Before setting up the City Fellows programme, Helen Manchester and I were working on a 5 year programme of co-produced research with community organisations, Productive Margins. One of the main conclusions for me from this work was the following: that to engage communities at the margins generally excluded from structures of power and decision-making we need to support and maintain an ‘experientially sensitive’ infrastructure of community-focused organisations working in collaboration with local universities and local government. (You can find more in the final chapter of the book the team produced, Imagining Regulation Differently. We used the (rather clumsy) term ‘experientially sensitive’ to denote the idea that expertise derived from everyday experience is an essential form of knowledge and practice that needs to be central to structures of power and decision-making.
Communities in Focus – harnessing the potential of community-generated data
With this concern for infrastructure came an interest in the role and potentialities of data generated by and in communities. Data is an essential part of infrastructures in the same way as communication and transport systems are. The project aims to make community-generated data more productive – making data flow in ways that enable the experiential expertise of communities to intervene and influence city governance.
At the instigation of Wellspring Settlement, the project set out to i) explore innovative ways in which community-generated data can be used to inform new initiatives and policy interventions within the city, and ii) explore the potential for the database being adopted more broadly across the City in order to build up comprehensive, comparable information about the needs and attributes of the city’s diverse communities.
The Coronavirus context
When Wellspring Settlement was appointed one of Bristol’s community hubs to respond to community needs in the current Covid-19 crisis the direction of data flows shifted slightly. From just before lockdown WS set up a survey to engage with those in the local Lawrence Hill Community, alongside those who access their services across East Bristol, to gather information about community needs during the Coronavirus pandemic. The intention was to give the Settlement real time and ongoing community information to inform how the hub services should be developed and as empirical evidence to lobby for the area with the City Council and others. The Settlement asked for help in analysing data, to devise and implement data collection methods into the future and to produce reports. Over the spring and summer of 2020 myself, a research associate Jack Nicholls, and three student researchers Gwen Brown, Nia Jones and Judith Kibuye, produced a series of reports (available on the Wellspring Settlement and City Fellows website).
However, one limitation of the survey as a tool for collecting data is the respondents to the survey do not reflect ethnic mix of the Lawrence Hill area nor the mix of communities who engage with the Settlement. This is an important learning point for a project that seeks to use the power of community-generated data, and important to reflect back to policy-makers who very often place great weight on seemingly large-scale survey information.
The project to realise the potential of the Wellspring Settlement database and the potential for data collection across the city is now about to begin, with resources for more student researchers and a research associate funded through a successful UoB grant bid to the Office for Students. One of the aims of this project is to generate data that can feed into Bristol’s future-looking One City Plan, data that arises from the communities of Lawrence Hill and the wider communities that engage in the Wellspring Settlement. A longer-term aim of this project is to explore the potential for the database – or similar approaches to community-generated data collection – to be brought into play across the City.
Alongside this data project, I and others in the University of Bristol are now working on a project with Locality South West to look at the future for the infrastructure of community organisations in the City
Challenges and Opportunities
The Locality Research
Locality has just launched a research report which shows the ‘importance of existing social infrastructure and community resources that have been built up over time: including community assets, local services, volunteer capacity, partnerships and networks’. The aims for their future work are:
- To demonstrate to policymakers that community organisations have the answers to the big challenges they are trying to solve
- To demonstrate the essential role of community organisations in the coronavirus/post coronavirus context.
- To set out path/recommendations for strengthening and harnessing the power of community organisations as a response to big social and economic challenges we are facing and will face
- To support the power of community brand campaign to champion the community organisation model.
Locality SW have proposed that UoB bring its research potential to work with a collaboration of local community anchors to looking to developing an ‘invest-able proposition’ to put to the City, Region and communities to take them forward for the next 10-15 years which would
- Examine the consequences of recession: exponentially increased needs in communities alongside dramatic depletion in community organisations’ resources
- Rethink financial models
- Examine the opportunities and challenges of mergers and partnerships
Priorities for moving forward
- to establish a working brief for the community anchors project with Locality which enables UoB research resources to complement the expertise and knowledge of Locality members to shape strategy-making in the City
- bringing others in UoB into the collaboration – the work so far has been in collaboration with others in UoB, particularly Malu Villela-Garcia and Martin Parker of Inclusive Economies Institute
- possibly identify another City for comparative study/to enable cross-fertilisation of ideas
- to identify connections and linkages with other City Fellows work
- to work with the Social Justice Projects as advisers and reflectors to take this forward