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Making Data Matter: A Common Space Approach

Making Data Matter: A Common Space Approach

A community’s capacity for kindness acts as a powerful antidote against some of the most vicious pressures of poverty. Can big data help fan that kindness? One of the CI-BER goals is to create a platform for community members to share stories about, among other things, the thick ropes of kindness that connected people living in the Southside neighborhood prior to urban renewal of the 60s and 70s. Is it possible that the act of engaging with an interactive, multimedia map can actually generate new connections, the kind that dissipated when urban renewal dispersed families and community members?

“Urban renewal had its good points as far as modernization of housing is concerned. But as far as families and children are concerned, I believe it was a disaster, a breakdown that has led to people being less caring. It would take a lot of work to get the feeling of community back,” says Shirley Robinson Austin in an article about CI-BER in Asheville’s Citizen Times. Austin is Priscilla Ndiaye’s mother, Southside Community Chair and co-leader with Richard Marciano on the CI-BER project, and the person Kristan Shawgo and I traveled to meet in Asheville a few months ago.  

Priscilla took us on a tour of Asheville’s Southside neighborhood, starting at the Nazareth First Bapist Church on Pine Street before working our way toward Triangle Park on the edge of The Block, a green space near Market and Eagle Streets that represents the historic economic center of Western North Carolina’s African American-owned businesses. A nonprofit organization named Just Folks worked with artist and muralist Molly Must to visualize the history that was submerged by decades of urban renewal.  

Our next stop was the Stephens Lee Recreation Center, the original gymnasium of the Stephens-Lee High School, where African American teen agers attended before Integration shuttered the school in 1965. Johnny Bailey, an Asheville resident and co-author of The Greatest Sports Heroes of the Stephens-Lee Bears told Mountain Xpress, “Although Stephens-Lee was ‘the only cultural outlet we had at the time, it was made unique by the camaraderie we all shared. This was a time when many of these families barely had anything to eat, but they made sure we got to school -- it was a family affair. There was no division between the school and the community.’"

As we drove through Southside, Priscilla told stories about the churches and people who attended them, the businesses that thrived in the neighborhood, many of them that no longer exist except in photographs owned by the Housing Authority of the City of Asheville (HACA), now archived in the D.H. Ramsey Library Special Collections & University Archives at the University of North Carolina Asheville (UNCA).                                                                                                                                        

In Root Shock: How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America, and What We Can Do About It, author Mindy Thompson Fullilove makes a direct link between the camaraderie that Priscilla and Bailey talk about and a neighborhood’s ability to thrive. Fullilove writes that the community’s “kindness worked through the collective as both buffer and glue. It was a force for tolerance and respect.”

City planners failed to see the connectivity of tolerance, respect, and kindness that held together “blighted” African American neighborhoods during urban renewal, and they failed to forecast how a decline in these virtues would rupture not only the immediate community, but the surrounding town for generations to come. As Fullilove wrote, “The decline in connection meant a disabling of the major mechanism for succeeding at collective goals.” In communities like Southside, virtues were the connective tissue that prevented people from falling through cracks.

We felt some of that connective tissue a few weeks ago when the CIBER team met with members of Asheville’s Southside neighborhood to talk about the data they can access, upload, and share through the Big Board citizen-led crowdsourcing platform, an open-source interactive map of the area as it existed 40 years ago.

Using kindness as a mechanism for succeeding as a collective is why a community must have common spaces where people can connect with each other. But what kind of common spaces? There must be community centers, community art, community gatherings, both formal and informal, for connection to occur. But maybe CI-BER’s Big Board can also function as a common space. For the upcoming semester, CI-BER will participate in Making Data Matter | Big Data: Tools, Ethics, and Social Change, and our team of community members, researchers, and students will continue to co-create a new, technological common space that supports citizen-led crowdsourcing.

In technological terms, we are automating and integrating temporal and spatial datasets such as census, economic, historic, planning, and insurance content, and in the process of uploading the data to an open source platform where it will co-exist with multimedia files. In human connection terms, though, we hope this becomes a space where community members can tell stories about their neighborhood as it existed before urban renewal leveled it. Fullilove writes about how communities need to train its members in the acts of kindness and the CI-BER project is a small attempt to invent a new way to do this.

When we think about CI-BER in these terms, the community relationship-building process, and trust in particular, becomes the main pace setter. When we started this work, we envisioned a citizen-led crowdsourcing event where community members would share oral histories and upload images and audio to Big Board. That plan is still in place. Throughout the planning stages, however, we saw the need to temper the pace and create an information session that included a short demonstration of Big Board. People needed to know how this project impacted them, and they needed to ask questions. When data matter, people matter. Every decision we made going forward had to be vetted from the perspective of trust: Is this best for the community? What past experiences has the community had, and how did it impact them? How might those experiences impact their reaction to citizen-led crowdsourcing -- a cutting-edge model that we are innovating and experimenting with as we go. What does it mean to community members who are asked to sign a document about their “ownership” of a story that will be uploaded to a technological common space? Who can access that common space, and for how long? Is the document -- which raises questions about access and ownership and complex technology -- easy to understand? What does “cyberinfrastructure” even mean?

Our Information Session with Southside residents took place on August 3 at the Grant Center, a post-urban renewal building named after the late pastor, Dr. Wesley Grant, Sr., founder of the Worldwide Missionary Baptist Tabernacle Church in 1959. During our earlier driving tour of the neighborhood, Priscilla told stories about Dr. Grant and the role he played in the community, a leader during the Civil Rights and urban renewal periods. There are so many stories about Dr. Grant and others like him living in the stories of community members who grew up in Southside before urban renewal. Through CI-BER and Big Board, we can make a common space where people can tell their stories and rekindle some of the acts of kindness that connected people to each other.

After Priscilla and others talked about the project, and Richard Marciano demonstrated Big Board on a large screen, people gathered in the adjacent room to share food and drinks. There was a buzz of interest and excitement about moving forward, and talk about how this kind of project can capture history and strengthen community. In the next few weeks, we will be transitioning to Duke’s Bass Connections program -- Making Data Matter. Students will be joining us to work on CI-BER, and we’ll be heading back to Asheville to pilot the crowdsourcing technique, following the pace that makes most sense for the Southside community.   

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