Nairobi — that funky ad-hoc bus system

Nairobi is the capital and the largest city of Kenya with a population of nearly five million, one of the fastest-growing cities in Africa.

[image: transitapp]

Most of Nairobi’s citizens rely on public transit. “But when Nairobi’s formal bus system collapsed in the 1990s, the government failed to do anything about it. So without a formal urban planning strategy, an enterprising group of Kenyans sought to fill the void. The result was a crazy, lawless, and über-popular mode of transportation: The Kenyan Matatu.” — Transit app

These minibusses are run by various entrepreneurs and are known for their funky look & feel. With more than 20,000 independent matatus in Nairobi and ad hoc network changes, finding the right route or stop is a gamble. A wrong decision can add hours to your trip.

The Digital Matatus project group shows how to leverage technology in developing countries to collect data for essential infrastructure improvements. The collaboration between the University of Nairobi, Columbia University’s Center for Sustainable Urban Development, Groupshot, and MIT’s Civic Design Lab made it their goal to develop a better understanding of Nairobi’s informal transit system.

In 2014 it tasked local university students with riding the buses and using a smartphone app to track the routes and stops. When Digital Matatus released its subway-style map of more than 100 routes and major stops the following year, they changed the lives of many for the better.

Researching how women live in this world, one thing that stands out for me is that this incredible project is especially valuable for women, given the safety concern of getting on the wrong matatu at night!

[image research gate / Courtesy: MIT Civic Data Design Lab/ DigitalMatatus]

Nairobi’s matatus became the first informal transit system on Google Maps. The move to a global platform legitimizes the zippy little vehicles and shows other cities how they too might harness these networks.

My name is Alexandra. I am a creative strategist and currently studying to earn my second Masters, this time around, in Applied Psychology because I believe understanding human nature will help me be a better designer. Let’s connect on LinkedIn and have a chat!

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Alexandra Plesner

Austrian creative strategist primary based in London, working worldwide.