Citywide Data Collection and “Knowing Your City”

by James Tayler


SDI launched the Know Your City campaign at the 7th World Urban Forum in April 2014. The Know Your City campaign is a global campaign for grassroots data collection and inclusive partnerships with local government for citywide community networks of urban poor communities. The campaign urges affiliates to scale up data collection processes and outputs and demonstrate that SDI’s arguments for community-driven data collection are about more than just information and data; they are aimed at building inclusion of the urban poor into city policy.

Know Your City speaks to active awareness, engagement, and understanding of the urban space that you occupy. It encourages citizens and local governments to move beyond the shelter you call home to the level of your street, neighborhood, and ultimately, the city as a whole. To gain a sense of familiarity through information and experience that can inform both theoretical and practical understanding of space and the relationships various inhabitants have to it. When information moves to knowledge and understanding it comes to stand in opposition to narrow opinion. It then becomes a powerful tool in the hands of those who own it. Slum dwellers have come to learn the power and value of information that moves to knowledge and understanding as they engage their city officials or those others who own the land which they occupy. A large and growing number of urban dwellers live in poverty because most city development plans exclude informal settlement. This is in spite of the precedents set by organisations of citizens such as SDI’s urban poor federations; in spite of evidence that conventional city planning is unable to meet the demands of rapid urbanisation and only exacerbates urban informality and poverty.

In practice, the core of SDI’s Know Your City campaign is a standardisation of our settlement profiling data collection methodology for informal settlements. Settlement profiles are different from household enumerations in that they allow a whole settlement to look at itself as a collective rather than as households in isolation. Whole communities then have the possibility to build relationships with their local governments or land owning authority for the improvement of the physical conditions of their settlements and lives as a collective.

The settlement profile gives settlement leadership and city authorities a glimpse of the big picture at the settlement level. The standardised profile allows for an aggregated view of the types of land occupied by informal settlements in a given city, as well as the physical conditions of the spaces in terms of and in relation to infrastructure.

SDI has developed a standardised settlement profile questionnaire based on the questionnaires developed and used by federations across the network. This questionnaire forms the new baseline for all historic and future data collected for settlement profiles within the network. Both quantitative and qualitative in nature, the profile affords possibilities to compare and aggregate settlement level data across a city and, where federations work in multiple cities, across the region. In maintaining an emphasis on the nuances of local contexts, federations have the opportunity to supplement the standard questionnaire to improve the qualitative descriptions of individual settlements.

Both the process and the resulting data become tools of communication, dialogue, and building relationships. Drawing on SDI’s guiding premise to make ‘visible’ the invisible communities of the urban poor, the data communicates quantifiable facts about the physical conditions and scale of informality and urban poverty on a citywide scale while at the same time adding nuance to the particular conditions of poverty and exclusion as experienced in the daily lives of slum dwellers inhabiting these spaces.

The Know Your City campaign also aims to emphasise the spatial, social, economic, and political relations between slum dwellers and their cities over time. To date, we have a total number of 6,343 historic data sets in standardized format available. This data forms the baseline for conditions of informal settlements from 2009 – 12 across cities like Mumbai, Nairobi, Kampala, Johannesburg, Harare, and Freetown. As these datasets were collected via an array of forms they remain in various states of ‘completeness’ in terms of the standardised form. On a federation-by-federation basis, the SDI network will ‘complete’ these as far as possible over the next year. The importance of this data is twofold. It constitutes the first point for developing longitudinal comparative data of informal settlements at the city level, as well as an opportunity to monitor and evaluate SDI federations’ work and engagements within these cities. It offers the foundation from which informal communities can develop citywide arguments at scale and over time.

Seven national federations in Africa (Uganda, Kenya, Malawi, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Namibia, and Ghana) have committed to field test and further improve the rigour of both the new standardised profile form and the data collection process. At present, 377 new settlement profiles have been uploaded to the central web based data platform. These are the beginnings of SDI’s learning around citywide profiling with a standardised tool to take the SDI methodology and process of data collection to scale at a citywide level in slums/informal settlements and enhance the rigor and verifiability of our data. 

