IN November 2013, IBM opened its first research lab in Africa, in Nairobi, Kenya.
It was only IBM’s 12th full-scale, industrial laboratory in the company’s 70-year history, intended to combine fundamental science with applied research. Choosing to launch it in Africa was a reflection of the continent’s rising status as the go-to place for anyone looking for opportunity and innovation.
One of the first problems the lab had to tackle was the mess that is Nairobi’s traffic congestion. Two years prior, the city had been ranked the fourth most painful city for commuters, in a survey of 20 cities around the world.
So IBM got down to the job of designing a data-driven traffic management system that could ease the gruelling commute. Many other cities crunch data gathered by cameras and sensors to predict and manage traffic.
But after tinkering with some designs for a while, the Nairobi researchers quickly realised that they were going to have to re-conceptualise the whole project.
Unlike Western cities where these systems have worked fairly smoothly, in Nairobi there was a wrinkle. There are speedbumps on virtually every road with high pedestrian use, and even on some big highways, a crude attempt at making the roads safer for pedestrians.
But bumps cause havoc for smooth traffic flow. A single car slowing down has a ripple effect that can tailback for kilometres.
The city’s roads are also riddled with potholes. That means a lot of slowdowns and swerves.
Enter the garbage trucks
Separately, the city authorities were having trouble managing their garbage collection fleet.
They had bought new trucks and hired more drivers, but the amount of trash collected around the city hadn’t changed.
“It turns out that drivers of the garbage trucks were illegally using their vehicles to transport sand and building stones for private businessmen outside Nairobi, instead of collecting and disposing of garbage from the city’s residential areas,” says Evans Ondieki, Nairobi county executive for waste management and the environment.
The two problems dove-tailed into each other perfectly. IBM developed a GPS fleet management system for the Nairobi City County, that the city authorities used to rein in errant drivers. The system transmits real-time data on the amount of fuel used, distance covered, time and place spent idling, and the routes used.
In the meantime, the IBM researchers fitted ten waste collection trucks with mobile phones, modified with a gyroscope and accelerometer.
“These tools that transmit data on the quality of the road surface, and on driver behaviour such as swerving or harsh braking,” says IBM research scientist Aisha Walcott.
For example, it senses the presence of a pothole or bump from the movement and vibration of the truck, and also picks up if the driver makes sharp turns or screeches to a halt.
Data collection “ants”
With these tools, the trucks act as “data-collection ants” for IBM’s traffic management project, gathering invaluable data on the condition of Nairobi’s roads, one of the missing links in making the project work in the African context.
And tonnage of garbage collected has increased from 800 metric tonnes a day to 1,400 metric tonnes, says Mr Ondieki.
It’s the kind of public-private partnerships in applied research that Africa’s cities need to exploit, if they are to be habitable in the future.
One of the simplest could be a street address system that is mapped by mobile GPS. Most African cities don’t have a comprehensive street address system, making home deliveries difficult to execute – even though e-commerce is growing incredibly popular, as traffic congestion and urban sprawl dampens the whole shopping experience.
With mobile GPS, even the smallest shack in the slum could be mapped, not only assisting in shopping and deliveries, but also in urban planning and even tracking of infectious diseases.