I met Kelvin Kofi and Winnie Kamau on a hot Friday afternoon. Intent on taking photos and keying information into their smartphones, the duo seemed oblivious to the scorching sun and crowds flocking towards building pavements, seeking shelter from the heat.
They are both members of the Google Local Guide programme which uses volunteers to make Google Maps more detailed and hence enrich them. As local guides, they add new locations on the online maps as well as photos and videos. In addition, they rate and write reviews for already existing places on Google Maps — such as hotels or office buildings.
Sometimes the programme prompts them to answer questions or information about the places so as to verify their authenticity. After performing these activities the local guides earn points — one to 10 — which enable them to graduate to different levels of the programme. To motivate them, the organisation offers benefits for each level which include access to Google features and perks from partners.
At Level 4, the volunteers unlock their first Local Guides badge which makes their contributions to the maps more noticeable to the public. The ultimate prize for the best performer is an annual fully paid trip to Google’s headquarters in San Francisco.
“You get an opportunity to meet guides from different parts of the world and share best practises as well as ways of improving the programme,” said Kofi, who travelled to the city last year.
He is currently at Level Eight after doing close to 450 reviews and uploading about 1,500 photos of places on Google Maps.
“The maps have helped me so many times. So I am happy to improve them and map new places that will end up benefiting other Kenyans and even foreigners visiting the country,” said Ms Kamau.
Such initiatives, coupled with increased Internet access, are increasingly filling the mapping gap in Kenya.
Compared to Europe or the US where country mapping systems are at an advanced level, Kenya still lags behind as most places in the country are not properly mapped.
“This hampers effective trade as well as efficient use of resources and development planning,” said Pauline Okeyo, Geo-database and mapping expert at Esri Eastern Africa.
Mapping initiatives by companies such as Google or Apple (through the Open Street Map app on IOS phones) are helping to increase the volume of properly mapped locations in the country.
But the data collected through these crowdsourcing initiatives is however subject to limited use as it is owned by the companies that support them.
Travellers have been relying heavily on online reviews from different portals and websites on where to stay, visit, eat, shop and how to commute.
Kofi stated that the government can replicate such volunteer mapping initiatives at both county and national levels, so as to establish local mapping systems that can be exploited fully for development planning and income generation.
According to the Constitution, counties are required to have spatial plans for effective decision making purposes.
“To do this, you have to map key resources. So counties can buy mapping software and begin building their own systems,” noted Ms Okeyo. If the government is able to map all households and develop a national address system just like the US, she said, e-commerce will be enhanced in Kenya as there will be easy movement of goods and services.
“If you make online purchases, for instance, businesses will know where to find you through an online map and make deliveries right at your door step.”
Ms Okeyo added that mapped households will boost disaster management efforts by making it easier for rescue operations to identify locations of affected individuals fast.
Mapping is currently being conducted haphazardly by different organisations in the country leading to unnecessary repetitions.
She said the government can develop detailed national maps representing key economic sectors in the country.
“So instead of people repeating what’s been done, they can just get the data from the government at a fee. This will generate revenue for the country.”