Case Study: Mapping and Hearing the Voice of Kibera

Rising Voices continues its case studies series that takes a look at different projects around the world that have been engaging with underrepresented communities through the use of citizen media training workshops.

Kibera, located in Nairobi, Kenya, is considered one of Africa’s largest slums and has an estimated population of 250,000. While numerous aid organizations work in the area, the data collected by these agencies is often not shared with the community. In 2009, Erica Hagen and Mikel Maron arrived in Nairobi with the intent to create the first free and open digital map of Kibera, a first step in providing accessible information and tools to the residents of the slum. Hagen and Maron trained 13 local young people on OpenStreetMap software and Global Positioning System (GPS) devices. The youth then set out to map their community and the services available to them, collecting data from businesses, health centers, clinics, schools, etc., with each piece of data filling in what was once described as the “blank spot on the Kenyan map”. Within weeks the mapping was complete and the focus turned to the stories behind the data. Map Kibera branched out into a full citizen media platform comprised of three components: the mapping project; ‘Voice of Kibera’, a community information project that aggregates citizen reports and stories from the community; and the ‘Kibera News Network’, a citizen video journalism project.

Rising Voices spoke with co-founders Erica Hagen and Mikel Maron about the Map Kibera project.

Erica Hagen and Mikel Maron. Photo by ricajimarie and used under a (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) license.

Rising Voices: Map Kibera was developed to address the complete absence of Kibera's infrastructure on the map. What did you aim to achieve, and how did the community first react to the concept of mapping?

Mikel: The initial idea was to get visibility of this community on a publicly available and shareable map. We were open-minded in terms of what that would mean to the community in Kibera. We had never been to Kibera and we weren’t familiar with places like it. In a way, we were going to start a dialogue, “Here is some tech and cool tools which would allow this community to make itself visible and using maps and later on other tools. What do you think? How can you use this?” It was a mixture of reactions at first. Some people would say, “What do we need maps for? I know where Kibera is and where everything is. This is for tourists”. Other people doing similar work and thinking about things spatially got it right away that this is something different. They would be getting skills to make the maps themselves and everyone would have access to the data. Groups working in transparency issues saw this as a tool they could use. Whether it’s in the Kibera slum or here in the U.S., it’s hard for people to understand everything that can be done with geographical data. Most people are familiar with using road maps to get directions but using it for other purposes is still an educational process.

Erica: What turned out to be the project was not what we had envisioned. We had to modify a lot of our method. This is the way that things normally work in terms of introducing technology to a community. You can’t be completely pre-determined, pre-decided, or pre-planned. It has to be flexible.

Kibera on Open Street Map

RV: You didn't fly in mapping experts to work on the project. Your intent was to engage locals in the process from the inception of the project. Why was this so important to you?

Mikel: It was essential to what we were doing. If we were to go and map Kibera, it wouldn’t make any change in Kibera in terms of imparting the tools and the map would be terrible. Only if you are from Kibera can you really know what’s going on there. It’s an overwhelming, dense, complex place. If you’re making media or making maps, it needs to be locally driven in order to be effective and accurate.

Erica: The only thing we’re doing differently in a way is trying to offer certain skills, tools, and ideas to the community to see what they’re interested in. Major media, development practitioners, and researchers go into Kibera all the time but they’re almost never involved in the community. Because they don’t involve the local people, their data is often inaccurate.

RV: Nairobi boasts a large tech and innovation community, but did you find it challenging to attract participants to a project that had never been attempted before?

Mikel: You don’t need to make any hard effort to get people interested in a new project. What is difficult is keeping commitment, sustaining interest, and balancing economic interest with taking part in a voluntary platform meant to generate opportunities for people. The interest is high. Everyone loves technology but everyone has an immediate day-to-day focus. It’s the longer term that takes more work.

RV: You’ve previously stated that, “Without basic knowledge of the geography of Kibera it is impossible to have an informed discussion on how to improve the lives of residents of Kibera.” Can you give us an example of how this online action of collecting data has turned into offline change?

Mikel: It’s only been a year and a half. Has Kibera changed? No. But I can give you a couple of examples in Kibera and Mathare where the work we’re doing is starting to express an impact. Everyone wants to see change immediately and this is will be a longer process. First, the real demonstration of the power of all these tools took place in August when the mapping, recording platform and video team all came together to have a focused attention of the referendum in Kibera, which itself which was a dry run for the presidential race. It showed everyone that this is a method and approach that exposes what is happening on the ground in an effective way. In Mathare, (which is the second iteration of the mapping project), we went with partners interested in improving the water and sanitation services in the area but first needed geographical data. They have almost wrapped up the collection of the data and are using it as a discussion for what path to take.

