Community-owned data | Big Bold Cities

Community-owned data

Involving marginalized communities in census _ mapping

three colored squaresCommunity-owned data


In order to bring the residents of informal neighborhoods onto the governance ‘grid,’ an alliance of community-based organizations and NGOs developed a methodology for community self-census. The process of surveying one’s neighbors is itself a community-building and capacity-building exercise, and the products—a registry, maps and ID cards—allow residents to access government programs and services and assert their property rights. The Slum Dwellers International global network has signed an MoU with United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG,) the global municipal association, to spread the participatory-census methodology to more cities worldwide using standardized questionnaires.

Democratic Challenge

According to United Nations estimates, around 1 billion people now live in informal urban settlements. These ‘slums’ are typically viewed as illegitimate and undesirable by authorities. Accordingly, there are often no official maps or surveys of these areas, so their social and physical infrastructure exist ‘off the grid,’ rendering the communities invisible for official planning, development and participatory purposes.

How’d They Do It?

For more than three decades, SPARC (Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centers) has been collecting data to empower poor communities. The community organization conducted landmark, community-led counts of Mumbai’s pavement dwellers in the 1980s to fight evictions and give policymakers a more accurate picture of the families, homes and businesses that would be impacted by proposed ‘redevelopment.’

More recently, SPARC⸺which has an India-wide alliance with the National Slum Dwellers Federation (NSDF) and the women’s micro-finance organization Mahila Milan⸺has begun working with local communities and the global slum-dweller network to modernize and standardize the methodology for participatory slum surveying and mapping. This includes using GIS to link social data with spatial data. The process of creating a permanent slum registry and map involves and empowers residents at each step, in order to be truly participatory:

  • Collecting and processing data: Community members discuss and debate the questions that will be included in the survey, and they act as enumerators to collect information about the housing, services and infrastructure in their neighborhoods. First, residents participate in numbering their homes and other structures to create a draft outline of their settlement, which begins the process of formalizing addresses. Household surveys are conducted in the language the community is most comfortable in, and residents use the surveys to manually create a register. This method embeds the knowledge locally and strengthens community bonds by allowing residents to explore their communities and have discussions about the information that will be reflected in the data.
  • Owning and accessing data: Community organizations and federations retain ownership of the data, which helps in addressing the most salient needs and finding the best possible solutions. Residents whose households have been added to the register can receive ID cards with a family photo. (The alliance has also begun building a geographic database to plot households on slum maps.) The ID allows residents to document their identity which can assist families in accessing immunizations, education and job training. Identification also makes it possible for residents to receive government subsidies for housing, sanitation or income generation, or to fight eviction. Some resident federations have even led governments in the adoption of newer technology like biometric ID cards.
  • Planning and engaging authorities: The registries provide accurate, up-to-date demographic information at the household and settlement level, which is helpful for understanding collective conditions and advocating for or negotiating effective interventions with relevant authorities. SPARC collaborates with resident organizations on multiple community-development projects, such as:
    • Planning, design and construction of community toilets commissioned by the Mumbai city government. The projects engage residents in responsibly managing and maintaining the facilities.
    • Community policing councils (‘police panchayats’) made up of seven women, three men and one police officer to proactively address crime and safety, particularly violence against women, in areas with limited or no police presence.

How Is It Going?

  • 67,000 households had been mapped as of mid-2017.
  • SPARC has created training videos for replicating the participatory-census methodology.
  • The Slum Dwellers International global network has signed an MoU with United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG,) the global municipal association, to spread the participatory-census methodology to more cities worldwide using standardized questionnaires. It also trains resident associations in surveying techniques in hopes of making its census and mapping methodology a standard operating procedure for any government agency initiating a development project.


  • Trust: Community-generated datasets may be more comprehensive and accurate, since in many contexts residents will be more willing to give information to their neighbors than to enumerators sent in by governments or NGOs.
  • Community data ownership. SPARC’s annual report notes that the digitization, use and analysis of data is often “claimed by professionals,” even in the context of projects that place information in the public domain. It is important to SPARC, SDI and their partners that survey data is owned, managed and used by community organizations.
  • Flexible funding. When undertaking community development projects, the SPARC-SDI-Mahila Milan alliance originally responded to diverse needs at the local level by funding small-scale pilots that, if successful, would be shared with the rest of the network and with governments. As the alliance became larger and needs became harder to anticipate, the alliance developed an unspecified ‘precedent setting’ fund. This has been an important resource for encouraging organic innovation and scaling.

Who Else Is Trying This

The City launched a co-creation planning process—billed as “participatory re-urbanization”—which is aimed at ensuring that residents of informal neighborhoods are invested in the collective effort to reintegrate them into the social fabric of the city. Civic groups such as civic-tech firm Wingu and the Civil Association for Equality and Justice have provided tools and technical assistance through a project called Caminos de la Villa. Wingu’s technology helped to map some settlements for the first time in their history. The project partners also worked with residents to request public information, monitor public works and file claims. Read more