Mapping movement: How data experts track informal transport

Networks are growing faster than cities can understand them

Under Apartheid, black South Africans were restricted to cramped townships on city fringes and had to rely on limited public transport to get to their workplaces. Then, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the minibus taxi emerged to fill the gulf in the market. A nine passenger vehicle, it seated too few people to be restricted by regulations, and enough to provide a useful, and profitable, service.

Since the fall of Apartheid the taxis have only become more popular. Whatever their circumstances, people will find good ways to get around.

Informal, grass-roots transport services like these are popular all over the developing world. By 2050, 68% of the world’s population will live in cities compared to 55% today. Some 90% of this increase will take place in Asia and Africa.

But this growth is spawning transport services faster than passengers and government can understand them. Because minibus taxis and their equivalents are informal, there’s often no central source of information on timings and routes. It makes it difficult for passengers to use, and government to plan. The developing world’s transport boom is happening in the dark — how can passengers, and the governments which run these cities, win a clear picture?

Mapping movement

“In the markets where I’m from… freedom of movement is simply not something that is available to the majority of people”, said Devin de Vries, co-founder and CEO of WhereIsMyTransport (WIMT), a Cape Town based start-up trying to solve the transportation conundrum. “The very first step to enabling that freedom is to enable people with reliable access to information, on the services that they have.”

WIMT was founded in 2008 by a team of graduates from the University of Cape Town. de Vries and his co-founders saw how the growth of digital technologies enabled big cities to provide real-time information on services to their citizens. In Cape Town, by contrast, basic timetabling information was hard to come by.

The nine-seater minibus taxis is the most popular mode of transport in South Africa

The issue lay with the form of transport. Each minibus taxi driver is their own boss, plying routes where they get the most demand. It means that passengers find it hard to know where to wait, for how long and where they’ll end up. For the disabled, caregivers with children or the elderly, not knowing how long to wait or whether they’ll be adequately served can be debilitating. For urban planners, it means they have no idea how the system they’re supposed to be improving works.

“What I’m hoping to do is highlight just how much of a necessity and backbone these services are to cities”

Because the mass transit systems of the global north’s major cities are fixed, most often run or at least regulated by city authorities themselves, they provide a fixed network on which to build digital infrastructure to record movements. In South Africa’s cities, this infrastructure is minimal, and data collection much harder.

The WIMT team’s idea was to create a platform where all a city’s transport data could be housed, and to farm the data directly, by hand. They recruited teams of data collectors to travel through the city, using tracking software to record routes, timings, frequency of service and paying information.

Graeme Leighton with one of the data collection teams

“We specifically look for people who have lived in Cape Town for a number of years, who are minibus taxi users on a day to day basis,” said Graeme Leighton, the lead of WIMT’s data team. The collectors are able to collect the important information necessary to map the service within the space of a few weeks.

WIMT’s data team then cleans the data, consulting the collectors to make sure it reflects the reality of the transport systems on the ground, before they process it all to fit into a standard format. The eventual result: clean and clear data showing the transit routes, times and fares within the city.

Another kind of infrastructure

It’s this bird’s eye view which proves so valuable to government. “What we help the government to do is recognise the complete network,” said de Vries. “As a government you should at least be able to have full visibility of that network and those services in order to look at how to incrementally improve them.” What WIMT provides is the digital infrastructure which makes running physical systems possible.

Once the platform is built, it’s open for everyone to use. It means that anyone can use the data to build an external service, such as a journey planning app for commuters in the city.

With the data they harvested from Cape Town the team created a tube-style map of networks in the city

And developers are taking up the opportunity — de Vries says that since the launch of their first platform last August, they’ve had hundreds of millions of individual calls for information in cities across Africa. WIMT organises hackathons with the city authorities, local businesses and universities to help develop viable ideas. In many cases, the cities have invested in the successful ones. Put the information in one place, and people will come to it.

In developing cities, transport services often grow away from light, public support or planning. But they get huge numbers of people from A to B every day. WIMT’s aim is to make sure government can carry on it’s work, and serve all the people, to allow a bit of order to enter into the chaos.

“What I’m hoping to do through our work is to highlight just how much of a necessity and backbone these services are to cities,” said de Vries.

“It’s very clear that the informally run transport sector is going to have to adopt technology as a way of making their businesses more efficient. It’s for the benefit of them, it’s for the benefit of the city, and ultimately it’s for the benefit of the public transport user.” — Anoush Darabi

(Picture credit: WhereIsMyTransport/Michael Groenewald)

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