Q&A: Michelle Wandia and Otis Donald on producing Real-Time Alerts in Kampala, Uganda
WhereIsMyTransport is working with ride-hailing app Easy Matatu to produce and share Real-Time Alerts in Kampala, Uganda. Real-Time Alerts for incidents and disruptions on road networks benefit road users, businesses, and anyone looking to adapt to changing conditions. We spoke with project leads Michelle Wandia and Otis Donald about this groundbreaking work.
What is WhereIsMyTransport doing in Kampala?
Michelle: WhereIsMyTransport is working with the ride-hailing app Easy Matatu to create real-time alerts to help their users and other commuters, and of course to commercialise that data. Some people have tried to do this before. They started organically but lacked consistency. With something like real-time alerts, you have to consistently keep working, keep sharing. And you need focus — like traffic and transport alerts. We’re doing this to help people to see and understand what’s happening on their roads.
Otis: It’s rare for startups like WhereIsMyTransport to come to Kampala. With this project, we are in charge of something new, knowing that real-time alerts can create unique opportunities — for commuters and for businesses. Our work is still unfolding. We’re pushing it to the people and testing things out. But the reception is good. The challenge for us is getting to a place where people understand what we’re doing, and are impressed by the alerts we’re giving out.
Michelle: We’re doing this better than it has been done before. Quality is part of WhereIsMyTransport’s brand, and we have a clear focus. In Kampala, traffic and transport information online is not as accurate as you’d like. With this project, we’re packaging disruption data better and delivering it in real time, so we know that Easy Matatu users are going to have better journeys, and people here will know what’s going on.
Otis: We’re trying to create sense from the noise. Like what’s going on in such and such a place? What’s happening on this road? Yesterday, there was a bad accident, but people didn’t know. Having this kind of service, this kind of infrastructure giving out alerts in real time, brings value to people, helping them have better journeys and make better decisions.
Michelle: When we share alerts like this, we benefit people — commuters and drivers. They know what the roads are like. They know what routes to avoid and what means of transport to use. This data we’re producing can save people money, and help them feel more ease about their journey. The challenge for us is that it’s not been done successfully before. We are starting from scratch. And we’re trying to convince strangers to engage with us.
Otis: I was talking to my friend about this. People might think it’s a government agency behind it, but actually it’s WhereIsMyTransport and a community of contributors. To me, this feels like something that is more powerful and effective. The innovation around this whole idea is centred around people. Producing real-time data in this way is challenging. For us to do it well, we need to be able to work with local people. We all share public transport and its problems.
What are your backgrounds, and what attracted you to WhereIsMyTransport?
Michelle: I thought I was going to be a journalist, so I enrolled into journalism school. Life happened and I left, then I started working in marketing for a big organisation in Kenya. I knew for sure that I definitely wanted to be a marketer, so I enrolled into uni again to study Business Administration and Marketing. I appreciate that marketing is not stagnant — you can go into new fields and explore. It’s so vast that in one moment my focus can be on the food industry and the next in transport.
Otis: For me, my background is in business in the transport space. Selling food online, delivery services, and airtime and financial services through the same platform. So this background of mine, in a way, is different to this project, but it’s connected because of the transport topic. My previous job was all about transport and logistics, how things move around cities, how things are delivered, and how easy or hard that is. Growing communities? This is something new to me.
Michelle: After speaking to the team at WhereIsMyTransport, I became very interested. I knew this sort of work was happening in other countries, but I also knew it wasn’t happening here. Finding out we’d be responsible for this success in Kampala felt like a huge challenge. Someone on the ground to get the ball rolling. Never in my career had I been given such a huge task. As someone who likes to take charge, I thought, yeah, I’m going for this.
What is the experience of using public transport in Kampala like?
Otis: Two things: chaotic, and fast! That’s the only way to explain it. By chaotic, I mean there’s some disorganisation. You’re being dragged by taxi conductors; they shout at their customers just to get them into the taxi. The taxi is a mess, it looks terrible. But you can be very sure that you’re going to get to your destination.
Michelle: Taxis are also very limiting due to the road structure here. They only move on the main highways. So even if you use a taxi, you are going to have to get off and walk or take a boda boda to get to your final destination.
Otis: Bodas are your other main option in Kampala. They’re rushing, they’re trying to cut through traffic and beat the red lights. They know some hidden routes to bypass traffic jams, but they’ll also overtake cars in some risky places and not pay attention to road signs. That’s what I mean by fast, but it’s also dangerous.
Michelle: If you come to Kampala and say you are never going to use a boda because they are unsafe, I can guarantee you are going to use a boda! They are often the only way you can get from point A to point B, fast, because traffic is a very big factor. Bodas are critical. If we didn’t have them here, we would be really suffering.
What does success look like for this project in Kampala?
Michelle: We would like people to know that if they share disruption information with us, then we’ll be able to share that with a wider audience, not only helping them with their journeys but making more sustainable mobility a reality in the city.
Otis: It’s about information that is helping people on their daily commute, but also information that can help the development of our city. But first, our major milestone will be developing the community, and then ensuring they are benefiting from what we’re doing.
Michelle: I want us to be connected with people, someone people go to when there’s a problem on the roads. We’re the brand that strictly deals with real-time traffic alerts, the brand that people can rely on. That’s the goal.
How do you expect the experience of getting around Kampala by public transport to change in the future?
Otis: There have been small developments by the city council. They understand that there is some chaos around the public transport system. This year, the government introduced two bus companies, which are going to be very important around the city.
I see the public transport space becoming infused with technology and the benefits of innovation. We’re already seeing this happening with our partner Easy Matatu, SafeBoda, and other apps that have been developed here at home. They’re making more sustainable ways of getting from A to B more compelling, and that benefits residents and tourists.
Michelle: For me, this feels like a bit of a trick question. I feel like if our roads and infrastructure are not improved, we are going to continue to battle with the same levels of congestion. Our population is growing, incomes are going up, people are going to keep driving, keep using taxis and bodas. Yes, I expect we’ll have more technology companies to help us monitor, understand, and optimise what’s going on. But we have narrow roads and small roads, and only a few highways. Movement is only going to get easier with investment in our infrastructure.
Uganda is the world’s youngest nation — 78% of the population here are under 30. We have so many people coming up from uni, looking for jobs — an upwardly mobile population that’s driving economic growth. These people are not only looking for better commutes, they’re ready for a better quality of life.
Otis: We’re close to reaching a point where if someone wants to travel, the first thing they will do is look at their phone — plan their trip, look for their most favourable route, or get the right means to move. Uganda is a rapidly emerging economy. People want all this information in their hands. This is not even my 10 year vision, maybe 5 years or less. I’m pretty optimistic about the future. Some of the chaos will still be there, but it will be a lot more organised.