In the past year, I’ve been focusing more on one of the roles that PlaceMatters is uniquely positioned to play—getting information from academics and researchers into the hands of practitioners. Because PlaceMatters bridges the research and tool/method development world and the practitioner world, we can help make sure practitioners are learning from research happening in universities on topics ranging from individual and group decision-making to tool development to effective data visualization.
Along these lines, I was recently sent a copy of the book “Who Counts? The Power of Participatory Statistics,” a collection of articles and case studies on the use of participatory data and information collection and knowledge sharing. The book, edited by Jeremy Holland at the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex, focuses on international development and describes best practices for a variety of participatory techniques.
The book’s introduction is packed with useful information and an overview of participatory statistic and grassroots data collection and use, and how recent improvements in methodology are making participatory research more robust. In addition, I was particularly interested in the chapter on Participatory 3D Modelling, by Giacomo Rambaldi of the Technical Center for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation in the Netherlands.
Rambaldi discusses examples of the use of large 3D representations (generally the base of which is constructed using thin layers of durable material. Participants then add push pins, yarn, and other markers to represent their mental maps and knowledge of the area. Many features can then be verified using GPS, and the resulting maps are frequently more accurate than official maps. Rambaldi describes a process like this in Ethiopia that was geared toward helping the community repair environmental degradation from deforestation.
The mapping process in Ethiopia provided an opportunity for adults to remember and describe to youth what the environment had been like, and realize the impacts of deforestation on livelihoods. In addition, it provided an educational opportunity for all, since the mapping exercise meant participants thought about the connections between different parts of the ecosystem.
While this chapter was perhaps the most similar to work that PlaceMatters does in the U.S., there are many case studies and articles that are relevant to informed civic engagement in decision-making processes as well as the use of participatory statistics in evaluating program success. A few points that were raised overall, among projects around the world:
- Participatory GIS, research, modeling, etc. must be carefully designed to be authentically participatory and include not only the elite
- The information that comes out of participatory processes can lead to community empowerment, but also to the use of the data and information to further disempower residents—for example, identification of additional resources to be extracted by business or government. (PlaceMatters has been working on the flip side of this coin, advocating for the opening of datasets for the public to use).
- New technologies such as OpenStreetMap, Ushahidi’s Crowdmap, wikis, and mobile tech are making participatory research, data collection and statistics easier and more accurate.
While “Who Counts?” focuses on international projects, its take-home lessons resonate with anyone working on engaging community. Some of the methodologies described would be easily transferred to domestic settings, and could be an improvement on the way we are engaging (particularly in non-urban settings). The book is worth a look, even for those of us not in international development.