MDG : Data revolution


OCCASIONALLY COMMUNITIES HAVE TROUBLE telling their own stories.  It often happens during times of transition, when change moves faster than a city’s ability to understand it.

This is what happened in London when it came to a growing poverty problem.  While places like the London Food Bank were reporting that their clientele had climbed 40% in the last five years, London struggled to determine what was happening and what were the causes.

The answers were never fully clear because the data required to get a good grasp on the problem was just not available.  Much of the data presently in use has come from Statistics Canada but was regionally based and couldn’t drill down to isolate what was really happening in our city.  The killing off of the long-form census only compounded the problem.  Numerous agencies had gathered data for the operation of their own organizations, but these often remained in isolation, not gathered or collated into a grander study.  And much of the poverty research for London was accomplished by academic institutions – data that ended up in academic journals or eventually consigned to library bookshelves

Even a decade ago there had been an increasing voice in London searching for some kind of central place for data capture, but then came the great financial fallout beginning in 2008 – a period where every community was preoccupied with attempting to just survive the significant economic fallout locally, nationally, and globally.

The need for better research in poverty in London remained and two groups came together to discuss the possibility of providing a centre solely dedicated to understanding poverty in London through the accumulation and promotion of accurate research.  The Sisters of St. Joseph and the London Food Bank decided to work together towards the possibility of establishing a dedicated research centre to study poverty in our city.  Resources were channeled from both organizations to begin the process, but it became quickly apparent that more funding would be required.

Application was made by a joint proposal from both organizations to the London Community Foundation’s Vitality Grant program – a process that eventually resulted in a grant of $250,355 dedicated specifically to the founding and establishment of the London Poverty Research Centre.

Larger community consultations took place with key partners to instigate data sharing agreements, collaboration, and an agreement to work together to harmonize stories about poverty in London and how it might be beaten

A task force had been established, charged with steering the new organization into the future.  It selected three key areas for research in the Centre’s first few years – 1) precarious work; 2) food security; 3) mental health and housing.  The focus will be on “Living Research” – the inclusion of those living in poverty to tell their stories in real-time and to help shape the effectiveness of the forthcoming research.

From its inception, the London Poverty Research Centre determined that along with the importance of research, there also had to be a strong public component centered on education, the importance of media (traditional and social), the need to inform politicians and policy makers, and the ultimate need to draw Londoners themselves into the dialogue about growing poverty and how to tackle it.

Productive talks have been underway between the Poverty Research Centre and King’s University College to partner together to bring relevant data for public consumption and for policy discussion.

The London Poverty Research Centre was launched yesterday – four months following the initial grant from the London Community Foundation.  With its proposed partnership with King’s University College, the research centre now has in place solid academic support and an exciting mandate to take any findings “public,” to inform debate and tackle poverty at its root causes.

There were a few complaints when the centre was announced yesterday, saying, “Hasn’t enough research been accumulated already?  Isn’t it time to take action?”  The answer to such well-intentioned queries is yes and no.  Not enough research has been done from the standpoint of those living in direct poverty that permits them to build their personal stories directly into the data itself.  And, yes, much research has been done.  But for it to be actionable, it must be brought together into a compelling voice that can gain traction in the public space.  Maybe then politicians and citizens alike will work together for community equity.

London has been through years of difficult transition, but the key to finding a new future lies in our knowledge of what our direct challenges are.  With the presence of the London Poverty Research Centre, our community will be provided with the relevant data to face and change the future of poverty in London through knowledge of both the statistics and direct stories of those struggling in poverty.  The future begins with the gathering of that knowledge and its direct placement in the hands of leaders and citizens alike to build the community they want.

The poor have become lost in all the data about them.  It is time to put those struggling in poverty into the narrative itself and provide them opportunity to shape their own future, just as we wish do with ours.  It can be a compelling story, but first it must be a collective and a collected voice.