The power of information

Map Kibera uses GIS, SMS, video and the web to gather community data

Erica Hagen
Mikel Maron

The Map Kibera project works with young people from one of Africas biggest slums. They use GIS, SMS, video and the web to gather data and make it available to the community, where it can be applied to influence policies related to the area.

Located just five kilometres from the capital of Kenya, Nairobi, the residents of Kibera have grown accustomed to the many foreign experts visiting their community to conduct surveys and ask questions for yet another data collection initiative. As one of the largest slum areas in Africa, it draws staff from development organisations, research institutes and NGOs from all over the world. 

As all these organisations and researchers generate more and more documents and project reports about Kibera, very little of the information gathered is ever made available to the 250,000 people who live there. Access to the data would give the people of Kibera the chance to present their own view of the living conditions in the community. They would be able to influence public policy to achieve improvements to the facilities that they believe are important.

In 2009, Erica Hagen, a specialist in the use of new media for development, and Mikel Maron, a digital mapping expert, started Map Kibera to help residents use mapping technology to gather information about their community. For the initial phase of the project, they recruited 13 local young people, aged between 19 to 34, including five women and eight men, from each village in Kibera. 

The participants received two days training on how to use handheld GPS receivers to gather location data, and an introduction to using the specialised software in a computer lab. The team was supported by five GIS professionals from Nairobi who had volunteered their time. The participants then spent three weeks walking along the roads, pathways and rail tracks with their GPS receivers recoding the location data. They collected more specific information on water and sewage locations, education, religious and business locations, as well as anything else the participants deemed useful.


Rather than create a stand-alone map, the location data gathered by the project was added to the open source project OpenStreetMap, which is a crowdsourced map made by volunteers around the world. Map Kibera contributed to filling their part of OpenStreetMap, which would also make the information available to more people, and help to raise the profile of the project.

The team also wanted to add a multimedia aspect to the maps, by including video footage of points of interest from around Kibera, and uploading them to YouTube. Three members of Carolina for Kibera (CFK), affiliated with the University of North Carolina, assisted with the filming and helped to document the map making process using small camcorders.

The young people involved in the project developed a sense of achievement as they learned the new skills, and gained confidence in using new technologies. They also began to see the value of the information they were collecting and to understand the impact it could have on their community. However, it was not so easy to convince other residents.

There was a lot of cynicism in the local community caused by the NGOs who had previously come to Kibera but never shared their information. People were, therefore, reluctant to be filmed and photographed. Although the GPS data gathering was less intrusive, the technology presented other difficulties.

The lack of reliable power and inadequate internet access in Kibera were major challenges, especially when it came to uploading large video files to the web, which can take a long time. The slow internet connection also made it difficult to update security software on the computers, leaving them vulnerable to damaging viruses.

These were challenges that could be overcome in time, but for the project to be a real success, it would have to show that it could provide useful information to the community. The mapping project was, therefore, expanded to incorporate public participation geographic information systems (PPGIS) to gather information on specific issues affecting the residents of Kibera.

The group focused on collecting detailed data on four sectors: health, security, education, and water and sanitation. In February 2010, Map Kibera developed a partnership with UNICEF and added a fifth topic: mapping girls’ security. The aim here was to get the girls’ views on possible threats to their security, along with location information, for use in compiling data on their vulnerability to HIV/Aids.  

Nine mappers collected data on the five topics using paper forms, gathering, for example, details of the costs and services offered at clinics and chemists in the area. To further encourage community involvement and get feedback on the information gathered, the team produced printed versions of maps for each area and placed transparencies on top so that residents could make changes and additions as necessary. Map Kibera also involved other interested organisations working in the health and security sectors in the area, including African Medical and Research Foundation and a women's group called Kibera Power Women.

Positive picture

As well as making the maps and multimedia available online, Map Kibera looked for other ways for the community to use the information gathered. For instance, the video material filmed as part of the mapping exercises could also be used to present news stories of the area. This idea expanded and the team worked with two youth from Kibera, who already had film-making experience. 

They trained 18 young people to use small ‘ultra-portable’ Flip video cameras and the software to help them share their efforts on the web. This led to Kibera News Network (KNN), a citizen journalism initiative to present features and news stories affecting Kibera, showing positive aspects of the area and providing accurate coverage of negative events. 

Mainstream media often focused on the misery and negativity in Kibera. The only events certain to attract mainstream media attention were clashes with the police or when the trains that run along the area’s peripheries were disrupted. Map Kibera attempts to change the perception of Kibera by allowing people to create and share their own stories. 

The KNN teams edit the videos themselves and post them on YouTube – giving them a direct and immediate link to a global audience. The videos are also available on the Voice of Kibera, a community news website that also hosts the digital map. Residents can even post their own geo-located stories to the map using SMS.

