Walk with Makmende: Designing Street Security in Nairobi

From the Field Series: A living case study of Makmende, which provides women in Nairobi with coordinated walking groups.

After our investigative trip to Mathare last spring, our team began to prototype a service design that would improve women’s security and community networks in the Mathare Valley area of Nairobi, Kenya.

We took one user need as our focus: how can a woman in Mathare travel from point A to point B while feeling secure and while still retaining some amount of flexibility? If she cannot find others she trusts who can walk with her to her destination, how can she get to the places she needs to go safely?

Our prototype design intended to scale up existing community walking groups by using mobile technology to coordinate safe travel among people who may not personally know each other. If walking in numbers increased the safety of individual residents of the slum as we expected, then maybe we could leverage mobile technology to coordinate group commuting.

The Makmende System

Makmende was conceived as a safe commute system for Mathare residents—a system of citizen-led escort teams that travel commonly used routes within Mathare. Each walking group traverses the route according to a rough schedule, making short stops at frequented areas such as Matatu bus stands, markets, and communal latrines. The escort teams use smartphone technology to keep track of their location and to coordinate with local residents who want to join the walking group.

Our point of view: getting local women from point A to point B safely. (Photo by Margaret Hagan)

We developed the system in coordination with the District Officer of Mathare (the equivalent to the mayor for the area) and Mathare Youth Sports Association (MYSA), a well-respected local community organization with a network of more than 25,000 alumni. These partners provided crucial feedback and have pledged their help in implementing the prototype in Mathare.

Finding from our initial survey in Mathare. (Photo by Margaret Hagan)

We determined that the routes may run for only a few hours a day, and planned to conduct surveys and interviews to identify the most used routes. We also wanted to determine the routes with an eye toward avoiding danger zones. In our preliminary research, Mathare residents felt most unsafe during dusk and dawn hours, so we expected that these might be appropriate operating hours.

The Technology Component

Once the routes are in place, GPS tracks the location of each walking group; each escort leader carries a GPS-enabled smartphone. With data transfer rates of only 2-3 Kenyan Shillings (2-3 US cents) per megabyte, we envisioned this as a cheap and nonintrusive method for walking groups to communicate their location information to potential users.

An SMS-based system coordinates escorts with local residents. We create a central system (the “dispatch center”) to keep track of the constantly updating location information. The user simply sends a text message to the dispatch center, then receives a text in return that tells her two things: the schedule of stops along the walking route and the time when the walking group reached its most recent stop.

For example, Jane, our user, sends a text message indicating the route she wants to travel, say “Route A.” She receives a text back, telling her that the walking group last left the church at 12:29pm. The walking group is scheduled to reach the latrine at 12:38 (based on the average walking time between the two stops), the Matatu stand at 12:47, and so on.

Jane knows roughly when the walking group will pass by her “stop,” and if she texts again around 12:50pm, she can get more up-to-date information. She can stay safely inside her home until she knows it is time to walk to the stop and join the walking group. Once Jane joins the walking group, the escorts and other residents using the service act as a deterrent to criminal activity and allow Jane to reach her destination safely. She can depart from the group whenever she likes, and if her final destination is off-route, she may meet someone else in the group going in the same direction and travel with them.

The initial Makmende prototype. (Photo by Margaret Hagan)

On the backend, each escort’s smartphone runs a custom application built to cover the various escort team tasks. When the group begins a shift, the leader “checks in” to the phone, and the phone begins tracking their location. At the dispatch center, a computer receives the GPS location updates and stores them in a database. These updates are then used to calculate estimated times of arrival at future stops in response to users’ requests.

The computer also tracks which leaders are working which routes at any given time. Once the leaders check in, the app automatically transmits the groups GPS coordinates to the dispatch center as the group is walking. Under normal circumstances, this is all that the escort leader would have to do with the phone. He or she can put it in their pocket while walking the routes, and then check out at the end of the shift.

Our preliminary research showed that most Mathare residents had access to a phone, but that smartphones were typically kept secure at home and not used during commutes. So we created the system for use with the most basic phones. Concerned about users’ different levels of technology literacy, we planned to include questions about phone ownership, usage, and comfort in our pre-pilot survey.

User interfaces for escort phones. (Photo by Ray Gilstrap)

Another technology concern was the cost of SMS. Our preference was to avoid putting any cost on the user, so we proposed a system that covered SMS costs, expecting that we might be able to  negotiate a bulk messaging rate with Safari.com, a major local telecom company.

The Human Factors

Our other concerns centered around human factors. For one, we were dealing in matters of security—sensitive territory. Our class originally planned to partner exclusively with MYSA, but we ultimately reached out to the District Officer of Mathare, who oversees the local police, for safety guidance and support.

The District Officer in Mathare ran a community policing effort already, but it was primarily concerned with local residents secretly giving information on criminals to the police. Makmende—essentially a cross between “neighborhood watch” and a carpool—would not be operating in secret, and we were concerned that criminals may target escorts and users, especially since they were carrying smartphones, walking on predictable schedules, and potentially interfering with criminal activity.

Another concern was vetting potential escorts. The system hinges on reliable and trustworthy escorts leading the walking groups. If escorts did not show up on time or if they deviated from the routes, then the necessary reliability of the routes would be lost. There was also the issue of escorts potentially abusing their role and acting inappropriately to users, or partnering with local criminals.

One solution was to have an initial vetting process run by local women’s groups and community leaders, who could veto any potential escort. From there, all approved applicants would undergo a background check by the police. This two-step examination would ensure that the escorts would be trusted community members.

Another solution was to monitor selected escorts. We planned to offer a middle-class salary (about 7,000 Kenyan Shillings, or 82 US dollars per month), with escorts agreeing in writing to abide by a good behavior code and fulfill expected duties. We also planned to establish a hotline where community members could make anonymous complaints about escorts.

A final idea was to ensure that each escort team had a gender and age balance. We wanted the leaders to reflect the user population. We hoped that with more women and people of different ages as escorts, more community members would use the service.

This is the second in an ongoing series of posts on the Makmende Community Security Initiative. In the next post, the Makmende team will share their findings from their return trip to Nairobi in July, when they connected with partner organizations and administered a baseline survey.