Accra Wala: Digital History, Community Partnerships, and Work in Progress

Nearly two years ago, I wrote a blog post detailing the methodology behind a new digital humanities project.  I wrote from Accra, where I was funded through a Research Enhancement Project Grant from Wayne State University to do preliminary data collection and test technology as part of the initial stages of work on a new, interactive online map of the trotro system in Accra.  I embraced digital history (in the Accra Wala project, in this blog, in my classroom) as a way to expand the reach of my research on the history of motor transportation in Ghana.  That research has been published in several articles and a book, which fulfill tenure and other academic research expectations and contribute to intellectual debates inside and outside of the classroom but which are largely inaccessible to the people in Ghana who participated in the research and were most greatly affected by the implications of its arguments.

Digital history also opened new analytical, conceptual, and creative possibilities.  Digital technologies enabled me to visually represent the complexity of the network that my work could only describe linearly.  That complexity was represented through the map itself.  But the multiple layers we could build into the map – sensorial layers of audio, visual, and kinetic experience – could also demonstrate the meaning associated with place.  By bringing the map to life, we could transform the way that we understand mapping.  By opening the site to public submissions, we could create a new form of engaged community history.  That community most obviously included residents of Accra and citizens of Ghana – trotros represented a uniquely Ghanaian culture of automobility and urban life.  But trotros were also part of a global conversation about the possibilities and challenges associated with motor transport technologies and urban growth.

As such, I saw Ghanaian experiences of automobility and urbanity as opportunities to engage a much broader audience across Africa and the postcolonial world, where one might find similar sorts of quasi-informal urban networks.  Those same issues spoke in a different way to questions about public transport infrastructure and urban development in cities like Detroit – parallels that provided new opportunities to educate and engage the American public in more complex and dynamic understandings of the diverse cultures and histories of the African continent.

I also saw an opportunity to engage a broad and diverse audience in questions about the production and practice of history.  The map’s contents constitute an archive of primary sources, which could be explored and analyzed to answer historical questions about the social, cultural, economic, and political life of Accra’s residents.  We plan to create itineraries that would guide people through the map – a sort of entry point and introduction to the city and its rich offerings.  By more clearly exposing the process and methodology of history and guiding users through the interpretation and analysis of sources, we hope we can inspire further exploration of the map’s rich offerings and engage the general public in the production of history.  At the same time, I saw the map as an educational tool that teachers and students could use inside and outside of the classroom.  Faculty in relevant courses could ask students to follow an itinerary and develop historical questions, or even research and propose new itineraries.  Graduate students and researchers could upload their data or construct their own itineraries informed by fieldwork.  This engagement, we hoped, would mean that the site would stay fresh and dynamic and growing.

These visions fit within a roadmap for the project, which we prioritized within short, medium, and long-term timelines.  I knew the project was complex.  That complexity brings with it a number of challenges in terms of time, money, and labor.  Two years later, we do not yet have an operational website.  But that does not mean that the project has stagnated or failed.  While some digital history projects are fast and easy – work that can be accomplished during a semester or a few weeks – others, we know, require much greater planning and collaboration.


Both the challenge and the appeal of digital history projects is that they are or can be constant works in progress.  Talking about that progress – its challenges and opportunities – provides important opportunities to gain feedback, establish partnerships, and reflect on the projects goals and the means by which we anticipate achieving our goals.  Over the course of the last two years, I have taken multiple opportunities to share the methodology and vision behind the Accra Wala project with diverse audiences in the US and Ghana – from the Humanities Center Conference at Wayne State University to HASTAC 2015 to the Ghana Studies Conference to the Meltwater Entrepreneurial School of Technology (MEST) and Impact Hub in Accra.


Those presentations generated feedback and support from scholars and practitioners with a wide range of experience and expertise.  It also generated new collaborative partnerships, which will be crucial for both initial data collection and continued growth once the site goes live.  The enthusiasm with which the project has been received is invigorating, but it’s also great to see that the project is tapping into a dynamic community in Ghana and occasionally generating new ideas among young, entrepreneurial Ghanaians who are keen to use new technologies to address the country’s problems based on grassroots initiatives and experiences.


I have been grateful to have such experienced and enthusiastic partners at the MATRIX Center for Digital Humanities at Michigan State University and Ashesi University.  Initially, our greatest challenge appeared to be data collection.  We began this project daunted slightly by the task of mapping all of the trotro routes in Accra.  The trotro system is dense and complicated and constantly changing.  The prospect of riding all of these routes was in itself overwhelming and exhausting.  We also faced the challenge of developing an app to conveniently capture the necessary information to map the route.  In January 2016, Jackie Klopp from the Digital Matatus project at Columbia University, introduced me to Simon Saddier of the French Development Agency and Zachary Patterson of Concordia University.  Simon and Zachary had been working with the Accra Metropolitan Assembly (AMA) to map the city’s trotro routes.  Their map launched in December 2015.


