Last week’s edict by Nairobi County Governor Mike Mbuvi Sonko to bar public service vehicles (PSVs) from accessing the central business district (CBD) has revealed a serious weakness in the country’s public policymaking process.
The decision was not informed by rigorously established objective evidence but was based on a hunch.
Former British prime minister Tony Blair popularised evidence-based policymaking in 1999, long before the advent of big data, as an alternative to ideology-based policymaking.
He characterised it as ''Policies that really deal with problems, that are forward-looking and shaped by evidence rather than a response to short-term pressures; that tackle causes not symptoms.''
In recent times, big data has become an essential tool for evidence-based policymaking. It involves analysing massive data sets to make better public-policy decisions. In most cases, these data sets exist but in other cases they will require gathering and keeping them in formats that can be used to analyse them.
The counties of Nairobi and Mombasa have the benefit of the data, which is collected on a daily basis through the network of strategically located circuit television (CCTV) cameras.
I was instrumental in the implementation of the CCTV project in these major urban centres, the intention being to use them in building smart cities in Kenya, where the cameras can tell the number and types of vehicles on the roads for better decision-making.
And Sonko’s directive revealed that private vehicles, and not matatus, are the cause of traffic congestion in the city.
The data have multiple-use cases and a source of employment. For example, they have been used, in collaboration with car-tracking companies, to constantly inform the police of the whereabouts of vehicles. As a result, carjacking incidents have gone down in both Nairobi and Mombasa.
If county officials combed through the data, they would know the number of passengers travelling into the CBD every morning. They would also easily tell the number of people who walk to the city each day and even how pedestrians suffer while crossing some roads.
The data has been captured and what needs to be done is to glean through it and make informed decisions on the way forward. Combing through the data and effectively dealing with the problem can validate allegations that the police controlling traffic only serve to exacerbate traffic jams on our roads.
The other set of data lies with telecommunication companies. In my view, these organisations should philanthropically provide it for analysis and use for better decisions. From such data we can determine travel behaviour, which, in my view, is the biggest problem on our roads.
To deal with this problem, there are several solutions, including leveraging the cameras to identify misbehaviour and punishing offenders through digital means (with a strong backend that sends fines to offenders via Short Messaging Service (SMS) and fines paid via digital cash).
This will require that all car number plates be machine-readable, such that the vehicle can be validated at the National Transport and Safety Authority. Digitising all vehicle number plates would take about six months, creating several digital jobs.
Another possible short-term measure is changing working hours by, for example, varying them to spread the flow of traffic.
Data could give us more work options that can help to decongest the city. There is no reason the entire country should report to work at 8am. Official working hours should be varied to 8am - 5pm and 9am - 6pm to spread the traffic. In addition, some organisations should begin to encourage flexible working hours, including telecommuting.
And there should be an alternative of walking or cycling to the office for those who want to do so. Many people who want to walk or cycle to work do not do so because their offices lack basic services of a shower to freshen up. Counties should develop legislation requiring every office to build shower rooms for people to wash after walking or cycling.
More data needs to be gathered, not just to understand the movement of people but also to understand the infrastructural needs of the city to avert crises.
For example, all weather-related predictions indicate that we will have El Niño next year and that means that roads will clog due to blocked drainage systems. The time to prepare the drainage system is now to avoid debilitating traffic jams and drowning.
Some of the previous administration’s interventions, such as closing some roundabouts, worked. More can be achieved if we leverage the presence of multinational organisations that are involved in smart-city initiatives.
There will also be a need to give other incentives, including rewarding those who drive private vehicles during off-peak hours, introducing a free bus on special lanes to transport passengers across the city to designated PSV terminals (this removes matatu from the CBD) and introducing a tax for driving into the CBD. All these proposals will lead to several backend digital jobs.
In 2017, following many cases of accidents, the World Bank and Bloomberg gave Kenya a credit through the Kenya Urban Support programme to improve urban roads, pedestrian walkways and bicycle paths, street and security lights and road signs to reduce the number of deaths and injuries related to road safety.
Indeed, today many people use walkways at great risk to themselves as motorcyclists have taken them over and a in many other cases, the police are not enforcing the laws but instead have time to interfere with smooth-running traffic lights.
In the medium term, we need to pay good schools to build branches in all corners of the county and subsidise parents to transfer their children to the nearest schools as a strategy to stop transporting children across the city.
Long-term measures that require immediate implementation include developing a comprehensive mass transport system, preferably a light rail system like the one Addis Ababa has set up.
Paul Gibbons, in his book The Science of Successful Organizational Change: How Leaders Set Strategy, Change Behavior, and Create an Agile Culture, said, "Use of analytics is accelerating, and that means more data-driven decision-making and fewer hunches. Evidence-based management complements analytics by adding validated cause-and-effect relationships between policies and effects."
Let’s use data to change the direction of our development.
The writer is an associate professor at the University of Nairobi’s School of Business. Twitter: @bantigito