An increasing body of evidence suggests that the major cities of the Global South are overwhelmingly “slum cities,” in which a majority of residents live in neighbourhoods understood as “slums.” The objective of our work is to bring slums into relation with the ‘formal city’ and into the centre, rather than confined to the margins, of policy and development debates. The aim is not for inclusion by emphasis on the subaltern identity of slums and their dwellers in the city, but rather a shift to the recognition of the role and part of slums and their dwellers in the complexity of the city.

As We, the Invisible: a census of pavement dwellers in Mumbai asserted in 1985, “a society which permits and in fact depends on a large mass of unskilled and underpaid labour must also live with slums and pavement dwellers” (SPARC, 1985). Since then numerous other community-led profiles and enumerations of SDI federations, ranging from Joe Slovo in Cape Town to Old Fadama in Accra, have shown that slum/informal settlement dwellers are part and parcel of the dynamic of the city. These settlements and their residents contribute to the history and sociality of cities and fuel their economies, not just with their labour, but also with their own consumption. The data SDI federations collect about their lives and living conditions in the world’s informal settlements and slums concretises and legitimises what is at the core a political argument for both social and material change and a voice for the urban poor in the policies that affect their lives and living conditions.

Why This Matters

From a number of federations we are beginning the see and understand the power of standardised and aggregated data at the city level. The Uganda Federation has completed and verified settlement profiling for 62 identified slum settlements in the city of Kampala. A map of Kampala has been produced from data collected by the federations. The Kampala map shows the location and extent of the slums in the city. These areas cover an estimated 11,000 acres across the city and are home to a total estimated population of 2.5 million people. In Kampala, federation members using GPS devices mapped the settlement boundaries on the ground. Later these boundaries were verified by means of high-resolution maps and the settlement identification landmarks collected via the profile. As more often than not, a number of households, on average 5 but up to 10, may share a structure, the federation estimates the population based on the number of households multiplied by the average household size. Based on the federation data, the approximate population density of slum/informal settlement areas in Kampala would be 227 people/acre. The total area of Kampala city is 46,702 acres of which 43,490 acres are land and the remainder taken up by surface water bodies. This means that slum settlements, based on federation data may take up to 1/4 of available land in the city. The most recent census of Uganda was conducted in 2002. Accepted statistics estimate the city’s population at fewer than 1.7 million people and thus an estimated people to land ratio of 39 people/acre. According to a discussion paper delivered at the 2014 Annual World Bank Land and Poverty Conference, the National Slum Dwellers

Federation of Uganda (NSDFU) and support NGO ACTogether reports that “data cited in the Kampala Physical Development Plan […] claims there are only 500,000 people living in Kampala’s slums [and it] identifies 31 slums in Kampala – half the number identified by the NSDFU and ACTogether.”

In Zimbabwe, the Federation, alongside their local authority, “profiled the entire city of Harare, settlement by settlement” to identify peoples’ needs on the ground. This led to the transfer of land by the city to the communities for the construction of upgraded houses in Dzivaresekwa Extension, one of Harare’s largest slums.

The profiles completed by the Kenyan Federation thus far indicate that the central concerns for slum communities in Kenyan cities are access to land and access to adequate and safe sanitation. As most of the land occupied by slums in Kenya is privatized, and under high threat of eviction from developers looking to take back the land as land values in Kenya’s cities continue to rise, living space for the poor becomes increasingly precarious with little hope of engagement around upgrading and security of tenure. Interventions around sanitation, especially, have been nearly impossible and continue to threaten health and security of slum residents, especially women.

The Know Your City campaign marks a historic shift in data collection activities across the federation network. While maintaining a settlement-by-settlement approach, we are scaling up our arguments to encompass citywide scales of poverty and informality. We are putting renewed emphasis on the right of urban poor communities to collect and own the information and data about their lives and livelihoods and leverage these as powerful assets to claim inclusion in the cities in which they work and live. Moving from the local, based on our data, we are developing comprehensive and composite indicators to illuminate both the general and particular conditions of poverty and inequality in cities to challenge and simultaneously inform global sustainable development indicators proposed for the post-2015 development agenda.

Check out SDI’s 2013 – 2014 Annual Report for more on the Know Your City campaign.