Emily Schaub is a second year MA student at SAIS, concentrating in International Development. Her interests revolve around youth and gender issues.

Nairobi’s ubiquitous matatu is at once an ingenious answer to the city’s troubling transport problem and a cause of the inefficiency that characterizes her streets. These paratransit minibuses operate informally to serve more than 130 routes throughout the city, the gap between rapid urban migration and the government’s inability to provide adequate public transport. The matatus’ informality, and the resulting flexibility, allows drivers to cater to passenger needs, by stopping at undesignated points and developing new routes as required by customer demand. They are consequently able to service slums and other areas of the city that the extremely limited public bus system cannot reach. Unfortunately, however, the same informality and lack of regulation that contributes to the matatus’ appeal also makes them dangerous, environmentally hazardous, and inefficient. This problem is exacerbated by a lack of public information, and fluctuating fares, schedules and routes that cost passengers and operators in both time and money.

Against this backdrop, in 2012, the Digital Matatus team attempted to tackle this problem of inefficiency in Nairobi’s public transport, by taking advantage of the city’s growing status as a technological hub and increasing access to mobile phones. Over the course of a year, data was collected by both passengers and matatu operators, who used smartphone technology to track information on the locations of official and unofficial stops, and other physical characteristics of 135 matatu routes. From the information gathered, a map was drawn, in an attempt to make sense of what seemed like an incoherent and haphazard transport system. This data has since been made publicly available through Google Maps and other applications that track locations and transit routes, and has the capability to be continually updated as routes change.

Prior to this mapping exercise, the lack of information meant that consumers were relying on known routes to travel to work, which – especially in the informal system of matatus that is subject to frequent and sudden changes – may not have been the fastest or most convenient routes. The Digital Matatus map, by identifying the most efficient routes, can cut travel times significantly. This can translate into increased income, additional time with family, and more flexibility for commuters in making decisions about how to spend time and money.

The map shows routes are organized like spokes of a wheel, with virtually every line originating in the center. This convergence is the result of the unplanned nature of the system - matatus follow the crowds – but this is not necessarily the most efficient design, as it creates unnecessary congestion and services far fewer destinations than other layouts. Now that information has been collected and analyzed, it is possible to reorganize existing routes more efficiently, saving money for both operators and users of matatus.

Beyond reducing travel times by providing better information to commuters and providing the impetus for an overall redesign of the public transport system, the collection of additional data has the potential to further reduce inefficiency. Technology that could track matatus live and announce real time arrivals could further reduce waiting time. A fare estimator could help commuters make decisions about transportation - for instance, choosing to travel during off-peak hours to avoid price hikes. Data on passenger volume could reduce inefficiency for both parties if operators increased the number of vehicles on the road only when necessary.

Nairobians have developed a system of transportation to fill a need that the government had neglected, and over the last few decades that system has catapulted into one that serves most of the population. However, its informal and unplanned nature has led to inefficiency in the system, in terms of time and money. The Digital Matatus project offers one solution to these myriad challenges – by making information publicly available, it could lead to a series of changes that improve efficiency for both riders and operators.

PHOTO CREDITAlbert Backer, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons