Strategic Learning Around the Power of Data: Ghana Profiling Learning Exchange

by James Tayler

By Anni Beukes, SDI Secretariat 

“We have been dreaming about this exercise for five years. We really appreciate the effort of this exercise. This has been a wonderful exchange.” – Haruna Abu, Ghana Federation of the Urban Poor

When does data transform into power? More importantly, when does data transform into the kind of power urban poor communities can use to leverage their authorities for development? SDI supports the collection of community-led data collection and supports federations and their communities in the collection and documentation of this data. These documents become an asset for negotiation with city-governments and their compiling is becomes an opportunity “to learn [and] to mobilize” communities towards what SDI, President Jockin Arputham, refers to as “self-development”[1]. Collecting data and sharing the experiences and challenges around this empowerment process is key to SDI’s network wide support structure.

The Ghana Federation of the Urban Poor (GHAFUP) and their support NGO, People’s Dialogue on Human Settlements (PD) played host to the third learning exchange around SDI’s global city-wide settlement profiling project during December 2013. The city of Accra is one of the strategic learning centres around this project along with Harare, Mumbai, Kampala and Cape Town. Alongside being a centre of economic power on the Gold Coast of Africa, Accra is also home to one of possibly the most famous slums on the African continent, Old Fadama – under almost constant threat of eviction and the Amui Dzor Housing Project, among other.  This housing project collaboration between the local federation and UN-Habitat’s Slum Upgrading Facility (SUF) is “a demonstration housing project which currently provides decent accommodation for 31 slum families at the heart of Tulaku community within the Ashaiman Municipality of the Greater Accra Region.”

The three days of the learning exchange saw fierce engagement around the demarcation of settlement boundaries – whether these do or should follow administrative boundaries or the organic boundaries of the local community, on the ground boundary and services mapping, as well as a hosting of the federation, focus group and its guests at the Shukura Chief’s Palace, in the settlement of Shukura where the profiling exercise took place. Prior to the focus group the local federation, in a process which can span weeks, mobilises the local community and their leaders (traditional, savings and women’s groups, market queens, youth leaders, etc.) and co-ordinates among all these schedules a date for the focus group. The focus group, based on the standardised SDI Informal Settlements Profile, led this time by PD Executive Director and SDI Board Member, Rabiu Farouk, may be considered the highlight of the profiling exercise. In an effort to extend learning around the efforts required and challenges of conducting the focus group and wider profiling process, the Ghanaian Federation had put Rabiu Farouk to task to lead the focus group. The director embraced the challenge, in the process also highlighting some of the key challenges a standardised process can present in context where the particular has long been the focus. “I learned a lot, you thought you were punishing me, but I learned a lot!” he remarked at the end of the exchange.

“I finally saw myself!” – Katana Goretti , National Slum Dwellers Federation of Uganda (NSDFU)

As the sun was setting on the third day of the learning exchange and fellow federation members from Sierra Leone, Uganda, India and host Ghana, SDI secretariat and Santa Fe Institute staffs were weary from the previous longs days of on-the-ground mapping, profiling and presentations, Katana Goretti, national leader of the Ugandan federation was in high spirits.

“This was what I have been waiting for. I finally saw myself.” Katana’s words not only humble, but also lend perspective to the wider reasons for SDI federations’ data collection activities.  Earlier that afternoon, the Santa Fe Institute, SDI partner in our global project to standardise and aggregate our slum/informal settlements profile data,  showcased the first wireframes of a web portal which would host, on a global map, the around 7000 profiles of city-level data collected from across the network in the course of this project since December 2012. With a steady, but definite shift in development focus in the last years from a country, to an increasingly city-level focus, the struggles of the poor for livelihoods, access to land, but also their efforts to engage their own development has also strikingly come back into focus.

The importance therefore, of seeing the urban poor, hearing their voices and highlighting the context of their everyday struggles and victories, are brought sharply back into focus again too. In the recently published People’s Voices Brief, released for UN Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals, OWG 7, the importance of “creating healthy urban environments…[along with] efficient and affordable services for all, [as well as], the importance of social transformations that are taking place in rapidly growing cities…and the empowerment of urban populations” were highlighted. Drawing on the recent report of the MY World survey in which “people accord a high priority to ‘access to clean water and sanitation’ regardless of their education level, which is commonly used as a proxy for income”, the Brief further argued that despite the daunting prospects megacities are perceived to pose, “the higher population density gives governments the opportunity to more easily deliver essential infrastructure and services in urban areas at a lower cost per capita.” It would appear then, that in the very spaces where local governments once attributed their major development challenges, their new development opportunities reside.

In a time when the focus also turns towards “smart-cities”, SDI is poised at a peculiar, yet exciting intersection. On the one hand we still rely on carefully curated datasets, but we cannot resist the demands of a “big data” world if we are to cement our position as one of the largest depositories of data of the urban poor. SDI federations’ Know Your City Campaign is a global campaign for grassroots data and inclusive partnerships with local governments.  From collection, to capture, to analysis, we are simultaneously exploring technologies along the lines of those presented by Santa Fe Institute during the course of this project and Ghana exchange. The excitement around the smartphone-app technology to capture GPS-co-ordinate points was tangible. Mobile technologies like these, when tailored to the needs and capacities of local communities would enable faster, more accurate capture and return for reporting for communities. The technologies SDI is exploring should bring communities closer to their data and not alienate them. Drawing on the insights of “big data” gurus, Mayer-Schönberger and Cukier (2013), we agree that the “the real revolution is not in the machines that calculate data but in data itself and how we use it.” As SFI team member, Jose Lobo reflected on both Haruna and Katana’s excitement around the exchange, “it’s energizing to see the process and the people collect data and get excited about the power of data…seeing the process of profiling have helped our understanding. We would not be able to do what we’re doing with this project, without seeing what the community does.”

[1] Arputham, J. 2012. How community-based enumerations started and developed in India. Environment and Urbanization 24(1):27-30. Available online at: