"In South Africa and Mexico, two different approaches to data collection address urban challenges. The two data-driven stories underline the importance of local contexts and adaptability of practices. The key solution is not in the perfect figures and big numbers."

Two different countries, two different methodologies, two different people. From South Africa and Mexico, Emily Moholho and Juan Manuel Casanueva work with two different ways of data collection. One stands for the old school, traditional form of collecting information, whereas the other one underpins more modern technological practices. Both of them, with their own strategy and tools, use data collection in order to strengthen their communities and innovate their cities. Their practices prove to be very successful for community and citizen empowerment, despite their structural differences.

As our cities are faced with various urban challenges, like inequality, unemployment, or corruption, several initiatives have turned to data collection practices in order to legitimize their calls for change. With the rise of technological advancements, like open data, a new range of possibilities are focusing on digitalizing data collection tools. Yet, these new technologies are not available in every city. It is becoming obvious that data-driven practices have to be tailored to the local contexts, and their influence of urban issues and policy-making is relevant even if using the basic ‘pen and paper’ techniques.

Data collection is a key tool for community empowerment, since once you collect your data, you know exactly what is happening there. Information is power. By sharing the information, we know each other. An NGO can do it professionally, but for us, everything is on the paper.” – Emily Moholho

Emily Mohohlo ©Het-Nieuwe-Instituut

In South Africa, Emily Moholho, dares to prove the power of information and data within the informal settlements. From knocking on all house doors and completing forms, Emily works with the traditional way of collecting data. She engages the citizens by bringing them together when collecting information regarding their living conditions. “The first thing is data collection for the community to see the number of people. We do profiling, enumeration and mapping. We are the poor people, depending on the municipality and the government. But by collecting our data we meet them halfway.”

Poor communities in South Africa deal with a series of problems and dangerous situations. Emily, together with the Federation of the Urban Poor, wants to increase and foster the local community’s power and recognition. They are working together on lots of upgrading, housing and income generation projects.

“There are obstacles within the community. As we are knocking on the door, we might run into more violent cases. It is not easy, but having meetings or talking to each other, has helped us a lot. In the Cape Town Flamingo area, that was the most difficult to be enumerated because most of the people did not want to cooperate in the beginning. But today it is a very beautiful area, and children have now a place to play.” – Emily Moholho

Improving the living conditions in informal settlements in South Africa has always been a difficult task. The big numbers regarding social and economic situations in cities can be provided, yet they lack detailed accounts and analysis that can pinpoint the exact areas that are in need of change. Not everyone in poor countries is poor. Here is where initiatives such as Emily’s come in to provide more in-depth information, and call for action from the government. She stands her ground in front of government officials with simple A4 papers filled with detailed numbers on communities and living conditions, not high-tech data visualization charts. Making data collection practices relevant for urban transformations has nothing to do with creating the perfect figures to describe the poor socio-economic contexts. Simple accounts and concrete numbers are enough to start improving the local situation.

By referring to the informal settlements, Emily explains why it is important to reveal these numbers: “A lot of things are happening there, because there are no clear numbers. Drug abuse, alcohol, crime, all these are happening in the informal settlements. For this, we start collecting data in our community and we try to understand why is this happening. For example, there is no sanitation, no water.” Having exact data on the community’s living conditions offers more leverage in the discussions with government officials.

It’s not just about data, its about mobilization and organization” – Emily Mohohlo

Emily Mohohlo (right) during the Urban Stories Festival: From data to storyline ©Pakhuis de Zwijger

This local initiative is an example on how basic data collection practices can strengthen and improve communities in South Africa. The municipality, despite being reluctant in the beginning, started supporting their initiative. “At first, the municipality did not believe our numbers, but when we started the enumerations and profiling, we wanted someone from the municipality to see what we did. We want them to help us, and work with us so they know our numbers.”

At a local basis, Emily proves that it is possible to work together with the municipality and create a community network at a larger scale. “We first go to the community meetings in the informal settlements. By visiting each and every house, we collect the data, taking information and mapping. Doing that we get skills as a community. We also started an exchange program. Going from South Africa even to Nairobi, seeing other people, being in workshops with them, we learn how they do profiling and enumerations.”

In the spirit of ‘digitalization’, such practices of data collection have expanded through technological advancements. In Mexico, Juan Manuel Casanueva empowers social change projects through the use of ICT. His organization SocialTIC is an NGO that enables open data and digital tools to help city-makers influence urban policies.

We saw technical need for social solutions” – Juan Manuel Casanueva

Juan Manuel Casanueva ©Kennisland

Working together with journalists, grassroots organizations or more formal institutions, he strengthens local opportunities through gathering and analyzing data. Together with people from various disciplines, and backed by data, they jointly focus on a more transparent, democratic, representative policy system. Within a great range of diversity in Mexico, Juan Manuel works with data touching upon different contexts. “The context in Mexico is quite a reflection of a big part of Latin America where everything is extremely diverse. You may find spots with a huge digital divide context. On the other hand, you can see fancy or hipster spots where everyone has WIFI and a Samsung or iPhone.”

Juan Manuel gathers information by using various digital methods, depending on each case. “We actually adapt to each context. We can work with proper, formal, institutionalized data and we just extract the data from PDFs, images or scanned documents. Or the other way around, sometimes we use trackers, sensors or people doing surveys. It depends on what we want to find out and the different types of complexities within each project.”

SocialTIC intends to empower citizens and actors for social change by providing data and technology. The most important goal is to strengthen the voices of citizens and have an impact on digital citizenship and the digital divide. His open-data and transparent strategies help facilitate more prepared and innovative change-makers ecosystems.

Infographics are not always most effective. Tell your story offline for maximum awareness, than bring it back online for maximum impact” – Juan Manual Casanueva

Juan Manuel Casanueva (right) during the Urban Stories Festival: From data to storyline ©Pakhuis de Zwijger

Undoubtedly, there is more power attributed to data collection processes through the use of technology. SocialTIC has a series of experiments with high-tech tactics that allow data and information transfer from the online to the offline medium and back, reaching a wider population. Juan Manuel pointed out the significance of transparency and consent, with regards to data sharing: “We are very strict on what we could do or how we should visualize that info.  For example, we could not either share or sale that information in a detailed manner. So you cannot identify one individual partner. Also, all individuals are anonymous.”

Despite using two significantly different data collection practices, both Emily and Juan Manuel help strengthen and foster the local communities. The common ground between these two initiatives suggests that data gathering and digitalization can undoubtedly foster more democratic and citizen-centered practices. Data collection tools offer opportunities for citizens to speak-up on their needs, problems or conditions, leading to more cohesive and empowered areas. The key to these processes is the detailed level of the information. Although big numbers and intricate data visualizations can portray the ‘big picture’, simple and clear information from local contexts can provide governments with insights that can lead to actual change within the city.

This article was written in collaboration with Monica Ciovica.

Feeling inspired? Watch the video below from the event Urban Stories Festival: From data to storyline, at Pakhuis de Zwijger, where both Emily and Juan Manuel speak about the relevance of data with regards to city-making.


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