Nairobi: A civic tech metropolis
A short history on civic tech initiatives in Kenya’s capital
“Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” — Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities
Nairobi, the city which sits on a plain gets its name from the Nilotic Maasai phrase Enkare Nairobi which translates into English as “cool waters”. It’s a reference to the Nairobi river, named by the Maasai people who were among the first settlers in the area.
The Nairobi of today is a sprawling city with a topography as varied as the people who live and work in it. In the space of a few hours, a commute through the city will take you from the concrete jungle of the Central Business District, through idyllic forest trails in the Karura Forest, savannah grassland in the Nairobi National Park, to lush highland suburbs bordering the city.
Technology With a Purpose
Civic tech is where the public lends its digital talents to help government do a better job either through voluntary or donor-funded initiatives. This is in the form of custom built apps, websites, and/or online or mobile tools. Civic tech holds the promise that information technology can enable public participation and engagement. All this in a race for the common good — improving government, empowering citizens, creating opportunity, and solving public problems.
I think the reason civic tech exists is because, so far, technology has not fulfilled its promise to make society more equitable. In a lot of ways, technology has made it harder for people to access information and services. If, for example, you have to use a computer to download a PDF that you then have to print and sign and scan and email back, that’s actually creating complexity in the process. It’s just digitising a failed process. — Candace Faber
Effective civic tech is a product of collaboration between a willing government, civil society, entrepreneurs, and information technology companies. The most effective civic tech must also aim to be accessible to all citizens regardless of economic status.
The beginning of civic tech in Nairobi
Civic tech came onto the scene in Nairobi, and Kenya as a whole, in 2005 with the launch of Mzalendo. Mzalendo’s mission is to “keep an eye on the Kenyan parliament”, and it does this by providing a mix of online access to Hansard and records of MPs’ details, and editorial resources which contextualise the inner workings of Kenya’s democracy.
Mzalendo’s founders were inspired by the TheyWorkForYou project from mySociety UK, and it began life as a Wordpress blog by Ory Okolloh and Conrad Akunga. It was relaunched in 2012 with support from Omidyar Network and mySociety.
“When we started to build Mzalendo back in 2005, there weren’t any tools that we could find that had the information we wanted.” — Conrad Akunga, Mzalendo co-founder
Ushahidi was created by Ory Okolloh, Erik Hersman, Juliana Rotich and David Kobia, in order to collect eyewitness reports of violence in the wake of the election, and details were supplied by the general public by email and text message and placed onto a Google Maps. Ushahidi has developed into one of the most significant tools for crowdsourcing information, especially in disaster zones such as the Haitian earthquake of 2010 and the current storms sweeping the US and Caribbean.
Code for Africa started its operations in Kenya in the year 2012 with the Code for Kenya citizen lab working out of one of Africa’s largest (and coolest) co-working spaces, the Nairobi Garage. Code for Kenya has, over the years, set out to establish some of the most ambitious civic tech initiatives in Africa.
In 2012, GotToVote became a viral sensation in Kenya as a first-of-its-kind initiative to help citizens easily locate national voter registration and polling centres. Built in 24 hours by David Lemayian and Simeon Oriko (then Code4Kenya fellows), GotToVote has been used in other countries across Africa such as Malawi, Zimbabwe, and Ghana.
BONUS: A timeline of notable civic tech initiatives in Nairobi
If you have any projects you are working on or know about that you feel should be included in our AfricanCOMMONS project please fill in this form with details about the civic tech initiative and/or organisation.
AfricanCOMMONS is a platform to showcase re-useable tools built across Africa and the people & organizations building them.
To find out more about the project, visit commons.africa.
AfricanCOMMONS is a joint initiative of Code for Africa, through its local Code for Tanzania chapter, and the World Bank, in partnership with a coalition of local civil society organisations, with additional support from the International Center for Journalists(ICFJ).
Special thank you to Jessica Musila & Conrad Akunga (Mzalendo), Lillian Nduati & David Lemaiyan (Code for Africa), Catherine Gicheru (Code for Kenya).