Premiere of Map Kibera Laptops by Map Kibera and used under a (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) license.

RV: Participatory mapping is growing. How do you think it fits in within the field of citizen media?

Erica: Once you start working with people and creating a map system of the places where they live, it becomes a form or media, a form of communication. What they are saying is here are all the resources, and describing information about places they live.

Mikel: They way I look at it is the scope of media and journalism is changing in all places to include the more traditional story telling element and data focused element.

Erica: I’m interested in particular ways of displaying data on the net with visualization and mixing storytelling and traditional narrative media. Both are important and reinforce each other really well. That’s not always where people start, they come from their own discipline. Some who have studied GIS (Geographic Information System) aren’t in the business of sharing their data. We’re in the business of sharing the data and talking about it within the community. If you’re just coming from journalism, you might be interested in having a map to illustrate a story but it would almost be like a photo and not interactive. The future of media is really exciting; it will come together even more, with more types of locally generated data being integrated.

RV: What is the current status of the project? How many participants continue to be actively involved?

Erica: The project is now under the Map Kibera Trust, a local organization that has registered in Kenya that includes separate teams of young people leading three programs: Map Kibera, Voice of Kibera, and the Kibera News Network. The Trust serves as a platform for being able to continue their work. What they’re doing now is planning what they want to do for the next few years. There are people working in Mathare also. Everyone is extensively involved

RV: At the end of the day, how do you measure success?

Mikel: In a few ways. One is having individuals and organizations access the tools and the platform, expanding the network to give people from marginalized communities opportunities in society through the technological work they’re doing. It’s ultimately about having impact and seeing the potential of the work used.

Erica: People are always looking for direct impact, and we are also, but there’s something to be said about having available open information that people know about and can access and having more people contribute their voices as well. Much is said of the over-supply of voices in the online sphere. This is a first-world perspective. Where we work, it’s about bringing up the supply and the variety of voices and perspectives. There’s something there about forcing people to pay attention because you’re talking about a medium that reaches internationally. If you want to have an impact on a local official, there’s a lot of potential because they have to realize they can ignore people but it’s not as easy to ignore when Kibera is able to speak to the world and share things.

15 days of Kibera mapping in 15 seconds from Mikel Maron on Vimeo.

RV: Do you have any plans to expand outside of Kibera, or even Kenya?

We have an organization called GroundTruth Initiative, which we formed because of the mapping project. We wanted the organization to have an international scope but that could have a base of operation American-based. We left the day-to-day work to the trust registered in Kenya. We’re trustees of that trust. We work with them everyday. Via GroundTruth, we are looking to support other people, starting new initiatives that are similar. There’s a lot of international interest around this project. We’re hoping to work with people on implementation and trying to spread the vision. The Kibera Trust is registered in such a way that it can work internationally but they’ll probably be focused on Kenya for a while; maybe extend to the east Africa region. We’re not into pushing them into scaling up. We are careful about protecting the vision of the project. We have just been to Haiti doing exploratory work and conducting a small video training.

RV: Kenya is often featured in the media only during crises, leaving many with a distorted perception of the country. What is something that you'd like to share about Kibera that we might not know?

Erica: There’s a real social fabric there in the way things work and function. It’s a functioning city within a city. That’s not the image that people have. It’s not just people working in desperation, there’s really something intangible that’s very valuable. That’s probably true of any community where you only see the social problems.

Mikel: The urban fabric in Nairobi is a city of compounds and high walls, barbed wires and security cars. You don’t get a sense of a place. Kibera has a buzz about it. You walk down the street and people are talking to one other. It’s a real community in contrast to the rest of Nairobi.

At a Glance

The project in 140 characters: Residents of Kibera, a massive slum in Nairobi, Kenya, are mapping their own communities using the techniques of OpenStreetMap, a user-edited map of the world.
Date Founded: 2009
Number of Participants: 30 in Kibera; 30 in Mathare
Number of Project Sites: 2 (Kibera, Mathare)
Digital Tools Used: OpenStreetMap; GIS
Future Plans: Continued work with Map Kibera Trust; support and implement like-minded projects around the world.
Website URL:
Twitter: @mapkibera


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