This Nairobi matutu mapping project is one of the coolest things I’ve seen in a while. The idea is to create a map of the informal bus (known as matutus) routes in Nairobi in the aesthetic style of subway maps. Having something like this would have been extremely helping for navigating the bus systems in Kampala and Kigali. I’m the kind of person who rarely takes the bus around Boston because it’s too much of an effort to figure out the dozens of routes and the times that change depending on day of the week and time of day, so you can imagine how much fun I thought it was getting to class in Kigali or making it across town for a meeting in Kampala via bus (they’re more like oversize vans in Uganda and Rwanda) routes only found out about through word of mouth (or pointing when you don’t know the language). Of course those conversations to figure how in the world to choose which of the numerous matatus zooming by to hop into were an interesting opportunity to strike up a conversation and learn a little more about the city’s geography. And, once I knew the routes to use (distinguishing between the names of the destinations that the conductors would yell out took the most time), it felt like I had tapped into an esoteric transportation network not otherwise accessible through any kind of material map. But if I end up in Nairobi anytime soon, I know I’ll be thanking my lucky stars for this map. I’d be curious to know what Nairobians think about the project–a positive development for making the city more welcoming to new arrivals, visitors, and tourists? A lose of privileged knowledge that empowered and distinguished [poor] Nairobians from outsiders? I’d also be interested to read the history of how these routes have been slowly negotiated over the years without the oversight of government regulation. However anyone who thinks this private transportation network is an example of the efficiency of the private sector to provide what are elsewhere public services has not relied on hot, dusty, cramped, and dangerous matatus to get anywhere. But this takes nothing away from the ingenuity and creativity of the developers of these informal routes. One of the members of the team working on the project is a Cambridge, MA based company called Groupshot whose goal is to create, research, and develop “technology-driven projects that interface with and support existing local systems.” This matatu project seems like a great way to do just that. One thing to watch going forward is how current this mapping project is able to stay with the bus routes in Nairobi (how well and how long the project is maintained…) as one of the benefits of an informal, decentralized bus system like this is that it can change rapidly to adjust to new developments and flows of people in the city without having to wait for bureaucratic approvals or the redrawing of countless bus transit maps throughout the city as Boston would have to if a route was altered even the slightest. A cell phone crowd sourcing effort of the likes that the project website talks about for the future may be a solution to this upkeep problem, and something that city governments in the western world might want to pay attention to in order to keep their transportation networks agile and adaptable as changes in cities accelerate with the massive growth they’re undergoing around the globe.

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