Why we are mapping potholes in Nairobi

About two months ago, I noticed an interesting hashtag on Twitter. #WhatIsaRoad was being used by Kenyan on Twitter (KOT) to highlight potholes in Nairobi city. True to our nature as Kenyans, the hashtag is tongue in check. What is a road? Some roads are so bad you can’t even describe them as roads!

A few guys thought it might be a good idea to collect this information and avail it to the right people (Nairobi County in this context) so that they could do something about it.

The objective is to present the findings of the @WhatIsARoad project and bring together a variety of stakeholders in transport, construction industry and road safety for a collaborative discussion about the potential utility of such a data set. I also thought it was a good idea and joined the team of volunteers. Ory Okolloh, Muthuri Kinyamu, Melissa Mbugua, Linda Kamau, Elizabeth Resor, Nanjira Sambuli, Chris Orwa, Chris Ndungu, PAUL Olukoye, and Chris Mungai are the rest of the volunteers.

#WhatIsARoad project will crowdsource reports of potholes in Nairobi from Twitter users over a six-month period (August — January 2016). The resulting data set will contain descriptive reports of location (with geo-coordinates), potholes and photos or links to other media.

We have registered the Twitter handle @whatisaroad. Previously, only a hashtag existed. This is the account used to coordinate #whatisaroad. We then asked Kenyans to map potholes. The process is fairly straightforward:

  • You are walking, in a matatu, or driving and you see, hit or disappear in a pothole
  • Safely take a photo of the pothole
  • Post the photo on Twitter with the hashtag #WhatIsaRoad. To identify the location either enable GPS or indicate the name of the road and a nearby landmark so that we can reverse geocode.

Once you submit this information, it is shown on a map at https://whatisaroad.crowdmap.com/. We chose Ushahidi to visualize the information as it has been used extensively for crowdsourcing.

Why Twitter?

Because it is easy and people use it already. We don’t need to ask people to download a new app to map potholes. Additionally, no training is needed to get them to use the ‘new’ tool. 
Over the last two years, I have learned how to apply the human-centered design principles to develop digital products. The notion that building an app will lead to usage is false. It is better to use tools that your users already use. Add the fact that app usage is relatively low in Kenya and you will understand why Twitter is a good option for this. There are apps out there that could achieve the same but this would need some extra effort.

Why collect data about potholes?

They are very visible and are a consistent source of anguish. There are so many things to complain about in Nairobi. Potholes are very visible. We are sure even the Nairobi County government can see them. Why not provide them with concrete data about the location of potholes and push them to fix the potholes?

This is also a good opportunity to turn online conversations into sustained actions. Can we push Nairobi County to do something about it? With data, we believe we can.

What will we do with the potholes?

  • Very simple Ushahidi-style map of pins (red for pothole, yellow for under repair, green for fixed) — https://whatisaroad.crowdmap.com/
  • Map potholes all over Nairobi to determine which neighborhood has the worst potholes
  • Longer-term mapping of the whole city to look at where potholes are fixed the fastest
  • Look at specific troubled areas — like Nairobi West intersection built on a floodplain that is always being fixed
  • Conspiracy of firms that take so long to fix potholes -> time-lapse photo series showing evolution of a pothole.
  • Hold relevant government bodies — eg KENHA, KURA, Counties responsible.

Who is funding this?

No one is. Twitter is free. Everyone involved is a volunteer sacrificing a bit of their time to get going. Ushahidi software is free too. Instead of waiting for money to get this started, why not just marshal the available resources and get going

How can you be part of this?

More reports are needed for #whatisaroad to be impactful. Start mapping! A tweet with a photo (photos are more convincing than text only), the location (turn on your GPS or indicate the road and a landmark) is sufficient. The accuracy of the information is important.