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Kenya taps innovative digital mapping to enhance public participation

Rose Wanjiru's picture
OpenStreetMap of Kenya

Kenya is well known for its innovation in technology, particularly mobile technology in cash transfers. These innovations have largely been championed by the private sector and young entrepreneurs.

In contrast, the public sector tends to play catch up adopting new technology, and that has remained true in implementing Geographic Information Systems (GIS). GIS, also referred to as digital maps, is utilized to capture, store, analyze, manage, and present geographic data.

Previously, digital mapping was commonly used in urban planning, zoning and other forms of spatial plans. Increasingly digital maps are being used to provide information on the status, cost and location of development projects. This approach has mainstreamed the use of digital maps in planning, communication and information sharing across other sectors.

Such sectors include citizen and stakeholder engagement critical for the success of development initiatives. Digital mapping is particularly important for public participation, such as through participatory budgeting which aims to improve how counties spend public money on development. This is especially because public participation requires that citizens have accurate and up to date information.

Although many GIS are difficult for citizens to use and are also inaccessible, OpenStreetMap (OSM) is a free Wiki world map that is accessible for anyone to update and use. A quick review of the OSM will reveal that most parts of our country Kenya are not mapped. The information on the basic facilities, amenities, structures, and features are not available even for our cities and main towns. They appear as a blank area on the map. A similar review of cities and towns in western countries on OSM shows that most spatial and commercial information is readily available.

A local institution, Map Kibera Trust, with the help from citizen volunteers and with the support from the World Bank who is funding the Kenya Accountable Devolution Program (KADP), used OSM to map the locations of schools, health facilities, churches, and other social amenities and other facilities on the map of Makueni. They provided the status of the projects that have been implemented by the Makueni County.

Counties can also adopt affordable and accessible digital maps to improve citizen participation and expand available information. For instance, the mapping pilot project with Map Kibera Trust, a group of young people were trained to use a mobile phone application, Open Data Kit (ODK) to collect GPS coordinates of development projects that have been implemented by the counties, as well as important features and points of interest.

This information was uploaded onto the OSM by the youth with the help of GIS mappers. The involvement of citizens in collecting information on projects facilitated verification of the implementation status of the projects. These maps have created considerable relevant new information for the local communities.

Participatory budgeting decision making demands up to date detailed information that would enable the public to make decisions on the nature and types of investment that should be done in their counties. In an effort to facilitate decision making, one county would use rudimentary mapping exercises using flip charts, papers and markers pens during their participatory budgeting process.

Every year, they would update the paper maps, and it became apparent that there was a need to digitize the process. The introduction of digital maps to this process would significantly enhance the decision-making process.

GIS mapping will enable counties to have better map coverage; counties can host and manage web maps that are accessible to the public and can easily be updated and expanded in a participatory manner. At the same time, the maps can be printed for usage by the community members during the participatory planning and budgeting meetings.

The required investment for developing, maintaining and expanding the OSM digital maps is much lower while ensuring that counties can have relevant up to date digital maps that can be developed and updated locally by the county officials in partnership with citizens. Investment in training and capacity means subsequent updating and maintenance will be at a minimum cost.

The GIS maps will enhance development planning, equitable sharing of resource as well as communication and public relations.

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