Standardized urban data is helping this Nigerian city guide development

In Minna, Nigeria, a comprehensive document called the Basic Urban Services Information Index is being used to guide decision-making in the city. (World Council on City Data)

DUBAI — Until last year, if you asked most people living in Minna — a Nigerian city of less than 500,000 inhabitants about 90 miles from the country’s capital, Abuja — how many cemeteries there were in town, they probably would have said four or five.

In fact, there are 16, although many of them are inadequate in terms of size, says Abdul Husaini, general manager with Niger State Geographic Information Systems, a government agency that manages information around land.

“I used to make a joke with my colleagues: We had to think of planning for the dead,” he said recently. “You have a city that is growing. Unfortunately, you don’t know where to take [them] at the end of the day.”

To guide planning efforts and inform urban policy-making in Minna, the capital city of Niger state, Husaini and his colleagues at the Minna Urban Observatory have been locating and counting the cemeteries. And not just cemeteries — they’ve also been counting other facilities, too, including hospitals, banks, police stations, schools and places of worship.

And they’re not just counting, either: The end result is to plot the locations of each of these facilities on a map of the city using GIS. The result is a document called the Minna Basic Urban Services Information Index, which is being used to guide decision-making in the city.

[See: Three ways cities are using data to guide decision-making]

“For the purpose of making data to help policy-making, spatial representation is really important,” said Husaini. “If you have data in Excel, for instance, it’s just a document. But the moment you transfer that data to a spatial pattern, then the question of ‘How?’ will arise.”

One benefit of the index, he says, is that it has helped planners identify the spread of telecommunications towers so that people can understand why they get poor signals in certain areas. In turn, the government can advise telecom providers on where to improve their service.

“There is a need to link data, especially elements that are physical in nature, to their physical location,” said Husaini.

Early adopter

Husaini spoke with Citiscope at this month’s Global Cities Summit in Dubai, a first-ever international conference on city data put on by the Toronto-based World Council on City Data (WCCD).

“If you have data in Excel, for instance, it’s just a document. But the moment you transfer that data to a spatial pattern, then the question of ‘How?’ will arise.”

Abdul Husaini
General Manager, Niger State Geographic Information Systems

Minna is an early adopter of the council’s standardized indicators for measuring city performance — a set of 100 indicators that track urban service delivery under the ISO 37210 certification, which could be finalized this year but has been in a pilot phase since 2014.

WCCD currently classifies Minna as “aspirational”. This means that it is reporting on between 30 and 45 of the 46 indicators considered “core” for ISO certification under the 37210 standard.

[See: How ISO standards for city data are starting to make an impact]

The Niger state government has been involved in this push since before ISO 37210 became a reality. In 2009, state officials joined on with the Global City Indicator Facility, the precursor to ISO 37210. Since then, it has been beefing up its data-gathering abilities.

In addition to creating the Minna Urban Observatory, where Husaini works, in 2014, officials also incorporated WCCD’s template for collecting standardized urban data into the work of the state Bureau of Statistics. That body collects data related to city functioning across government departments.

“Data is the universal language,” says Usman Liman, statistician-general with the Niger state government. “You have to have data to be able to plan.”

But first, this new push needed to get government administrators in the various departments, ministries and local governments it collects data from on board with the importance of accurate, reliable data and statistics. So in 2014, the Bureau of Statistics hosted a meeting with officials to drive the data agenda, Liman said.

Interestingly, the police — a federal agency — were the first to respond with the data required, according to Liman.

[See: For first time, governments pledge to bolster data systems at all levels]

Still, there was resistance to the effort to increase data-sharing. “My experience with developing countries is that it is easier for you as a statistician to extract information from illiterates than with literate persons,” Liman said. “Literate persons are not ready to give information.”

He explained that for surveys, for instance, the statistical office first has had to undertake a series of public-enlightenment initiatives, and also write a letter to the local government chairman explaining that locals are coming to request statistical information.

Highlighting gaps

Enhanced data capacity has led to a spectrum of improvements. It has assisted the government in constructing urban roads, expanding access to electricity, modernizing outdated water infrastructure, improving drainages and waste management, and revamping fire-fighting stations, according to information supplied by the Niger state government.

The city also has become a leader in tree planting, having planted over 19,000 trees for every 100,000 of its population, through an urban beautification programme that kicked off in 2011. That’s added to the city’s livability, according to a WCCD report.

Now, Husaini and his team at the urban observatory are about to embark on a project to map the distribution of electric transformers in the city.

“For any city to be successful, it must have the means of continually improving its data-gathering and analysis [ability], and proactively addressing the challenges associated with city development,” he said.

The Minna experience with ISO 37120 points to how cities that adopt a set of standardized metrics for keeping tabs on urban development can then identify gaps in their data-gathering efforts, and work toward remedying these.

“Working with city data or the [standardized] indicators is not only to have the indicators, but it will also show you the gaps in the data you don’t have,” said Husaini.

“Over the past nine years, we have seen the value of working with standardized data,” he said, “most importantly to appreciate the difficulty in getting some of the basic data that you need to plan.”

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Brendon Bosworth is a correspondent for Citiscope based in Cape Town. Full bio

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