Using technology to map Nairobi slums for more toilets, less trash

Q+A – Using technology to map Nairobi slums for more toilets, less trash | Source: Katy Migiro, Reuters, Nov 28, 2013 |

NAIROBI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Nearly seven out of 10 residents of Nairobi’s slums use shared toilets or pit latrines – while 6 percent have no toilets at all. Yet even if they wanted a toilet, getting one hooked up to the municipal system can involve insurmountable bureaucracy and corruption.

Meanwhile, their trash may be getting picked up by youth groups, but only to be dumped in the river or on the road – rather than picked up by city council trucks.

In an undated photo, Thuo Wanjiku, a data collector with Spatial Collective, collects mapping data via mobile phone in Nairobi's Mathare slum. Photo by Rick Roxburgh/Spatial Collective

In an undated photo, Thuo Wanjiku, a data collector with Spatial Collective, collects mapping data via mobile phone in Nairobi’s Mathare slum. Photo by Rick Roxburgh/Spatial Collective

Now, the Spatial Collective social enterprise is hoping to fix that by using technologies to map out the slums, providing the information and connecting the right players in hope of bringing in more toilets and disposing of the rubbish… and the crime.

Jamie Lundine, managing director of Spatial Collective, spoke to Thomson Reuters Foundation in Nairobi at the 2013 International Conference of Crisis Mappers, which she helped organise.

Q: How are new mapping technologies changing the aid world?

A: I think new technologies are allowing information that may previously have gone undocumented to be amplified and then shared… so that actual players on the ground, hopefully, have a greater say in how aid money is spent.

To be able to create a platform and share information gives global recognition to local problems – and local solutions. Somebody else knows where they are and is listening to their story.

Collecting 300, 400, 500 [criminal] incidents allows you to reveal trends and then share that with decision makers. Visualising them and showing this is a hot spot area, for example, might move somebody.

Q: What excites you about your work?

A: One of the most exciting projects that we are working on at the moment is a partnership with Nairobi City Water and Sewage Company and an urban planning and architecture firm called Kounkuey – it’s a Thai word (that means “to know intimately”) – Design Initiative (KDI).

KDI have built up several public spaces in the informal settlements in Nairobi. Connecting to a municipal infrastructure – so that a toilet can actually be connected to the sewage and water system – is quite a bureaucratic, sometimes corrupt, difficult process. They’ve had to go through it six or seven times.

They wanted to share that information and open it up – how you actually connect, who you talk to, what forms you need to fill out, how long it should take – but also to access the data about where that municipal infrastructure actually is.

We have been working with them to build the prototype for a web-based GIS (geographic information system) tool that allows people to put in the location of different sites where they want to connect to the municipal infrastructure. Then it will tell you the approximate cost to connect.

Q: Rubbish is another problem in the slums. Could mapping help here?

A: This is a project we have been working on in-house for the past year. We received a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, so we have been doing a more in-depth survey to understand how waste management operates in the informal settlements.

Youth groups operating collect money from individual households and then they collect their trash. Part of what we are doing is mapping out where all the youth groups are.

The central dump for Nairobi, which is in Dandora, has been full for the last 10 years. The city council trucks that are meant to come by and pick up the garbage don’t come regularly.

So the garbage gets collected and gets dumped. There’s nobody to transport it. So it ends up in the river. It ends up piling along the main road.

What we are looking at is how can we incentivise those people who are collecting garbage [in trucks] to work more closely with the youth groups to make sure that the waste that people are paying to have collected gets transported to a dump.

We are looking at different tools – WhatsApp, Facebook – that people are already using to open up that channel of communication. We hope that 250 voices are more powerful than one youth group getting frustrated because the truck never shows up.

Right now, maybe they can’t afford for the private trucks to come by but the purchasing power of 250 youth groups is much greater than one. Or they could all pool their money and buy a truck.

Q: Why did you choose to set up a social enterprise rather than a non-governmental organisation (NGO)?

A: We started seeing a shift in how NGOs are functioning, moving more towards operating like businesses. With the economic crisis, there’s a lot more pressure on people to spend their money wisely. It might be easier to run a company, rather than an NGO, with a lot more flexibility.

Just because we are a private company doesn’t mean that we can’t innovate and do our own projects and spend our money on social causes – which is exactly what we are doing. We’ve had an incredibly positive response.

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