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GPS Mapping of Kenyan Slum Help Aid Organizations Improve Services

Nearly a third of Nairobi’s population lives in the Kibera slum, the world’s second largest informal settlement, yet the Kenyan government does not recognize its existence. The lack of government aid has taken its toll on public services. There is just one toilet for every 1,300 residents, and high crime rates drive most people to throw waste into the streets rather than brave the trip at night. Yet despite appearances Kibera does not lack foreign aid. As resident Sheikh Ramadhan told the Inter Press Service (IPS), there are “more than 100 NGOs operating in this small area. But this has done very little to improve the lives of residents.”

One organization working to address the gap between information and services is OpenStreetMap (OSM), which began with the simple premise that maps “of the whole world” should be free, accessible, and accurate. Begun in London, where copyright prevents recent city maps from being available for free, OSM provides information that is user-generated and editable – which is why to its founders a “blank spot” like Kibera is so readily visible.

OSM argues that the poor coordination among NGOs at least in part reflects a lack of knowledge of their operating environment. As long as neither aid workers nor residents had information about the existing services offered, the gaps could not be addressed. With this in mind, in November 2009 OSM armed 12 Kiberan youths with GPS tracking devices to map public roads and structures of interest. Mikel Maron, a board member at OSM, explained to IPS, “There has been a general lack of accountability on the project going on in Kibera. With this kind of information available, it will be easy to know exactly which organizations are working in Kibera, including available services and facilities.”

Since its beginning in 2004, OSM has become increasingly involved in humanitarian causes. Its use of GPS and user-generated input offers two distinct advantages over Google and Yahoo, which rely on satellite imagery. First, OSM’s method allows the mapping of areas with poor satellite coverage. Second, while satellite images are taken relatively infrequently – maps of Nairobi have not been updated in nearly five years – OSM can be rapidly and easily edited. Most recently aid organizations, including the United Nations, have used OSM to share information about the devastation that followed the earthquake in Haiti, including available services, navigable roads, and areas in particular need.

The Kibera maps went online in January 2010, revealing the complexity of the urban center. Maron describes how even basic details depend heavily on insider understanding. A railroad may also be a pedestrian walkway; a street may double as a sewer; a store’s sign may be entirely unrelated to its function. The OSM maps blend satellite imagery, GPS surveying, and the local understanding of the 12 young mappers to form a complete picture of Kibera. While it is too early to judge the success of the maps in promoting coordination among aid workers, certainly OSM has potential to address an issue integrally tied to the effectiveness of humanitarian aid.

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