Will the day come when Kenya’s urbanites use maps to report potholes and other municipal flare-ups to City Hall? It’s a long- awaited technology milestone that should be at every Kenyan’s fingertips by now.
The possibilities at scale were highlighted on 16 July 2016, when a frustrated Ory Okolloh tweeted: “Twitpic your Nairobi road pics. Hashtag #whatisaroad”. Kenyans on Twitter came bearing gifts, tweeting a digital outpouring of photos. Massive potholes, flooded roads, uncollected garbage, obstructed footpaths, burst sewers, no space for pedestrians. Nothing was left out. Back then, before misinformation and paid hashtags dominated our timelines, Kenyan Twitter was a bigger space for public good.
Complaining on Twitter has been proven to work in Kenya but problems with Nairobi’s roads persisted. Design errors, some deadly, were baked into road designs. Public roads leading through more expensive suburbs were blocked, cutting off access to public amenities like the Nairobi Arboretum. Plush apartment buildings hived off sidewalks for their ornamental gardens, the better to keep out the watu walking outside.
Roads were constructed with little or no regard for the communities that they passed through. When it was completed, the Western Bypass triggered bitter protests and kuinua matawi from residents of Kikuyu Town, who complained that the road split their community permanently in two. I remember that 2014 protest because Otieno Kajwang, the cheerful, witty late Homa Bay Senator, visited Kikuyu with the Senate’s Transport Committee just hours before he passed away. A footbridge was later built over the bypass.
In late 2015, I was concerned that news coverage which criticised pedestrians for not using footbridges was simplistic and overly car-centric. So one Sunday, I lurked along Mombasa Road waiting for pedestrians to cross and asked them why they took that risk. Most told me the footbridges were too far away from where they needed to cross.
A transportation think tank, the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy advises against footbridges. Their steep stairs, particularly for older and disabled people, discourage pedestrians from using them.
Rethinking #WhatIsARoad is timely because Nairobi’s governor, Johnson Sakaja, who has been meeting similar online challenges, seems better equipped to respond than his predecessors. It took months for a previous governor to even respond to complaints about garbage on the Ngara roundabout.
When Hanifa Safia tweeted photos of garbage in the Korogocho and Pipeline communities, Sakaja responded sooner. While campaigning, Sakaja said that he wanted to use technology to monitor infrastructure at all times and all locations, and holding him to this could pay off in a big way.
#WhatIsARoad did not end in the successful mapping of Nairobi’s potholes because the county was not interested, but it showed the capacity of Nairobians to report breakdowns and dangers in real time. There is no better time than now to harness the power of live maps in our country.
Nairobi has a GIS system somewhere in that old building and various shapefile repositories exist, but residents of Nairobi do not see it. If it were deployed online, with contact details and status updates, Nairobians would report not only the exact locations of potholes, but also sinkholes, garbage, burst sewers, exposed electrical wires, uncovered manholes, blocked footpaths, unsafe buildings…
An online GIS would inform residents about planning applications in their neighbourhoods and boost public participation. The maps could show the locations of open spaces and prevent land grabbing. Publishing health inspection reports by location, as Toronto’s DineSafe does would instantly raise cleanliness standards because no restaurateur would want it known that the county inspected them and found a mice infestation.
Now that the county government has published the Nairobi City County Air Quality Bill 2021, we should soon expect to review air quality data for neighbourhoods on a map. The permanent solution to perennial flooding involves drafting inundation maps. Land prone to frequent flooding is better left undeveloped as public parks, which our cities have far too few of.
So the revival of #WhatIsARoad is due, together with its mapping outcomes. If the city were to respond, municipal customer service in Nairobi would change while bequeathing the county a vast trove of data. If not, other urban centres are, of course, welcome to do it, attract us to move there and shame the capital into action.