On May 27-28, 2016, the AFD hosted a “Trotro Data Throwdown” or “hackathon”, in partnership with the Meltwater Entrepreneurial School of Technology (MEST) in Accra.  The winner was promised a prize of 4,000 Ghana cedis (approximately $1,000).

I approached Simon and Zachary to ask if they would grant us access to their data and allow us to use it in the Accra Wala project.  They endorsed our use of their data and we downloaded the data set once it was released to the public for the hackathon.  This data set made our project much more feasible.  However, it posed a new, smaller problem – their map project was also named “Accra Mobile”.  Neither of us had known of each other’s work beforehand, so this was a huge coincidence.  That coincidence led to a new name – “Accra Wala” (wala is variously translated as “life” or “energy”).  Simon also signed on to serve as a member of the Accra Wala Advisory Board.

The members of our Advisory Board highlight the rich network of collaborations that are central to the development of this project. In addition to specialists in humanities disciplines, we also seek to draw in innovative practitioners who pursue humanities questions through the realms of urban planning practice, architecture, or technology.

  • Simon Saddier is an official with the French Development Agency, has served as team leader for a mapping project, which documented trotro routes and stops throughout Accra in collaboration with the Accra Metropolitan Assembly (AMA).  Saddier’s open data will enable us to create the base of the map, and he will help us identify potential collaborators within the political and development/aid communities in Ghana.  We hope that his participation will also allow us to engage the development community directly about the history of infrastructure and urban planning in Accra, as well as the challenges and visions of drivers and passengers in the city.
  • Yasmine Abbas is a co-leader and co-organizer of Impact Hub Accra, where this project had its first public feedback session and where we will organize future public testing events and public mapping projects.  Abbas also works with architect D.K. Osseo-Asare to map e-waste sites in Agbogbloshie, Accra via the Agbogbloshie Makerspace Platform.
  • Jackie Klopp is a founding member of the Digital Matatus Research Consortium, which is providing technical support and advice based on their own experiences mapping matatus in Kenya.
  • Erica Hagen is the co-founder of Map Kibera, which empowers young residents of the Kibera District of Nairobi, Kenya to create the first free, open, digital map of their community.  Their project has now grown into an interactive community information project, which seeks to make otherwise marginalized communities more visible through mapping.
  • Kristie Kwarteng co-founded The Nana Project in 2014.  The Nana Project’s mission is to preserve, archive, and share firsthand accounts of Ghanaian history.  They give Ghanaians of all backgrounds and beliefs the opportunity to record the stories of their people. In doing so, they seek to remind one another of our shared culture, to strengthen and build connections, to teach the value of listening, and to weave into the fabric of our culture the understanding that our history matters.
  • Yaw Odoom is the founder of the successful “Trotro Diaries” project, which provides a social media space where passengers share their subjective experiences of transport.  Yaw will help us to promote the project among passengers and help us organize publicity to engage passengers in Ghana.
  • Victoria Okoye works at the intersection of media and communications, community engagement and urban planning, living and working in Accra, Ghana.  Over the years, she has worked with a technology park development initiative in Abuja, to research water management in Lagos, to engage community stakeholders on urban transport and land use in Accra, Ghana and on agricultural, employment and development opportunities in Kaduna, Nigeria. Currently, she manages communications, media design and mapping for a project improving water, sanitation and hygiene across Ghana. The manager of the website African Urbanism, Okoye is an urban planner who is extensively involved in current development plans in Accra, including the Bus Rapid Transit system.  Her website is an excellent example of an urban planning practice that engages with both the humanities and digital technologies.
  • Jon Voss is the Director of Strategic Partnerships at Shift, a charitable foundation and trust company that designs consumer products to drive positive behavior change, influence social and cultural norms and help prevent complex, expensive problems developing. As Director of Historypin and co-founder of the International Linked Open Data in Libraries, Archives and Museums Summit, Voss is an expert and innovator when it comes to working with Open Data on the web.  His past projects include LookBackMaps, a location-based web and mobile app, and Civil War Data 150, which shares and connects Civil War data across local, state and federal institutions. His expertise in digital mapping and working with Open Data will be instrumental in designing the Accra Wala map.
  • Ato Quayson is a Professor of English and Director of the Centre for Diaspora and Transnational Studies at the University of Toronto.  An expert on postcolonial African culture and literature, Quayson wrote a well-received book, Oxford Street, Accra, which explores life on and alongside the road.  His expertise on street life and roadside signage will help us think more clearly about the possible constituencies, spaces, and experiences represented in the map.  He also has a number of connections among residents in the historic core of Accra, which will be essential in encouraging submission of materials from Accra residents.
