Sharing Data: Getting to ‘Know Your City’

by James Tayler

Mama Fatuma demonstrates GPS-app to fellow federation members

By Anni Beukes, SDI Secretariat 

For those bounded and constrained by lines of informality, drawn more often than not as a consequence of exclusion from the formal city, the data they collect about their lives in the spaces they inhabit, has proven a powerful tool and asset for negotiation with city officials and donors. McGill professor in urban planning, Richard Shaermur, commenting on the relationship between data and the urban poor condition in Canada, lends support to SDI’s methodology in terms of our process and reliability of our data. Shaermur argues that “data at the local level can easily be skewed if a survey isn’t filled out by a group that is representative of a neighbourhood” or in the case of our federations, settlements.

Community-led profiling, serves not only as the foundational step from which the lives and living-worlds of slum/informal settlements residents are made visible, but also as a key tool and asset in advocacy and engagement between slum dwellers and their development partners. A community-led profile is a process which gathers/collects “data information of a particular settlement at the settlement level without necessarily having to collect the same information at household level” (Muungano Wa Wanavijiji, 2013). On a city-wide scale, these profiles serve as the baseline information about the history, social and physical conditions in informal settlements and become an asset for the urban poor in their negotiations around access to land, access to services and demands for inclusive planning and housing, as well as increasingly around livelihood options.

The governance and resources for infrastructure in cities are organized around the administrative or political representative units such as wards, locations, parishes and so on. Poor communities are rarely aligned to this city structure. Either the communities are found within the city units, or cut across administrative boundaries.

The profiling process creates a layer of information on the locality of poorly served communities. The profiling is therefore intended to generate a city planning and service delivery strategy that addresses poverty more effectively than the conventional administrative format.

Born as this data is from an almost unique social process, underlined and inscribed by what has become known as the SDI rituals or methods, it follows that it serves as a conduit for the development of relationships. Relationship, refers to “the way in which two or more people or things are connected, or the state of being connected”. Data in SDI federations connects federation members to each other, because it unveils the shared challenges of lack of access to services and land across borders. Yet, it also connects people. A stalwart of the organization, referring to daily savings, once commented that “we don’t collect money, we collect people.” Drawing on “connect” and its key derivatives, “connection” and “connectedness” as operative words here, we may paraphrase to “we don’t connect data points, we connect people”.

An SDI profile data matrix is more than just a collection of variables. It is steeped in everyday material life, every point is polyvalent, may veil more than it reveals, but ties together people, space, services and the human condition at work in informal settlements. At the settlement level, the profile lends a sense of belonging and of shared responsibility for the resources available and desired. It forms the basis of organizing communities around communal challenges that require structured collective action. According to federation members their data also offers them a sense of security and “protects settlements from encroachment as communities identify with their borders, enhance advocacy for change and lastly inform community planning strategies for housing and infrastructural development”. A working tap in an informal settlement is not so much about functioning infrastructure, than it may be about the federation advocacy team using the data from their profile to engage with sympathetic officials, donors or astute young planning professionals.

While, historically these relationships were formed on a settlement-by-settlement basis, scaling settlement profiling to the city-level presents new opportunities and challenges. “How do we use and share citywide profiles information with various stakeholders community, local government, donors and academia?” elicited lively discussion and debate at the last East Africa Hub Meeting (November 17-22nd). The Hub meeting drew together federations and their support staff from Uganda, Tanzania and host Kenya around the theme: Community Profiling for Urban Planning.

At the local level and with their central governments, delegates agreed that the opportunities for data sharing included concrete involvement for inclusive urban planning and slum upgrading. The reliability of the data, when witnessed by local authority officials during the focus groups discussions, “creates a bond of trust from government to communities, especially through budget processes to support community projects and processes” (Report prepared by Muungana Wa Wanavijiji & Muungano Support Trust for the 10th East African Hub Meeting held in Mombasa, Kenya, 2013).

In planning schools across Africa and beyond, young professionals training in what may become one of the keystone academic disciplines for African cities in the next two decades, are exploring innovative strategies which speak directly to the spatial organizational demands of cities who like Kampala, Uganda accommodate 60% percent of its population on only about 16% of its available land. The value of data collected by slum/informal settlements is indisputable. But, planners alone do not a city build! Federation data collection teams are looking toward other academic partners eager to engage with and partner in the design of their development. As donors increase their reliance on grounded research and institutions like the World Bank and the UN include data collection as a priority in [their] post-2015 development goals, the question debated so enthusiastically at the East African Hub meeting, may also be turned to the formal world beyond the informal settlement: For whom of you will it become crucial to engage with slum/informal settlement communities in terms of data collection and analysis?