Do the data researchers collect reflect people’s actual experience with food insecurity? How can researchers link communities with data they can use to implement strategies for addressing food insecurity?
This summer, our Urban Institute research team explored these questions by traveling to six communities across the US to host community conversations on disrupting food insecurity.
We met with community members in libraries, nonprofit conference centers, and housing development recreation rooms. In each place, we hung posters that displayed county-level data from Urban’s newly released food insecurity dashboard. We asked residents and stakeholders: do the data on the walls mirror their own lives?
This approach to research is called a “data walk.” It’s a community engaged research method that strives to create a more equitable research process by checking researchers’ initial conclusions and creating a feedback loop of challenges and solutions with communities.
Data walks can make research more meaningful
Data walks can help break down traditional barriers in research by providing an opportunity to center the community, rather than researchers, as experts. Our data walks served several purposes: to elicit feedback on our food insecurity data, provide on-the-ground context for the data, and brainstorm strategies for addressing challenges represented in the data.
We partnered with local organizations that served as messengers to recruit participants, provide local guidance, and coordinate accessible locations. To include as many voices as possible, we held separate data walks with teens, adults, and local organizational stakeholders:
- Young people often have important insights into their community that they are rarely given opportunities to share. Teens were very perceptive of how forces such as gentrification, transportation costs, and incarceration can affect access to healthy food.
- Adults shared challenges they face in accessing food, especially as food insecurity relates to housing, transportation, childcare, and healthcare. We heard about the needs of people that are consistently excluded from the conversation: residents of color, immigrants, people with disabilities.
- In Sebastian County, Arkansas, nearly 50 stakeholders attended our data walk, including food bank workers, school principals, faith leaders, the city transportation planner, and even elected officials, such as the mayor of Fort Smith and state representatives.
Considerations when hosting a data walk
Hosting a data walk can be a powerful avenue to make research more meaningful, but without proper considerations in the research design and framing, “community engagement” may reinforce the very structures of inequality we are seeking to dismantle through the research (PDF). Based on our own experiences, here are some strategies we use or are working toward incorporating into all of our research.
1. Before planning a data walk, ask if your product is useful for the residents you are engaging.
The feeling of research fatigue stems from overparticipation in research with little reward for sharing lived experiences—essentially intellectual property—as data. Residents in Fresno County, California, expressed that they had participated in many focus groups like our data walk, but they had yet to experience outcomes needed in their neighborhood.
2. Tailor data walk posters to spur conversations toward research questions.
When presenting data, think about the local root drivers of challenges like food insecurity: high housing costs, inadequate wages, limited federal supports.
Also consider your geography. We presented county-level data, and participants were often quick to point out that data at larger geographies can hide many peoples’ experiences and not reflect the reality on the ground. Travis County is one of five central Texas counties that make up Greater Austin, and only providing data from Travis County masks larger regional demographic shifts and displacement.
3. Compensate everyone involved for their time and effort.
We shared the strategies and ideas from the data walks back with the stakeholders who participated. We provided a meal and a small monetary compensation to participants and hosting partners and prioritized supporting local vendors.
One step further would be to provide transportation reimbursement and child care for participants. In Indiana County, Pennsylvania, we held our data walks at the county career services building in the evening and served local food—our community partner even gave rides to residents attending from more rural areas.
A data walk poster from conversations in Travis County, Texas
Data walks demonstrate the importance of balancing community knowledge with Urban's knowledge as a research organization. If we present ourselves as experts, it can invalidate community experiences, but we can also serve as conveners and facilitators.
Those engaging in community engaged research should be mindful of creating false separation between researchers and community members; researchers may have similar lived experiences or backgrounds as community members.
Data walks, when done thoughtfully and respectfully, represent an opportunity to bring together people who care about and are working on similar issues. To truly uplift the experiences of residents, we should think about when to move aside and support communities in leading their own research or strategy implementation. As a step further, it is important to consider when research is not needed or would do as much harm as good.