field measurements taken by community members, GPS data, and photography can be realized with minimum cost. This project is also ongoing.

3D of Mathare and different rent 'zones'

In the midst of all of these activities, I was hired as a consultant for the World Bank to organize a series of community meetings in Kibera and Mathare on water related issues. The World Bank was interested in community driven technological solutions to water related problems. They were interested in organizing community forums to better understand how ICT can provide solutions to water problems in informal settlements. Their initiative fit well with what we did in Mathare, which was water and sanitation mapping, and the things we were doing at that time in Kibera, which was re-mapping of the water and sanitation issues (read here), through supporting Water and Sanitation for the Urban Poor (WSUP) and Kenya Water for Health Organization (KWAHO) to do data collection and map creation. This helped them to identify and monitor the state and locations of their facilities. There are many water-related problems in the informal settlements; some of them are described in these two blog posts [1], [2], as are some possible solutions (follow the progress here).

During this time, my colleague Jamie Lundine and I co-led a variety of mapping trainings, like the training of the entire ICT staff of Plan Kenya. For this occasion, we created a series of training manuals. I focused on technical mapping and map creation (some of the manual can be found here), while Jamie focused on participatory community approaches.

The work in Mathare and the reorganization of Kibera activities gave me experience in program management, design and implementation. The interest that some of the projects were generating made it almost necessary to expand to other geographic areas, as the demand for trainings and implementation of projects came pouring in from all over Kenya. As a result, our programming also changed to meet this demand. For example, we got involved in mapping an entire county (Kwale), which was organizationally and logistically very different from mapping an urban center. In retrospect, the most important lessons learned during this period were: to build sustainable and useful programs, you need the involvement and feedback from a broad base of community members and organizations in the area in which you’re working (this way a broad spectrum of ideas is generated and a greater understanding of issues is achieved); let the community and local organizations dictate the type of data to be collected (they know what they will use); encourage people to unleash their creativity (amazing things will happen!); seek support from a well-established organization, which will act as a backbone when dealing with the government (we had a great relationship with Plan Kenya); care about how your programs are perceived in the communities through constant public discussions and presence (there are too many organizations who come with money and big plans for short term projects – people just see them as money bags, meaning they are viewed as a way to get a quick buck, greeted with skepticism and in general not taken seriously – it takes time to build trust); and give the people you work with credit for the work they’re doing and for the work they did, and give them responsibilities to carry out tasks on their own (it will make them come back for more and they’ll feel more ownership, lowering the programs cost in the process). More coming up in blog 3.

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