Creating a ‘Digital Commons’ to Harness Data for Africa’s Urban Transport Systems 
A driver navigates traffic in Kumasi, Ghana. DT4A’s “Beyond Mapping” project focuses on integrating transit data to improve management of the city’s informal transport networks. Photo: Kojo Kwarteng/Unsplash

In Africa, as elsewhere, advances in computing power, data storage, and sensor and satellite technologies have unleashed unprecedented opportunities but also challenges. The mobile phone has become a powerful tool for generating vast amounts of data. This data can, in turn, be fed into machine learning projects, predictive modeling and advanced analytics applications. This promises to transform politics, society and economies across African cities, including the vast and complex networks of overlapping formal and “informal” transport systems along with other elements of urban governance and service provision.

As the use of these technologies grows, however, so does the need to put in place policies and governance over them to ensure data and applications are public goods. As the Cambridge Analytica scandal showed, misuse of personal data for behavioral manipulation is a serious problem. How do we achieve responsible, ethical creation and use of data, particularly in terms of privacy and surveillance?

As we recently explored through a new chapter in “Public Policy and Technological Transformations in Africa”, there is both great potential in leveraging the data and digital technology revolution for the public good – and a need for robust legal and policy frameworks to govern data collection and usage of the digital technologies that enable this.

Challenges with Data, Digital Technologies and Transport in Africa

Poor transport networks and lack of access to services and opportunity are significant problems in Africa’s rapidly growing cities. Current trends are disheartening: congestion is growing in many places causing degradation of public health and quality of life; public transport networks are inadequate; municipal resources are scarce. Critical transport investment decisions by African governments are frequently based on limited data and often collected by consultants using traditional household surveys. To make matters worse, the data is rarely shared publicly, contributing to poor public participation in decisions and suboptimal designs that exacerbate, rather than solve transport and access problems.

New technologies promise to help address these challenges. Data from sensors and satellites is growing, cameras can detect vehicles and their speeds, traffic count devices are replacing manual counting, and low-cost air quality sensors are helping to detect local emissions. Growing use of smart phones also produces valuable data about trips that, when aggregated, is very useful for policy, planning and operations of transport systems. For example, ride-hailing companies, often without passengers knowing, generate and collect data on trips from their platforms. But little of this growing data is aggregated, anonymized and used in the public realm in African cities. These rich data sources do not feed into planning, public discussions or investment decisions. In addition, many transport policy actors – from those who finance transport infrastructure to the varied government actors who regulate mobility services – do not appear to be aware of the value of this data, as well as theirs and others’ responsibilities around ethical data governance.

In this context, technology companies are promoting the use of sensors and “big data” – the massive volume of structured and unstructured data now generated at high velocity and variety from various sources – in African cities to better manage transport systems. They sell their systems, software and dashboards to governments, but most governments lack the resources and internal capacity to use and evaluate these technologies, deepening dependencies on third parties.

How DT4A Is Building Strategies for Public Good

The Digital Transport for Africa (DT4A) community is a response to this set of data and data governance challenges in the African transport sector – as well as the opportunities. The DT4A collaborative is open to anyone who takes the pledge to abide by ethical data collection principles, including the Digital Principles for Development, which emphasize designing with users in mind, open standards, data and innovation, collaboration and digital rights.

Digital Principles for Development. Source: Abigail Shirley/Wikimedia

DT4A encourages a “digital commons” approach which entails sharing of the few but growing number of basic standardized data sets for routes and stops, using the General Transit Feed Specification (GTFS), and supporting further mapping of informal or popular transport systems in African cities. To foster more local efforts to build such standardized transport data from the bottom up, the collective also provides open-source tools for data collection and analysis, seminars, meetings, networks of support and peer-to-peer learning.

DT4A cities with available GTFS datasets. Source: DT4A

Investing in local ecosystems and efforts to build data using ethical principles is also key. Without open transit mapping efforts that focus on building local capacity and ownership, municipal authorities will be dependent on expensive third-party applications that require cities to pay to access basic datasets. DT4A members and local partners are working to counter this so-called “digital colonialism” and dependency.

For example, DT4A launched the Innovation Challenge in December 2021, a competition that provides technical and financial support to four African startups that contribute to the movement for open data and innovation across the region. These four winners are now helping to shift transportation towards more sustainable, equitable results through open data in Côte d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, South Africa and Sudan.  

In addition, DT4A recently completed a mapping project in Alexandria, Egypt, in support of public transport investments and planning, along with two “beyond mapping” projects in Maputo, Mozambique and Kumasi, Ghana. In Kumasi, the project focused on integrating transit data to digitalize and improve management of the city’s minibus network, while in Maputo, the team analyzed the overlap of paratransit routes with proposed bus rapid transit corridors, facilitating necessary route adjustments to enhance transport efficiency and promote sustainable urban transport systems.

DT4A is just one effort to support and leverage digital data development for badly needed improvements in the urban transport sector. Along with closing digital divides and building strong data and technological literacy and awareness of rights, much more needs to be done in this space. Still, efforts like these provide a glimpse at a way forward toward ethically leveraging data and digital technology revolution for the public good in some of the world’s fastest growing cities.

For a more comprehensive exploration of these topics and to gain deeper insights, we invite readers to delve into the full chapter, “Digital Technologies, Data Commons and Rights in Africa,” in “Public Policy and Technological Transformations in Africa.”

Dr. Jacqueline M. Klopp is Director of the Center for Sustainable Urban Development at Columbia University’s Climate School.

Agraw Ali Beshir is Senior GIS Research Associate for WRI Africa.

Esthelyne Dusabe is Urban Mobility Project Specialist for WRI Africa.

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