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Big data, small places: building a better evidence base

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Analysis of big data is telling us more and more about the world, from the state of our health and the environment to global population trends. It also has potential to generate important insights about small places, informing how our local communities develop and grow. In Scotland, for example, powerful online tools provide data about our population, public services and areas of deprivation. However, according to participants in our recent workshops at the Scottish Rural Parliament, this potential is not being fully realised.

The first of two workshops on place-based policy and evidence, held at the North West Castle Hotel, during the Scottish Rural Parliament in Stranraer, 14-16 November 2018, and jointly led by the James Hutton Institute and Scotland’s Rural College. Photo:Marianna Markantoni

In the workshops, which explored place-based policy and the evidence we need to inform it, participants shared personal experiences of data being available that's of relevance to the concerns of their own communities, but which isn't usable or useful for a variety of reasons.

The problems of place-based data
First, available data doesn't always match what we see with our own eyes, with local observations sometimes seeming to contradict what the data shows. This can happen when data is out of date, rounded or suppressed because it involves small numbers, or (in the case of surveys) where the sample of respondents is not sufficiently representative of the local population.

Second, sometimes the available data is not the right data. Participants in our workshops told us that they are regularly asked about local issues through surveys and consultations, but that these often do not address the right questions about the right issues in the right ways. This can be the result of a lack of local knowledge or urban bias on the part of researchers – using car ownership as an indicator of wealth is a classic example, where the meaning is quite different in urban and rural contexts. There can also be a tendency to ask questions that are easy to answer, rather than trying to measure more complex issues – culture was cited as an example – which can be more meaningful and which speak more to the lived experiences of local people.

Third, high quality data might be available but can be difficult to access. It’s not always clear where to look in the first place for data on a particular topic. Once relevant data has been found, a high level of data literacy is needed to interrogate it effectively. While dashboards make it easier to interact with data and to produce impressive maps and charts, this does not bypass the need to understand what the data measures and what the analysis means.

A message that emerged strongly from the workshops was that access to good quality data can enable people to make informed decisions about their communities, to design community-led improvement initiatives, to bid for funding and to lobby for change, generating a sense of community empowerment. On the other hand, where access to good quality data is poor, this can contribute to a sense of disempowerment – and indeed to community decline.

Small communities can be empowered through access to meaningful data. Photo credit: Author

Challenges for researchers
These views provoke challenging conversations for us, as social researchers, with regard to how our well-worn practices work in rural contexts:

First, in this age of big data, we need to think creatively about how to design studies that shine light on the concerns facing our small communities. How can we convey that, while the number of people affected by a particular issue might be small, the impact of that issue on a small community can be high?

Second, we need to go the extra mile to ensure that we are asking the right people about the right things at the right time. This is a core part of a researcher’s job in any situation, but needs more consideration when the research aims to understand the particularities of local contexts, especially given the urban interpretations we may be prone to bring.

And third, we need a shift in practice in terms of how data and findings are shared, to ensure that they are accessible to the individuals and communities that participate in our place-based research, in all of the ways described above.

Opportunities for better place-based research
There are, though, opportunities to do better place-based research and build a more effective evidence base. As social researchers, we know that no one is more knowledgeable about local communities than the people who live in them. The established practice is to gather data from these people directly (our respondents), but we suggest that we need to go a step further and work with local people (as partners) to co-design and co-conduct place-based research that matters to them. This will sometimes call for qualitative studies that highlight the particularities of places and communicate findings in a way that is clear and constructive. By combining the tools and methods of social research with the knowledge of local people, we can gather evidence that is fit to inform decisions that affect local places and to trigger cycles of community empowerment.

This blog is my personal reflection on workshops run by colleagues Jonathan Hopkins (James Hutton Institute), Jane Atterton (SRUC) and myself at the 2018 Scottish Rural Parliament in Stranraer. Many thanks to our participants for their contributions. Did we miss anything? Please comment below.
 

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog post are the views of the author, and not an official position of the institute or funder.

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Printed from /blogs/segs/big-data-small-places-building-better-evidence-base on 22/08/19 07:49:57 AM

The James Hutton Research Institute is the result of the merger in April 2011 of MLURI and SCRI. This merger formed a new powerhouse for research into food, land use, and climate change.