If you own a mobile phone and spend sunrise to sundown watching the traffic pass in Ghana’s capital, then Iddrisu Mohammed wants you to be his spy.
With an iPad in his hands and two cellphones in his pants pockets, Mohammed crisscrosses Accra on foot, looking for people to become informants for Jamless, a recently launched traffic information service that hopes to restore a little sanity to the capital’s hectic commute.
“What Jamless will do is give you the traffic situation in any part of Accra that you are and give you alternate routes to use if the place is jammed,” said Mohammed, who is the company’s informant manager. “You don’t want to get to work late. You don’t want to get home late. If you’re on Jamless, you know the alternative route to use to get home early.”
West Africa’s population has been booming, and in many cases, infrastructure has failed to keep up, leaving residents of crowded big cities to grapple with impossibly congested commutes.
However, a number of clever entrepreneurs and frustrated commuters have turned to social media and other technology to help drivers defy the “go-slows” that start and end the work day for many.
In Nigerian mega-city Lagos, GidiTraffic and its more than 50,000 Twitter followers keep a running log of commute catastrophes in the metropolis of about 15 million people legendary for its hours-long slogs.
And in Abidjan, commuters can send traffic information by text, Twitter or Facebook to CivRoute, a Web site that offers traffic conditions for Ivory Coast’s main city.
The services are sorely needed as cars proliferate in these growing west African countries.
In Ghana, home to a booming economy based on exports of gold, cocoa and oil, the number of vehicles per thousand people went from 21 in 2003 to 30 in 2009, according to World Bank statistics.
However, streets in cities like Accra are often undersized, under-maintained, or both. Harried commuters in the capital spare no road, be it a leafy residential street, an unfinished dirt track or a four-lane highway, in the quest to get to their home or office faster.
Before Jamless, “people usually got traffic through friends, through the newspapers and usually on radio,” Mohammed said.
However, none of those offer real-time updates, as Jamless does.
Jamless was started by Guillaume Boniface, a former marketing professional for a French telecommunications company in Guinea’s capital, Conakry. His experience of traffic there was an all-day malaise of stationary cars, something he saw repeated when he went around the region.
“Living in Guinea, I had this idea. All African cities had this traffic issue,” Boniface said, recalling traffic jams that would often degenerate into arguments between truculent drivers until the police came to break it up. “Ghana seemed an easier country to start up.”
As the company’s chief executive officer, Boniface spends his time working with the country’s mobile phone carriers and putting together Jamless’ Web site in preparation for its launch in the coming months.
Jamless started small, with just a Twitter feed with a few hundred followers, through which Mohammed posts informants’ tips and entreats followers for details on underserved routes.
They now offer commuters traffic updates on major routes by text message and also provide a map of the city’s traffic, but they have not started advertising those services yet, Boniface said.
Mobile phones are ubiquitous in Ghana, so Jamless relies on small-scale traders who ply Accra’s streets for a constant stream of traffic updates, sent in by text.
“If there was enough [Twitter followers], then maybe, yeah, crowd-sourcing would be enough,” Boniface said, referring to the practice of relying on followers for information. “Not enough people have a smartphone in Ghana yet.”
If an informant sends traffic information every 20 minutes, which they do by texting a combination of numbers and characters to Jamless, they can make US$20 a month, sometimes more, Mohammed said.