  • Jeffrey Paller is the Earth Institute Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Center for Sustainable Urban Development at Columbia University.  Jeffrey Paller’s research examines the practice of democracy and accountability in urban African slums. He has conducted fieldwork in Ghana, Kenya, and South Africa. Prior to joining the Earth Institute, he was a visiting lecturer of politics at Bates College where he taught courses on cities, slums and democracy; African politics and development; and democratization in the world. He received his PhD from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the department of political science in 2014. His research interests include African politics, sustainable urban development, democratic theory, and field research methods. His scholarship has been published by Polity and African Studies Review. He served as a Research Associate at the Center for Democratic Development in Ghana, and has been funded by the Social Science Research Council, National Science Foundation, and the University of Wisconsin. Prior to graduate school, he received his B.A. from Northwestern University and served as a Program Coordinator for the Illinois Education Foundation.
  • Joseph Frimpong is a professor of humanities at Ashesi University, who is an expert on street signage.  Dr. Oduro-Frimpong’s research investigates Ghanaian popular media (political cartoons, video-movies, etc.). He is particularly interested in teasing out how such tangible visual/aural formats (re)-mediate intangible cultural ideas and beliefs, as well as partake in democratic socio-political issues. Some of his works has appeared in: Encyclopedia of Social Movement Media (2011), Popular Culture in Africa: Episteme of the Everyday (2014), International Journal of Communication, and African Studies Review. While he will contribute data of his own, he will also help us train students for data collection as part of the “African Cities” course.
  • Carolyn Loh is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at Wayne State University. She studies planning practice, implementation, and local and regional land use decision-making.  Loh, an expert in urban planning and GIS, is a co-author with Prof. Hart for a related academic project on the history of trotros and the politics of urban planning in Accra.  She will provide important global context for the more practical dimensions of the project and their connections to the humanities.
  • Ayorkor Korsah is a professor of computer science and robotics at Ashesi University, where she works to develop humanities-centered computer science and engineering curriculum, challenging students to think about the impact of their work in addressing social, cultural, and economic problems. She is working in partnership with Prof. Frimpong and Prof. Hart to develop a study abroad course, “African Cities,” which would pair American and Ghanaian students in collaborative data collection projects that would contribute to the “Accra Wala” content.
  • Joshua Grace is a historian of Africa with a particular interest in cultures of technology, mobility, and development. His research examines the politics of development in Tanzania from the 1870s to the 1980s by showing how Africans transformed cars and roads from technologies of imperial power into tools for pursuing different visions of social and economic change. By focusing on the use and modification of automobiles by Africans, his work provides an alternative to narratives of technological backwardness and economic underdevelopment that dominate representations of twentieth-century Africa. His dissertation, “Modernization Bubu: Cars, Roads, and the Politics of Development in Tanzania, 1870s-1980s” (2013) examines modernization from the perspective of the mechanics, drivers, and passengers who used technology and mobility to contest hierarchies of race, class, and gender. He is a recipient of Fulbright and Andrew W. Mellon research fellowships.  Dr. Grace will provide an important perspective on the history of technology, infrastructure, and development throughout Africa and around the world.
  • Trevor Getz is a historian of Africa whose interests include interdisciplinary methodologies, critical theory, and popular ways of thinking about the past. Most of my work revolves around issues surrounding gender and slavery in West Africa, although I have also published in the fields of world history, heritage studies in South Africa, the scholarship of teaching and learning, and modern imperialism and colonialism.  Getz is the author of a graphic history, Abina and the Important Men, which uses the conventions of a comic book to talk to engage students in new ways with the history of slavery in Ghana.  Abina and the Important Men has also recently been developed into an app, and Getz’s experience in that process will be invaluable as we also think about how to create a mobile version of this site.
  • Steven Feld was appointed Professor of Anthropology and Music at the University of New Mexico in September 2003 and promoted to Distinguished Professor in 2005.  Feld’s academic research principally concerns the anthropology of senses, sound, and voice, incorporating studies in linguistics and poetics, music and aesthetics, acoustics and ecology. Over the last ten years or more, Dr. Feld has worked directly with drivers in Accra through a number of film and audio recording projects.  Feld produced Por Por: Honk Horn Music of Ghana for Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, a US government gift to Ghana for the 50th anniversary of independence in 2007.  His feature-length documentary film, A Por Por Funeral for Ashirifie, won the Prix Bartók at the 2010 International Film Festival Jean Rouch in Paris.  Feld’s expertise will provide important perspective on how best to share information and resources with communities of drivers as well as what might be useful for drivers as users of the site.  Prof. Feld also hopes to contribute some of his own video and audio recordings, photographs, and other materials to the site.
  • Gracia Clark is a Professor of Anthropology at Indiana University, who has a long history of work in both the academic and development worlds. Clark is a highly regarded expert on the culture and economy of market trading in Ghana, and she will provide important insights on how we might best incorporate the experiences of traders and others associated with lorry parks as spaces of movement, exchange, and commerce. She also has extensive experience collecting oral histories as part of digital humanities projects, as a participant in two different DH projects on market traders and religion in Ghana.

