Mapping in Nairobi

Mikel and I have spent the past week having some incredible meetings and adventures in Nairobi - the first stop on our multi-city trip around eastern and southern Africa. We arrived in Nairobi without a clear plan for who we would meet up with, but in the end it was a very productive and informative visit.

I had a house...

Nairobi, Kenya - 2008

Of course, for proper introduction to Kenya, my college friend Kate took us on a day hike up through the Ngong Hills - famous by a land-owner, Karen Blixen, and the setting of the book and movie "Out of Africa". The real introduction came with the alert that you must register your hike at the Kenyan Wildlife Services office and hire an armed escort. In the past there had been various violent incidents, though this has dramatically decreased due to such efforts as more patrols, gates, and armed escorts. Despite the camouflage uniform and automatic rifle, our escort Michael was a terrific guide. He walks the hills several times a week and is very familiar, as are most local Kenyans, with the landscape, various towns and villages, flora and fauna.

Cradle of Civilization

Kate is based in Nairobi as part of her doctoral research on the pastoral farmers of eastern Africa - primarily northern Kenya. While here she is working with a number of researchers and attachés that are going a number of activities in the field on surveys as parts of larger teams in remote villages and areas, cataloging artifacts in the lab, collaborating with researches in the museum and around the world, and then deploying back to the field each season.

The more we spoke with them, and their current use of GPS and some GIS tools, it was apparent that there were some straight-forward suggestions of tools and techniques that they could employ to make better use of their data collection and meet their needs while also reducing their overhead costs of data and software licenses and meeting their objectives. A couple of evening chats over Tusker beers and nyama choma turned into a concept for a talk. So we met with the directors of the British Institute and Archaeology departments and proposed a seminar for the researchers and staff.

The result was that this morning we gave a presentation to a number of staff on the use of free, open and easy to use mapping tools for visualization, communication, and collaboration. For example, using APRS (such as the Garmin 520HCx) to do in the field location sharing, GPSBabel to store GPS tracks to KML, Google Earth for visualization and annotation, EditGrid and GeoCommons Finder! for online data sharing and visualization in Maker! (coming soon). In addition, we briefly talked about the use of Wikis, Content Management Systems, and Blogs to make it easy for researchers to publish work progress and information.

Another interesting discussion was around the lack of available road and infrastructure data of small villages along Lake Turkana and east Africa in general. Major providers such as NAVTEQ, and even Google have some data in major regions, but not very useful for the staff heading to remote areas. One project is the history and culture of Somalian banditry that now resides in northern Kenya. There is some data available in larger villages, but the smaller villages are not even on the map, let alone with any infrastructure data.

United Response

Another unexpected outcome of our trip to Nairobi was some great meetings with various individuals throughout many UN agencies. On arrival to Nairobi we were pleasantly surprised by the near complete mapping of the city in OpenStreetMap. A quick inspection of the metadata showed that the majority of the data came from a single person working at UNICEF that used Yahoo! satellite imagery to trace the city. We immediately exported this to our GPS units so we could have a detailed map on our excursions.

In addition to meeting with Bo from UNICEF, we also had in-depth presentation and discussions at the UNHCR-Somalia offices with the SIMaC - Somalia Interagency Mapping and Coordination. These are a group of cross-agency people that work together in data sharing, cooperation, tools, and discussions. They are faced with problems that we've heard repeatedly from other UN agencies about the difficulties in data sharing with regards to availability, access, and control.

We are still working through the specific outputs, but the overall interest and desire to help was very encouraging. Offers of data and hosting services. One potentially difficult issue is the provenance of some of the data. As many emergency and humanitarian response organizations may be familiar with, issues like copyright are pushed to the back in priorities. Responders tend to use whatever data it is they can get to achieve their goals. The result is that their built up datasets aren't clear of IP and copyright. Hopefully, they can be pulled apart so that appropriate data can make it's way into open data repositories and be more easily shared and updated.

Top-Down and Bottom-Up

Between the various discussions at the National Museum and the UN, there were two emergent patterns of innovation and coordination.

At research organizations like the British Institute and Museum, researchers and staff are very busy working on their specific topics, seeking funding, publishing, and getting back to the field. They have a need for collaboration and visualization but are typically just using the typical tools, banging their heads into walls and then moving onto the next issue. The higher-level coordinators are more interested in ways to store and share data between projects within a department, across an institution, increase external visibility, and capture knowledge on turn-over. They are looking at various options, what fits in timeframes and budgets, and then instituting pilot projects.

By contrast, larger bureaucracies like the United Nations are driven by workers and staff to innovate within their own groups and on specific problems. They develop and pull together configurable solutions, get buy-in across organizations but at a "low-level". Eventually, these working solutions start bubbling up the organization chart based on successes and efficiency. Eventually, upper-level coordinators become interested and seek to institutionalize and mandate the use such tools. The unfortunate effect can be stagnation and over-weighting what was a loosely-coupled and straight-forward solution.

Somewhere in between these two methodologies there is a true solution. In reality, there has to be acceptance, encouragement, and flexibility from all parties. Implementors (staff, researchers, workers) need to be looking at various tools, building them into their workflow, and feeding use-case scenarios. Coordinators need to be aware of what their teams need, as well as the organization, and what successes can be easily, and without reorganization, be carried to other groups to organically build an organization wide set of solutions.

Asante sana

Leader of the Zebras

The entire week in Nairobi was very encouraging. There are endemic problems that afflict the country: government corruption, lack of quality infrastructure, and on the technical side, slow and unreliable internet bandwidth. However, almost across the board Kenyans are incredibly welcoming. I've never shaken hands with so many people combined with true smiles, kind words, and a ingrained feeling of camaraderie.

Our last night in town we went to dinner with a number of the team that are volunteering with Ushahidi. This was definitely the incredible cap that verified my optimism. The group were incredibly involved in a number of cutting edge technical tools and concepts. We met with a GeoDjango users doing vehicle tracking over APRS, an iPhone developer pushing mobile mapping interfaces, PHP framework builders, and a female civil engineer doing a wide range of infrastructure design and development (a interest of mine based on Corrie's experiences). Thanks Laban, Jason, Brian, Mworia, and James.

And one last note - I encourage and enjoyable ride on a matatu, but make sure to wear your seatbelt! (and maybe bring some earplugs)

GEOPRESS_LOCATION(Nairobi, Kenya)

About this article

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About the Author

Andrew Turner is an advocate of open standards and open data. He is actively involved in many organizations developing and supporting open standards, including OpenStreetMap, Open Geospatial Consortium, Open Web Foundation, OSGeo, and the World Wide Web Consortium. He co-founded CrisisCommons, a community of volunteers that, in coordination with government agencies and disaster response groups, build technology tools to help people in need during and after a crisis such as an earthquake, tsunami, tornado, hurricane, flood, or wildfire.