Friday, 3 June 2016

Data collection: A tale of two African cities

Intrepid master's student Nalukui Malambo has been completing her data collection and writes here about the experience...

Nairobi (Kenya)
My data collection trip in Nairobi was conducted over a period of 14 days from the 6th to 19th of April 2016. Being the first time in Kenya and not knowing anyone or where I was going, a quick realisation that bravery was on call kicked in immediately.

The data collection was more of an adventurous process than usual, the pace started out a little slower, the first few days involved orienting myself to the city, sorting out tech (buying a sim card, registering on the local network, and finding the right power adapters took a whole day), learning how to navigate the local transportation networks and routes, finding suitable accommodation, restaurants, local supermarkets and understanding the basic words in the commonly spoken local language Swahili.  Although Kenya's official language is English, local languages are still widely spoken. Navigation around the city was made easier by the assistance of a student guide (extremely important if you are there for the first time).

I conducted a total of 11 interviews within and around Nairobi with various stakeholders identified for the research.  The first set of interviews were conducted in Machakos county, specifically in an area called Konza. Konza is situated 60 kilometres outside Nairobi, earmarked to be a new Smart city by the government of Kenya to be built from scratch, locally referred to as “Konza Technology City”. 

"Getting around was interesting..."
Getting around was interesting. My trip from Nairobi to Konza started out on a Friday at 6am using local public minibuses known as matatu. It took approximately 3 hours and 3 matatus to Konza, as there is no direct route to Konza using public transport. Access into the residential area from the main road required the use of a local motor-bike (boda-boda) to the area chief’s office. Before conducting the interviews, permission from the current Chief was requested and granted. Stakeholders interviewed at Konza included: the area Chief, a former Councillor, the secondary school principal and local residents, as well as a site visit to the construction area where the city structures are to be constructed. At the time of my site visit, the Konza project team had just broken ground a week before.  On observation, Konza is a beautiful area and strategically located on Kenya’s main highway leading from Nairobi to Mombasa. The land still remains pretty much virgin land, with an abundance of all sorts of wild animals, a swampy patch and plenty of vegetation.

Interviewing the Konza area Chief
Back in Nairobi, some of the interviews were conducted at the Konza administrative offices. The Konza project office (KotDA) was established to oversee the implementation of the Konza Technology City project tasked with managing the new Smart City project under the directorate of CEO John Tanui. Overall, data collection in Nairobi took on an unstructured approach, partly because of the nature of the research being exploratory, as well as the nature of key informants that snowballed from informant to informant. In addition, I spent most of my free time (which included weekends) collecting information on the smart city agenda from pedestrians, noting construction activities and taking photographs. I also interviewed representatives of organisations that are indirectly involved in the Smart City agenda such as the United Nations, IBM, Cisco, University of Nairobi etc.

Cape Town (South Africa)
My data collection trip to Cape Town started out on the 7th to 12th February 2016. In contrast to Nairobi, the trip was short and structured. Before leaving for Cape Town, I had diarised eight interviews and managed to secure an extra four while in Cape Town. I conducted at least three interviews per day with the various stakeholders involved in the Smart City initiatives of Cape Town.

My way around Cape Town was simple. The city has well run and organised, structured public transport. I used Uber for most of my morning rides (to avoid arriving late at my meeting destinations) as my accommodation was situated 11 kilometres out of the way of public transportation.  It was easy to find my way around the city even though this was not my first time in Cape Town. I hopped on and off public transportation for my afternoon ride (train, taxi and buses) to the hotel and any other meeting places I had to get to.

I would like to think my data collection trip to Cape Town prepared me to some extent for my Nairobi trip from a research point of view, but the experience was very different and I was not prepared for the differences in how the cities worked. 

From this, I learnt that a certain comfort with ambiguity is necessary to conducting research in an African city, which most often comes with the upside of learning creative problem solving skills. I learnt that information is available, but not necessarily in the places you expect to find it. Most importantly, I learnt that you have to be brave, patient and flexible to collect data in African cities.

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