Map Kibera used the open source tool, Ushahidi, to make the contributions via SMS possible. Ushahidi was initially developed after the 2008 Kenyan elections, to track reports of violence. It is a tool for crowdsourcing information using, e-mail, Twitter and the web as well as SMS. When someone in Kibera contributes an article, an SMS gateway filters the incoming texts according to keywords. Messages with the keyword ‘Kibera’ are fed into the Voice of Kibera website, where they are mapped using GPS coordinates, and approved by the editor before finally appearing on the site.

In 2010, the team founded the GroundTruth Initiative to support Map Kibera and other future projects. In the same year, UN Habitat awarded Map Kibera with a youth fund grant to expand its work to other parts of Nairobi, leading to co-operation with the community in another slum, Mukuru. A group in Mathare Valley, the second-largest slum in Nairobi, was also interested in creating a similar project, and, through funding from Plan International, a team is now collaborating on a participatory development programme there. 

The Map Kibera Trust, which has a core membership of 30 young people, is working with similar communities in other parts of Kenya, and in Tanzania. A core aim of the Trust is to not only make people aware of openly available technology and information, but also to train local people to use them to benefit the community. The information now available to the residents of Kibera has caused a shift in power, providing them with reliable data to present their own case, and enabling to directly influence the policies that affect their lives. 

Erica Hagen is a freelance writer, photographer, videographer and specialist on new media for development (

Mikel Maron is co-director of GroundTruth Initiative, and board member of OpenStreetMap Foundation (

Related links
Map Kibera
Voice of Kibera
Kibera News Network

Kwale Young Journalists

It started in Kibera, but the unique relationship between mapping, citizen journalism and community action has already begun to spread across Kenya, with one of the most successful young groups now in Kwale, about 400 kilometres from Nairobi.

Since 2010, the Kwale Young Journalists – 40 of them, aged between 21 and 30 – have mapped their neighbourhoods, registered schools, pharmacies and community-based organisations. Their aim, they say, is to connect the communities in Kwale to the outside world, and in the process, to help raise awareness of the need for a shift in attitude towards the slow pace of socio-economic development and, in particular, towards the need for greater child protection. They work to promote the idea of gender equality, and to keep children’s rights to the fore.

The youngest of the team is Mialii Mohamed, aged 21, who says her experience with the group has been invaluable, and has equipped her with the ICT skills to make a real difference in her family and local community.

The senior member of the group is 30-year-old Mshihiri Hassan from Mkongani, who has been a cornerstone of the digital mapping exercise from the start, and who also leads the journalists’ Violence against Children campaign.

Having started the mapping project in their area, their next move was into community radio, learning the technical side, as well as reporting. Since then they have also ventured into video journalism, posting the best of their work on YouTube.

Most significant to date has been their video, The Enemy Within, which looks at child labour and early pregnancy in communities in east Africa.

As a natural spin-off, the young journalists have now begun training school children in the skills of video production, most recently at Lukore Primary School, where both pupils and teachers got involved – and a whole new generation of energetic young video journalists is already being incubated.

A word on technology nuts and bolts

Equipment security: Our video equipment was five standard-definition Flip cameras donated by UNICEF, four high-definition Flip cameras purchased for the project, and two donated (and quite slow) computers. We started by issuing each team a camera, which they had to sign in and out at partner organisation, Kibera Community Development Agenda (KCODA). Cameras were kept in a locked cabinet; one went missing for about two weeks and another disappeared entirely. In general, though, hardware security was less of a concern than we had expected. People often carry home – and sometimes lose – smaller pieces of hardware like flash drives and headphones, but when a camera went missing the entire team was very concerned and tried to catch the thief. The GPS devices were carried by us to and from Kibera as needed, and none was lost or damaged. 

Viruses: We suffered from many debilitating computer viruses that were often transmitted by the Flips, which also function as USB drives. Viruses are a huge problem in developing countries, where expensive anti-virus software is impractical, as it must be updated over the internet. Even after installing the software, we still found it difficult to keep the computers clean. 

Managing data: To some extent, problems arose from the members’ lack of computer skills (how to browse for files, use ‘Save As’ protocols, etc.). File organisation was a frequent part of training, and members had trouble signing in and out of accounts and finding files. But overall, the project revealed that computer hardware and software built for the rich world simply do not work in a developing country context. These examples are far from the whole story.

Internet access: Another challenge was uploading data, reports and videos. KCODA had not yet managed to get the internet installed, partly because providers do not care to come into Kibera and usually do not show up at the appointed time. We later located a cyber cafe in Kibera with decent bandwidth, so members could upload videos themselves. During the mapping, we were able to use partner offices of the Social Development Network in Nairobi, but this required chartering a bus so members could travel to and from the offsite office. Having a location in Kibera equipped with internet and computers would have been ideal; in fact, we have since opened an office to house the trust in Kibera.

Erica Hagen
From Mapping Change, first published in Innovations, volume 6, issue 1. MIT Press. June 2010

23 April 2012

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