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The role of communities in data justice

Edition: April-June 2018

Data today plays a far greater role in development than it has in the past.¹ It is regarded as a primary public good without which neither decisions nor actions can be taken. ² Widespread informality marked with poor record-keeping results in the failure of the government to create incisive plans for distribution of services. This lack of data exacerbates the exclusion of lower socio-economic groups from access to basic services, such as water and sanitation. Even when data is available, the process of accessing it is so complex and it requires specialised skills to understand. All of these problems represent structural data injustice, which goes to the heart of the Transparent Cities Network (TCN) initiative. TCN works with civil society organisations and low-income communities to co-create maps, data, and research that strengthens their advocacy.

In its most recent venture, TCN has partnered with Mahila Housing Trust (MHT) to work with members of fifteen informal settlements in Ranchi and five in Ahmedabad to co-create maps and data. The approach is that of participatory mapping so that we can integrate the latent knowledge of women in the community to create GIS maps. A perfect blend between the two captures substantive information on spatial inequalities in the distribution of services like water and sanitation. The paper mapping process commences with meeting the women who gather to participate in the paper mapping exercise.

Image 1: Community meeting in progress

We display satellite images of the slum to drive a conversation around how maps can support their conversations with public officials and why it is important that they create their own information to fill the gaps that exist in these images. The area to be mapped is identified and various mapping teams survey the area with a GPS-enabled phone to obtain the slum’s boundary, roads, and alleys. A team of mappers comprises two community women and one from MHT. 

Image 2: Hand-drawn maps on blank paper

Each team also maps houses, public utilities, and open spaces either on blank paper (Image 2) or on satellite images (Image 3). We use the former when the satellite images do not clearly show the houses either when tree cover obstructs the view of the houses or if the images are old and do not adequately show more recent additions. These images are then pieced together to draw a complete picture of the slum.

Image 3: satellite images of the area to be mapped

Through this participatory approach, we strive to meet the four essential pillars of data justice i.e., visibility, engagement, non-discrimination, and empowerment which I have described below.³

1.  Visibility: We witnessed several gaps in existing data during our mapping efforts. For instance, while the Ranchi Municipal Corporation has declared Ranchi to be Open Defecation Free, it was evident that this is far from factual.4 Through our mapping exercise, the community marked areas that they used for open defecation. The implication of this is that the sanitation needs of city residents remain invisible to the city government because of poor official data.  

2. Engagement: A participatory mapping approach is important to harness the community’s wealth of information. The women’s knowledge of their area proved to be invaluable, especially in instances where trained mappers found it difficult to identify features on a satellite image due to poor resolution. Going forward, they will take the lead in decision making based on the maps and monitor the actions that follow the decisions. A current limitation of the process, however, is that they cannot yet participate in the digitalisation of the information they create.

3. Discrimination: Right from the initial conversations, the facilitators’ method of leading discussions could result in bias and discrimination, which then hinders the mapping process.5 To avoid this, we deliberate over the choice of words and the vocabulary to be used, the manner of speaking, the tone and the style of delivery. In the next stages of our engagement, we will focus on how community members can use the data and maps to correct discrimination in service delivery.

4. Empowerment: Women, both young and old, in informal settlements face greater vulnerabilities in the absence of water, sanitation, and tenure security, the implications of which are felt by their families. Therefore, it is pertinent to integrate women in the spatial planning of critical services. Over the duration of our one-year engagement, our endeavour is to embed the capacity to create data, make decisions based on the data, and to engage with public officials using these data and maps with women. We expect this to empower women as changemakers in the longer term.

As we delve deeper into this project, we have come to appreciate the need to actively engage with communities and embedding technical capacity within them. It would have been far quicker to treat communities as mere respondents and use GIS experts to create maps. However, this approach would deprive communities of their right to participate in democratic processes and to leverage institutional mechanisms to improve life and livelihood. By making data creation low cost and low tech, TCN hopes to reduce some of the barriers to participation posed by accessibility to data and technology.


1. Hilbert, Martin. "Big Data for Development: A Review of Promises and Challenges." Development Policy Review 34, no. 1 (12, 2015): 135-74. doi:10.1111/dpr.12142.

2. Heeks, Richard, and Jaco Renken. "Data Justice for Development." Information Development 34, no. 1 (11, 2016): 90-102. doi:10.1177/0266666916678282.

3. Taylor, Linnet. "What Is Data Justice? The Case for Connecting Digital Rights and Freedoms Globally." Big Data & Society 4, no. 2 (11 2017): 205395171773633. doi:10.1177/2053951717736335.

4. "Ranchi To Become Open Defecation Free By October 2: M Venkaiah Naidu | News." NDTV-Dettol Banega Swachh India. September 06, 2017.

5. Chambers, Robert. "Participatory Mapping and Geographic Information Systems: Whose Map? Who Is Empowered and Who Disempowered? Who Gains and Who Loses?" The Electronic Journal of Information Systems in Developing Countries 25, no. 1 (06 2006): 1-11. doi:10.1002/j.1681-4835.2006.tb00163.






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