Little Data, Big Solutions: How Cities and Universities Can Create More Meaningful and Equitable Policy

Little Data, Big Solutions: How Cities and Universities Can Create More Meaningful and Equitable Policy
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By Diana Graizbord, Jamie McPike, and Nicole Pollock

There’s been a lot of talk about the power of Big Data for governance, democracy, and civic innovation. Big Data has swept the imagination of many academics and policymakers and is increasingly seen as vital to the work of city halls across the country. Big Data is also at the core of the Obama Administration’s Smart Cities Initiative, which is behind the MetroLab Network. It’s no surprise, then, that this form of data and analytics is at the heart of many promising city-university partnerships. Across the country, our MetroLab colleagues are engaged in a number of projects that highlight the potential of Big Data. Atlanta’s work with Georgia Tech multi-modal transit network, Austin’s Open Data Transportation Portal, and the University of North Carolina’s partnership with the City of Charlotte on the Data Science Initiative are all fantastic examples of responsible and effective use of data.

With all the excitement around the potential for Big Data to improve urban governance, we fear that those among us who are committed to research-based civic innovation may have overlooked the potential of in-depth, ethnographic data, or what we’re calling “little data.”

Compared to Big Data, little data emphasizes depth over breadth and is especially attentive to the contexts of activity and the perspectives, aspirations, and concerns of individuals and communities. For this reason, little data can be a powerful tool for developing more meaningful and potentially more equitable solutions to urban policy challenges. As a result, little data and the methodological techniques used to generate and analyze it (namely ethnography) are increasingly being used in both the public and private sectors.

But what is little data? And how can ethnographic research be used to develop more equitable urban policies?

Ethnography is perhaps best described as a constellation of methods and data collection and interpretation techniques that guide fieldwork and analysis. Ethnography can include methods such as real-time observation, shadowing, in-depth interviews, and focus groups. Ethnography is also a way of approaching, interpreting, and presenting data in ways that highlight the complexity, richness, and diversity of processes and experiences.

While ethnography cannot be used to map a city’s traffic patterns or aggregate city-wide data on water infrastructure, ethnographers can access knowledge that is difficult or impossible to gain through other methods. Ethnography is particularly suited for engaging hard-to-reach populations, understanding how individuals and communities relate to city officials and city services and assessing how communities affected by changes (like economic development or gentrification) experience and understand these processes. In turn, ethnography can be a rich avenue for engaging communities in generating more equitable and sustainable urban policy solutions that are attuned to the needs of urban residents.

Data can, at the right intervals, help policy makers identify trends and understand the root cause of those trends. Ethnographic data, in particular, can reveal why and how people do what they do and in turn support a meaningful range of shifts in policy design and implementation that may otherwise be overlooked in data-driven systems. Little data can also help define early impacts of long-term system interventions that otherwise would be hard to track, noting that systems often “feel different” before data shows a meaningful trend. In short, ethnography captures relevant stories that coupled with a strong data-driven practice, can lead to more impactful change in the public sector.

For example, our recent collaboration with the Providence Business Engagement Initiative was fueled by a need to understand the lived experiences of small business owners in the City. Students from a course on the use of ethnography for public policy at Brown University (part of the University’s Engaged Scholars Program) were tasked by the City’s Department of Innovation with speaking to as many business owners as possible and collecting their personal stories related to owning and operating a business in Providence. Students took this as an invitation to immerse themselves in city life and, using shadowing, in-depth interviews, observations, and visual methods, they collected and crafted rich evidence of the lived experience of a diverse group of small business owners across the City.

This little data proved crucial for understanding current needs and formulating future policies related to small businesses in Providence. We learned that while some business owners found the licensing process to be cumbersome (and trips to City Hall a nuisance), many business owners valued the personal relationships they developed with staff at City Hall, finding them to be crucial to their success. As the City evaluates the benefits and drawbacks to digitizing the business licensing process, this little data has become pivotal to developing solutions that address key hurdles in the business licensing process, while retaining those aspects of the experience that are most valued by business owners.

Through the collection and analysis of ethnographic data, we also learned how business owners in a diverse and changing business corridor understood and interpreted previous efforts by the City to engage them in democratic processes. This led us to further evaluate the role of business support organizations and their effectiveness in helping these communities succeed by expanding and easing access to city and state resources. In short, little data helped us uncover unique insights about how residents experience Providence, and strategize new ways to engage and learn from the communities most affected by policy changes.

Collecting good and useful little data is not without its challenges, however. Little data requires an investment of time and effort. Ethnographic methods depend on building rapport and trust with communities and a dedication to meeting with individuals over time. Conducting in-depth interviews and collecting individual and community stories often requires multiple encounters over the course of days, months, or even longer. For cities operating under particular time constraints, little data may not always be the most convenient or practical form of data to collect. Trained students and university researchers may fill that gap. Moreover, analyzing, synthesizing, and representing ethnographic findings in ways that are meaningful and ethical requires creativity and is often a collective effort. This may mean cultivating and sustaining iterative dialogue and a constant reevaluation of the research design on the part of city and university partners.

When thinking of the ways that cities and universities can enhance their collaborations, exploring projects that collect little data can open the door for new and exciting partnerships that engage a variety of academic disciplines and provide cities with diverse and unique forms of data. While the collaboration we’ve described here happened in the context of a public policy course, we see many possible paths and creative collaborations based on the collection and analysis of little data, broadly imagined. The collection of little data, therefore, not only opens the door for new kinds of data that can inform city policies but also broadens the ways in which universities can envision their contributions to policy change and their partnership with their urban policymaking counterparts. As cities and universities enhance their partnerships and create more projects aimed at tackling pressing urban challenges, it is important to consider the ways in which little data can create big solutions.


Diana Graizbord earned her PhD in Sociology from Brown University and is currently an Assistant Professor of Sociology and Latin American and Caribbean Studies at the University of Georgia; Jamie McPike is a PhD candidate in Sociology at Brown University; Nicole Pollock is Chief of Staff for the City of Providence, she has previously served as Chief of Policy and Innovation. Diana, Jamie and Nicole contributed equally to this post.

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