For the last year Spatial Collective’s Software Development team worked with Kounkuey Design Initiative (KDI) and the Nairobi City Water and Sewerage Company (NCWSC) on the WATSAN Portal: Kibera – an online platform that provides information to residents of the informal settlements on how to connect to municipal water and sewer networks. Some of the information available through the platform includes: distances to the nearest water and sewer connections, contact information for NCWSC, the approximate cost of connection (based on an average cost of materials, appurtenances and labor per meter), and information on alternatives to municipal water and sewer services.
KDI approached Spatial Collective in late 2012 with what seemed to be a straight-forward idea: to provide people in Kibera with accurate and free information regarding water and sewer connections in their area. As followers of this blog will know, this problem fell well in line with the main objectives of Spatial Collective: to explore ways in which public goods are provided in informal settlements and to find ways to support these initiatives with customized technology solutions and/or collective action approaches. The aim of the project was ultimately to mitigate some of the deficiencies found in service provision.
The basic idea for the functionality of the portal was simple. As it is often the case in the informal settlements, this simple idea did not have a simple solution; the idea tackled an extremely complex problem.
To start with, in order to design the platform we needed an official dataset on water and sewerage lines. NCWSC, as the main service provider in the field, seemed a logical choice for getting the data. This was the first challenge we encountered: inadequate or missing datasets. The second challenge was obtaining permission to use those datasets that exist. NCWSC, as the main entity responsible for delivery of both water and sanitation in Nairobi, did not have access to all of its datasets for various reasons. Some data has been stolen or lost. Some never existed.
After many discussions KDI managed to acquire the dataset we needed for the pilot. They found several people at NCWSC who were excited to work with us on the project. We decided to start with a pilot area in two villages of Kibera because KDI had implemented water and sanitation projects there and we both had networks in the area that we could utilize. That’s when we faced the first real technical challenge.
The dataset that NCWSC found was a shapefile with no projection. In other words, when overlaid on other datasets, such as roads and buildings, the data didn’t line up. We tried different default projections, but to no avail. Eventually we ended up manually manipulating the data so that it appeared to line up, then trained KDI field staff how to use basic GPS devices in order to verify the municipal data and add any non-municipal infrastructure (i.e. new manholes and sewer lines constructed by non-governmental service providers). KDI staff went into Kibera and found the manholes and exposed lines. Fortunately, we were within our acceptable margin of error of 1-2 meters.
The next question was how to help people find their plot of land. Satellite imagery would be key, but we would have to overlay landmarks and roads on top so that people could orient themselves. The areas we were working in do not have a lot of data in Google Maps, and in OpenStreetMap there is so much data that it is difficult for users to decipher which landmarks were which. Many of the landmarks are out of date, or stored in the database incorrectly. After several testing sessions, we made the decision to generate a new list of landmarks based on interviews with people that live in the pilot areas. In addition, we would allow users to search the database of landmarks. This would look through our database and Google Maps’ database. If any matches were found in Google, they would show it on the map and notify us of the name the person used so that we would be able to map and add frequent searches to our database in the future.
The final challenge, as with most software, was to make it easy for people to use. It needed to take them through the steps with NCWSC and compare the costs at different possible connection sites. We were particularly concerned about making the Portal usable for people who have very little internet connectivity or experience with even basic software. Google Maps may seem simple to use, but most of us have been doing so for many years. Would our target users understand how to do the basics like panning and zooming, let alone more complicated tasks of spatial orientation?
As anyone working in User Experience design (UX) will tell you, iterating is key. So after a few months of development we held a user experience workshop at the iHub UX:Lab. KDI invited many of the organizations that work in Kibera on water and sanitation, as well as NCWSC. We sat down with each person individually and asked them to accomplish a number of tasks, recording each session. It was a fascinating experience and we found that we needed to completely change the way that the steps in the process were accomplished. Most users were able to understand the basics of using the map, though there were cases where they zoomed in too far and didn’t know what to do, and other similar issues.
We redesigned the system and spent the next few months working on the changes. Then we held another workshop, again at the iHub UX Lab. We invited some of the same people and some people new to the Portal, but the methodology remained the same. This time the results were much more encouraging; users seemed able to make sense of the steps, though there were still a number of usability issues. These we fixed in the next few months before making the system public in January 2014.
Some of the major things that were noted that needed changes were about colors and visibility. It was clear that the borders for the pilot areas needed to be a more obvious color, and the search bar needed to be much more visible. We also determined that there was some information overload on the map when viewing a site, so we hid some of the less relevant information, like GPS coordinates, requiring an extra click to see them.
There are still many tasks to be done to improve the Portal. With further funding we would love to scale it Kibera wide as well as improve the design further. We also hoped to include for download the actual forms that must be submitted to NCWSC, but did not manage to get permission to include them in time. Even cooler would be the ability to submit the forms directly online, removing steps that can sometimes lead to corruption and the need for people to travel.
We hope that this is a good first step to helping people in informal settlements access the city’s services, and to helping NCWSC expand the reach of their services and become more accessible to the average user. Even with champions within the organization, persuading NCWSC that investing in informal settlements can be beneficial is challenging. Despite the fact that people in the informal settlements actually pay more for water than those in middle class neighborhoods, there is still doubt that poor people will pay for services. Even if they are convinced, NCWSC has extremely limited resources. It is difficult for them to even keep up with Nairobi’s rapid growth.