Digital Matatus: Smartphones and data visualization to report on transport in Kenya


How crowdsourced data and visualizations helped change daily commutes in Nairobi.

In Kenya, informal modes of transport dominate city life. Known as Matatus, these privately owned minibuses account for a third of transport usage in Nairobi with over 136 different routes. However, until recently, there was no way for citizens to know specific routes and stops - making it difficult to plan their transport in an increasingly congested city.

In response, researchers from MIT and the University of Nairobi developed Digital Matatus - a project that harnessed smartphones to crowdsource data on Matatuses and develop mobile routing applications to help citizens navigate their city.

Data collection and application

To collect the data, students from the University of Nairobi rode over 135 Matatus routes, smartphones in hand, using an app that collected data every couple of seconds. They then corroborated this data with their own knowledge of routes, road signs, and interviews with the operator and other commuters.

Video visualizations of the data collection process:

From this crowdsourced data, researchers cleaned and translated it into GTFS - the format that Google uses to route transport in Google maps. Yet, within this process, several challenges arose. As an informal system, many required datapoints for the GTFS format were unavailable, such as operating schedules and service frequencies. As a result, the team developed a modified GTFS standard applicable to the variable nature of informal transport. With this standard in hand, the Matatus data could be inputted into Google maps, becoming the first ever informal transit system available. And, with the standard already developed, it can now be applied to other informal systems across the globe.

Hear more about the project from Sarah Williams, professor of urban studies at MIT and the project’s co-leader:

Leverage the data in your projects by downloading it in GIS or GTFS formats here.

Download a paper version of the map here.

Explore Digital Matatus further on its website.