Better roads are paved with big data analytics

by Aisha Walcott, mobile engineer at IBM Research-Africa

Evans Ondieki, Executive Committee Member,
Nairobi City County (L) with Aisha (R)
Arriving at IBM Research - Africa in Nairobi, Kenya, I knew this was going to be my dream job. As a research scientist, you see the continent of Africa as a huge breeding ground for innovation, and an opportunity to make a tangible impact. As most residents and visitors to Nairobi would say, the bustle of the city paired with a flourishing tech and innovation scene provides an experience unmatched.

Unfortunately, those same residents and visitors are severely impacted by a tense traffic issue that challenges the city's infrastructure. In fact, the Nairobi government estimates that traffic jams and roadway problems result in a loss of more than $500,000 USD every day, when measuring lost productivity, fuel consumption, accidents and fatalities and emergency response.

My role at the Research lab in Nairobi focuses on mobility: environment, water, roadways, and the overall city ecosystem. In a meeting this month with the Executive Committee Member, Nairobi City County Evans Ondieki, my team learned that, in parallel to the imminent traffic issue, the city's waste management system was operating inefficiently: Nairobi's 3 million citizens generate 2,200 tons of waste each day, but less than half is collected. 

In fact, the city's waste management truck fleet was increased by 300 percent to accommodate the overwhelming amount of waste generated across the city and countryside, but the current systems are hand-written and riddled with inconsistencies like equipment failures, manual reporting that takes a day to process, and traffic jams that slow the pace of collection so much that many locations are missed. At a pace and volume that was too much for the county's fleet to manage, our team, along with colleagues from IBM Research-Ireland and IBM Watson, signed on to help.

IBM Research-Africa's Tierra Bills working with Nairobi city officials.
We applied our expertise in big data, analytics and mobile technology to design a first-of-a-kind solution to tackle these problems. Using an unconventional approach, we developed a pilot program in which the benefit was two-fold: by mounting smart devices to the city's waste management trucks, we could, for the first time, collect important data about the fleet, trucks and drivers, while also tracking problems on the roadways.

We became immersed in the work, driving our own cars, sensor devices in-hand, up and down the streets of Nairobi's South Ward C to test and learn how the data was being collected - comparing the readings to what was actually happening in real time. Once we fine-tuned the smart devices, the sensor were installed onto 10 trucks, or as we call them, our "data-collecting ants," gathering and transmitting data, via Safaricom's mobile network, about the truck's location, altitude, speed, acceleration, orientation, vibration levels, among other readings. 

IBM Research-Africa engineers Reginald Bryant (L) and Peter Maina (R)
installing sensor on a Nairobi Waste Management truck
The application sends data in near real-time to our backend where it's processed, then relevant information is sent to a tablet or mobile device that the fleet supervisor can monitor. It provides analytics-based indicators and alerts to improve performance of the entire fleet, as well as maintenance of individual vehicles; assist the supervisory team on driver and truck tracking; and provide information about the storage depots and facilities within the city. The insights will help the city design a more efficient system for picking up waste, so that, for example, areas that are less frequently attended to can be serviced, ultimately helping to improve the ensuing issues of poor sanitation and theft.

In the bigger picture, road blockages, accidents, detours, even unmarked speed bumps and hazardous potholes, could be reported back to city officials for tracking and response. Besides the improvements to waste management, the ultimate goal is to condition Nairobi's streets and related urban infrastructure more efficiently. We hope that the overall economic and social impact of this work will be realized by all residents of Nairobi, and that our solution can scale to surrounding cities, regions and, foundationally, across industries.

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