Community mapping in urban informal settlements: examples from Nairobi, Kenya

Recently, me and my colleague Lenka Sobotová wrote a paper for The Electronic Journal of Information Systems in Developing Countries called “Community mapping in urban informal settlements: examples from Nairobi, Kenya”. Our aim was to compare two participatory mapping projects, that were realized (not by us) in Nairobi, Kenya. Both of these projects took place in Kibera, by few considered the biggest slum in Africa (it is not, but I will get to it later). The main difference was in the understanding of word participation.

Kibera, derived from the Nubian word Kibra, means forest or jungle. This word has become a synonym for an African slum in the past two decades. Kibera is supposed to be “the biggest slum in Africa”. Various NGOs, agencies and researchers have estimated the population living in Kibera to anything between 400,000 and 1 million (Davis, 2006). No official census has been carried out in Kibera and hence estimates may vary. The settlement covers an area of 225ha and is strategically placed to provide labour to Nairobi’s industrial area and city centre. The characteristics of the settlement: high density, unplanned and crowded houses, together with a lack of infrastructure, have led to acute problems of drainage, sanitation and solid waste management. Within Kibera, there are 11 villages

Nevertheless there were some unofficial census attempts, mainly organised by Western researchers that showed numbers much lower, than previous estimates. The French Institute for Research in Africa (IFRA) estimated the population in Kibera to be 200,000 residents. Another independent researcher, Marras calculated, based on his research in Kinda, one of the villages population to be 252,500. The abelling of Kibera as “the biggest slum in Africa” has become a slogan, something that sells the research, but it has been shown that it is not the reality of Kibera. In fact, this inability to tell how many people live in Kibera has a much broader impact. It is part of the history of Kibera.

Since that time the Kibera slum was not on the map and if shown, it was visualised only as a park (1970) or small formal settlement (1995). It makes sense not to put Kibera on the map. What is not on the map, does not exist, therefore what does not exist needs no attention and funds/solutions.

So, back to the mapping projects, now it will be a bit confusing, one was Map Kibera Project, second was Map Kibera

The Map Kibera Project (MKP) aimed at producing reliable and clear data and maps using GIS (mainly the freeware Quantum GIS), and making them available on the Map Kibera Project’s official website in various formats. The formats were mainly closed formats such as PDF or JPG, but users could access also some date in KMZ or SHP files, mainly by direct enquiries to the project coordinator.

While Map Kibera is a community based project started in 2009 which works with the OpenStreetMap. The mapping part of the initiative includes surveying with GPS, and the digitisation of satellite imagery and paper based annotation with Walking Papers. Data consumers were consulted for their needs, to help add direction to the feature types collected, and they aided the project by immediately making use of the map data.

Now you can see the difference, MKP was mainly lead by western researcher (but I still admire Stefano Marras for his work) and the sustainability of the project suffered by it. On the other hand, Map Kibera is still based in Kibera and their effort is now spilling over also to other informal settlements of Nairobi such as Mathare or Mukuru.

Based on the level of participation and sustainability after the initial phase, I would say that participation of local community is crucial for the success of the mapping project. Furthermore I see link between the level of technological demandingness and level of participation. The more demanding the technology is (such as GIS, remote sensing or geodetic mapping), the less members of the community can actively take part, therefore the lower chance of sustainability. What do you think about it? Is technology a barrier for participation or is it a catalyst of participation? When is it a barrier and when is it a catalyst?

Kibera on 6 most common online mapping services.

Kibera on 6 most common online mapping services.


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