Producing and Aggregating Local Knowledge

by James Tayler


By Luis M.A. Bettencourt, Anni Beukes, and José Lobo

The power of the SDI network is predicated on the strength of collective action. The power of knowledge is predicated on its scope, quality, and credibility. At the close of 2017, SDI-affiliated slum dweller organizations had profiled 103 cities covering 1,238 settlements.

Settlement profiling is a process driven by the community for the community. It was designed by slum dweller communities to organize and empower themselves through knowledge. The process of profiling their settlement together fosters social cohesion, contributes to constructive conflict resolution and consensus building, and lays the foundation of a social infrastructure that supports long-term planning and implementation of development projects.

Over the past decade, SDI has recognized the power of aggregating local data. While the aggregated data conventionally used for city planning uses samples and averages of data from formal and informal areas, KYC takes detailed information on informal settlements and aggregates this to generate a unique global database on informal settlements.

After the initial success of data aggregation at city, metro, and country levels—the Nairobi Slum Profiles in Kenya, the Ekurhuleni Profiles in South Africa, and the Community Land Information Program (CLIP) in Namibia—SDI federations set out on an ambitious path to map all of the cities in which they had a presence, settlement by settlement. By aggregating their settlement profiles at the city level, federations could: 1) demonstrate their capacity to collect data at scale; and 2) harness the power of aggregated data to negotiate at settlement and city level with their local government. This would contribute to better and more effective planning with their local governments and better serve an international agenda for inclusive cities.

A central objective of profiling is that members of the community discuss and identify their most pressing problems, agree on priorities, listen to one another (women may experience different problems than men; the young may see things differently than the old), and harmonize the many voices that are heard. By means of a general survey, a settlement profile collects the baseline data of a settlement, including information related to demographics, shelter, access to basic services, and community development priorities. This is often followed by a household enumeration, during which a door-to-door, household-by-household census is conducted.

KYC is a scalable data system and a common platform that will improve over time through the contributions of many different communities, stakeholders, and partner organizations. It will drive the accumulation of knowledge, which in turn will inform policy solutions and action at local, city, national, and international levels.

Data Quality, Completeness, and Verifiability

Efforts to improve the collection of data about informal settlements initially focused on issues of data quality, completeness, and verifiability. The intention was, and remains, to use data to document and tell powerful stories about communities’ needs and aspirations, stories that can guide policymaking at local, city, national, and international levels. “Hard Data and Rich Stories” is the way SDI describes it.

Changes and innovations to the KYC data system follow a careful path of evolution. To avoid community processes being tool-driven, technology is used carefully as an enhancer and facilitator of human practices that were slow, burdensome, and prone to error or omission. Throughout these processes, technology (cell phones, portable GPS devices, aerial and remote photography, and mapping) is introduced incrementally to complement and facilitate the community process.

As the KYC data system moved through cycles of development and testing, valuable lessons emerged about managing and mediating the inevitable clash of perspectives among diverse stakeholders hoping to use community data. The values that underpin KYC are the core of its effective and transformative potential:

  • By and for the community: Informal settlement profiles must be conducted in the interest of local communities, and must be carried out by the community for the community. Only then can local knowledge capture people’s priorities.
  • Accurate, comprehensive, and verifiable: Data collected must be accurate, comprehensive, and verifiable by third parties.
  • Comparable: Data collections must document comparable human-centric problems across settlements so that analysis and assessments at the city, national, regional, and international levels become possible. Currently, data collections document the size (population, area, dwellings) and location of a settlement, its leadership structure, residents’ land tenure status, and the community’s priorities, as well as creating a detailed record of available physical, economic, and social services, with attention paid to access (public, private) and cost (money and time).
  • Accessible, transparent: Data and information about each local community is archived in a shared online platform, accessible in principle to any stakeholder. Data collection was designed in such a way as to allow transparent peer-to-peer comparison between data collections in different settlements. One goal was to facilitate data quality improvements and augmentations from any place of origin to the entire network. The Know Your City website is the visible face of the KYC data platform.

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KYC is continuously growing in scope and quality, while at the same time maintaining a staunch commitment to keep mapping and urban planning tools in the hands of community members. Profile questionnaires have been standardized and rigorously tested on multiple platforms; geo-referencing is mandatory; means of verification are embedded in the data collection tools and community protocols; standard questionnaires can be modified to accommodate different contexts, shocks, and stresses such as natural disasters, flooding, typhoons, and earthquakes; and slum dwellers, especially women and youth, are vigorously trained through “learning-by-doing” approaches in the art of digital data collection and management.

Looking Ahead

As quality assurance improvements are standardized, higher-level uses of the data have come into focus. Community data collection needs to be explicitly future-oriented, and it must enable rapid design of solutions to problems that recur almost everywhere. Specifically, we see three main areas for future expansion and improvement in the scope and power of these data collections:

An evolving toolkit for space-time mapping: Thanks to the democratization of mapping tools, documenting issues and analyzing data in rich and verifiable ways is now much easier than even just a few years ago. These tools are being deployed at a variety of scales in the profiling, enumeration, and mapping of neighborhoods as part of KYC. SDI and its partners have digitized maps showing every house, every street and public space, and every service point (and its condition). The maps are layered with socioeconomic and demographic data, stories and micro-narratives from community members, and visual media produced by slum dweller youth as part of KYC TV. The advent of new automatic tools from remote and aerial imagery—for example, the use of aerial drones and other new information technologies, especially as developed by for-profit companies—requires creative thinking to ensure these serve civic purposes.

Solving coordination problems in urban planning: Any lasting solution for the condition of informal settlements requires the coordination of information and action among stakeholders. This may be as simple as a systematic improvement in services, including joint status monitoring by communities and city agencies; or it may include systematic neighborhood upgrading, which requires building streets and infrastructure and upgrading or moving houses and other existing structures. These solutions are all predicated on solving a complex “coordination problem.” The interests of different individuals, communities, and organizations need to be explicitly identified, articulated, and aligned in any proposed solution or policy. More detailed spatial profiling can place these stakeholders literally “on the same map.” Such profiling in turn can be manipulated to display upgrading solutions such as changes in the built environment and the functioning of services. Using settlement profiles to solve multi-stakeholder coordination problems will generate better urban planning solutions, create trust among participants, and contribute to the development of improving civic institutions.

Real-time reporting for participatory citizenship: Community data collection is not merely a source of input into policy-making and neighborhood upgrading. Since SDI’s founding, data gathering has been part of the struggle to gain recognition, exercise participatory citizenship, and improve the lives of slum dwellers. Communities of the urban poor everywhere are demanding engagement. This requires governments, NGOs, and international organizations to collaborate with increasingly empowered and informed communities in jointly devising solutions. The technology now exists to make data collection and the sharing and discussion of citizen input fast and reliable—from 311 and 911 help lines in many developed cities to community profiling done with cell phones and tablets in informal settlements throughout the Global South. What is required is a fundamental rethinking of how community data can inform and lead to fairer and more effective actions that ensure that even the poorest neighborhoods in the world participate in, and benefit from, urban development.

In February, SDI launched a landmark publication titled “Know Your City: Slum Dwellers Count,” showcasing the extraordinary contribution of the Know Your City (KYC) campaign to creating understanding and taking action to reduce urban poverty and exclusion. We are posting a new chapter from the book every week. Enjoy! 

Download the full publication here: