Africa's next technological revolution?

Nancy Marker passes on this NPR piece about residents of Kenya’s Mathare slum using satellite images and GPS to put their community on the map and lay claim to their property. This is a hugely encouraging development even if this is the last step: activists are able to use these maps to shame officials into fixing problems, and to provide assurance to homeowners that if they allow pipes to be laid

Even better, it could be one of the first steps toward what I think might be the next stunning technological leap for sub-Saharan Africa (and much of the developing world). Fifteen years ago, “stunning technological leap” and “Africa” rarely appeared in a single paragraph. Then cell phones happened:

Mobile phones allowed Africans to work around the perennial problems of poor infrastructure, badly-regulated utilities, and bureacratic gridlock that had kept virtually all of then from having a telephone. The continent essentially skipped over home telephones entirely, moving directly to mobile phones. Africa now has more mobile subscribers than the US, and Kenya is the world leader in mobile phone payments.* Ever since the advent of Africa’s cell phone miracle, I had been pondering what made it happen and where the next huge breakthrough will happen.

The key element seems to be pent-up demand for a given service that is constrained (maybe by infrastructure costs, or by badly-functioning bureacracies). When a technology appears that allows the constraint to be bypassed, a huge boom occurs. This fits the adoption of mobile phones to bypass landlines, and the adoption of M-Pesa to bypass formal banking (since banks are hard to reach and expensive to use). It also matches the emerging spread of mobile-phone internet access in Africa: people want to use the internet for a variety of reasons but physical computers require large fixed costs and a decent amount of infrastructure, hence there is a move directly to phone-based internet.

I see telling hints of a similar pattern in terms of maps and street addresses. Anybody who has spent time in the developing world has seen how common it is for streets to have no name, or the name to be unknown to most people. Even if some kind of neighborhood or street name exists, many buildings have no numbers and the house and building numbers that do exist are very poorly documented. This makes finding places you haven’t visited before, or receiving mail or other shipments, a nightmare. The cost of fixing this system would be fairly exorbitant – you would need to unify all the disparate patterns and names already under use, and try to prevent new residences from popping up without acquiring appropriate numbers. In places like Mathare, you’d have new structures built before you even finished mapping and naming the community.

So this appears to be a case of high infrastructure costs preventing people from obtaining usable addresses. But the very system of addresses is a strange, pre-modern relic. Plug an address into a web mapping service, and it has to guess what the actual coordinates of that address are so it can give you a map. For my childhood home, Google Maps currently points to the wrong driveway. Moreover, adding new addresses can be problematic: what if there aren’t enough spaces between numbers? How to indicate multiple units in one complex? In the future, I suspect that we will hand out the GPS coordinates of our homes as often as we give people our street numbers (and by hand out, I mean send directly using a smartphone app).

Africans, many of whom lack addresses and need to walk all the way into the center of town to do things like receive mail, have an opportunity to get there first – skipping over street addresses entirely. High-quality GPS receivers already have a 3-meter resolution, enough for all but the most densely-packed slums, and advances in the system will allow ever-greater precision. If ground-based enhancements are added then even current technology allows centimeter-level precision. I’m not yet sure where the money is in promoting this innovation, but if I were an entrepreneur looking at growth areas in African markets, I’d begin with GPS coordinates.

*For my technologically-deprived US readers, I should clarify that in Kenya you can use you phone to pay for things and transfer money, and this has been possible since 2007. For anybody reading this outside the US, I should note that we still use paper cheques to send money and pay for things; it’s like time-traveling back to the 1930s.

1 thought on “Africa's next technological revolution?”

  1. Great post! Thanks for bringing this to light. This would work in the developing world too. In the Netherlands where I live, there is a big kerfuffle with the post-office closing most of its offices and service points. My only question is whether this would lead to an over-reliance on Google?

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