Data for the people: a co-designed solution

| Robin Forrester

The Bristol Approach is empowering local people to use tech and data to tackle the issues they care about.

The sheer quantity of information created every day is mind-boggling. According to a study by IBM, 90% of all the world’s data was created in the last two years. 

True, a significant proportion of that data is cat memes. But we’ve seen some amazing improvements in the public sector; everything from traffic systems to ambulance response times have been improved by big data analysis.

However, there are growing concerns that it’s not all positive. There are serious questions to be answered about privacy. And there is a danger that the decisions affecting people’s lives are becoming less transparent and less personal.

The Bristol Approach to Citizen Sensing

For many people working in science and tech, these downsides are simply the price of progress, bumps on the road to a more efficient and productive world.

The Bristol Approach felt differently. They wanted to create a model for collecting public information that was inclusive, transparent and relevant. 

Developed by Ideas for Change, Knowle West Media Centre and Bristol City Council, ‘The Bristol Approach to Citizen Sensing’ was designed to involve local people every step of the way.

In their own words: ‘Citizen Sensing is about empowering people to understand and use data… to tackle the issues they care about, connect with other people, and take positive, practical action’.

Citizens as Sensors

Citizen Sensing is best explained through the story of its pilot project, ‘Damp Busters’.

The scheme began by simply speaking to local people — an obvious but often overlooked first step in identifying social problems. Again and again, damp housing was raised in conversations and public forums; it became apparent that landlords and local authorities in Bristol were ignoring the issue. 

In order to persuade local government to take the issue seriously, The Bristol Approach felt they needed more data to demonstrate the scale of the problem. With more evidence, the community would be able to challenge negligent landlords and better argue for policy change.

Residents came together for practical workshops run by artists and creative technologists to come up with a solution.

Co-designing solutions

The result? A prototype frog-cased-sensor (because frogs don’t mind the damp!) to gather temperature and humidity data in homes. The sensor sat on a lily paper pad, a ‘data diary’ for people to record their own notes and experiences.

All the data was recorded on a reporting map built using open source software and tested by residents, community groups and damp experts.

As in so many co-design projects, the scheme achieved far more than its initial brief. It helped tackle an important local issue, but it also engaged the community, taught people new skills and laid the groundwork for future relationships between community organisations.

“The Bristol Approach is interesting because it is not just a matter of getting the technology right – it’s a much more holistic approach,” said one of the local residents who participated in the workshops.

After its successful pilot, Knowle West Media Centre has gone on to apply this innovative co-design method of data capture to air quality, mental health and food waste programmes.

Reflecting on the program, KWMC’s Rachel Clarke said: ‘We’ve seen how successful this way of working can be in creating positive change, led by the people who want to see it happen’.

The Bristol Approach is the perfect example of co-design done well. It’s a great reminder that data research and tech design can be both scientific and human. Afterall, when local communities are included we have a far better chance of creating something that people need.

If you’d like to hear about their latest projects, check out The Bristol Approach website.

Images courtesy of Knowle West Media Centre

Photo by Joshua Sortino 

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