We are also working on collaborations with other community partners.  The Meltwater Entrepreneurial School of Technology (MEST) has become an important partner, providing a space to present regular updates on the project and receive feedback from young entrepreneurs from across the continent.  Open Street Map Ghana hopes to partner with us on community mapping initiatives that would fill in the map of the city with major landmarks used by residents (rather than the focus on tourist sites and elite restaurants and cafes that tend to dominate public maps).  The social media organization Accra We Dey will help us create content, market the site, and build a user base.

We also continue to build relationships with organizations in the US.  In particular, we hope to establish or strengthen relationships with museums like the Detroit Historical Society, the Detroit Institute of the Arts, the Detroit Public Library, the Charles H. Wright Museum, the Field Museum in Chicago, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and the National Museum of African Art.  We plan to organize public outreach and education sessions with these museum partners to test the site and solicit feedback from users.

At the same time, we are working with educational institutions to bring students in the US and Ghana into the project, providing them with new opportunities.  This summer, I am leading a study abroad course called “African Cities:  Accra“.  Students from Wayne State University and Ashesi University will work in groups to collect data (audio, video, interviews, photographs) at major lorry parks throughout the city.  Students will also pursue their own interests through research projects that can be connected to the site.  By the end of the summer, we hope to have a core set of data, which we can use to populate the site and create the basic infrastructure for the archive.


In 2015, I successfully applied for $5,000 in funding for summer salary from the Humanities Center at Wayne State University and $20,000 from the Research Enhancement Program at Wayne State University, which funded the preliminary stages of data collection for this project.  The Research Enhancement Program application was evaluated by three outside evaluators, including one digital humanist and two African historians.

In July 2016, we submitted an application for a National Endowment for the Humanities Digital Projects for the Public Discovery Grant.  This narrative requested nearly $30,000 in funding to convene a meeting of experts and stakeholders to design and assess the project’s user interface and create a prototype for the “Accra Wala” site.  While we did not receive that funding, we used the opportunity to revise our narrative and refine the project goals.

In January 2017, we submitted an application for a National Endowment for the Humanities Digital Humanities Advancement Grant, Level 1.  This grant was also intended to fund a meeting of advisers and stakeholders to design and assess the user interface.  We are currently waiting to hear back on the decision about that grant cycle.  In the meantime, we are planning our pursuit of other funding opportunities from government agencies and private foundations.


In 2015, a collaborative project called AccraMobile between the Department of Transport, Accra Metropolitan Assembly, Concordia University, and Agence Française de Développement (AFD), used smart phones and apps to collect data on Accra’s transportation system. This project aggregated two sets of data for the trotro taxi system in the area of the Accra Metropolitan Assembly. First is data for 315 trotro routes. There are shapefiles for each direction of a route. Route data includes attributes for route origin, destination, trotro operator, and fares. The second set of data is tied to stops made by the trotro, including the name of the stop, location, and the number of passengers that that got on and off of the trotro at a given stop.  This data is contained in General Transportation Feed Specification (GTFS) which AccraMobile has agreed to share with our project.

The project will ultimately make use of open source software like OpenStreetMaps, Kora, and QGIS to complete the project.  While we are still working on a functioning prototype, designer Austin Truchan has created a work sample, showing example images of the map.

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Transformations in Research and Plans for the Future

As we start to plan to build the core of the project, we also need to look forward to develop longer-term projects.  Many of those require collaboration with community partners in the US and Ghana.  They also require significant funding.  A lot of our work over the next several years will involve grant-writing through government organizations and private foundations.

This ongoing commitment to digital history has reshaped my research and teaching interests.  As the posts throughout this blog suggest, Accra Wala is the driving force behind a broader, multi-faceted research agenda that explores the politics of urban planning and the realities of urban life in 20th century Accra.  Accra Wala allows me to speak directly to/with the public and practitioners in fields of development, urban planning, architecture, and the arts.  That form of public engagement now infuses my more conventional scholarly work.  This blog and the articles I am in the process of (co-)writing on urban planning practice and infrastructural development speak directly to the practical realities of urban politics in Accra.  That work also seeks to situate the experiences of Accra residents within global conversations and processes of globalization, urbanization, precarity, development, and cosmopolitanism – not at the margins of those conversations, but rather at the center of them.  The work that comes out of Accra Wala, in other words, has the potential to redefine the concepts and practices that so profoundly shape life in contemporary Accra and in cities around the world (including Detroit).  Accra Wala highlights for us how – and how much – history matters.  Even when it’s still a work-in-progress.

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