Armed with Data, Slum Dwellers Demand Better Services

JOHANNESBURG/RIO DE JANEIRO (Thomson Reuters Foundation) — When 46-year-old data collector Mfanzile Msibi and his team started mapping slums more than a decade ago near Johannesburg, they realized that tens of thousands of slum dwellers were unaccounted for in government records.

The local Ekurhuleni government, a city east of Johannesburg, had recognized 102 slum settlements in 2009, but the Informal Settlement Network (ISN), a South African social movement, found that over a dozen communities were missing from records.

“We realized we needed to have information about ourselves,” Msibi told the Thomson Reuters Foundation from the Johannesburg office of ISN’s partner organization, the Community Organisation Resource Centre (CORC).

“So we started profiling the informal settlements, and from there it spread to other communities.”

More than 1 billion people globally reside in overcrowded communities, a figure which is projected to triple by 2050, according to the United Nations.

But scarce data, wary residents and a lack of support from local authorities make it difficult to map slum dwellers’ needs and deliver public services, data collectors say.

From Africa to Latin America, activists and residents are teaming up to collect information like family sizes and settlement plans to lobby authorities for investment in public services like sanitation and waste collection.

Ekurhuleni city officials said that “there was no discrepancy (in records) but rather … some informal settlements mushroomed without being noticed in the most hidden places.”

The Department of Human Settlements “recently verified and updated the number” of settlements, the spokesperson added in emailed comments, adding that the most recent verification this year recorded a total of 135 settlements in the city.

Msibi confirmed that “these communities are now accounted for and now receive government services.”

The ISN and CORC data collectors are now piloting a project that relies on the community members to collect and recycle waste in over a dozen slums in Johannesburg, said Daniel Moalahi, another ISN data collector, adding that their work helps minimize protests about poor government service delivery.


For data collectors, tracking the name and the history of the slums is key to getting them access to facilities, infrastructure, or even a spot on a map.

Initially data collection in slums was done with paper and a clipboard by groups like Slum Dwellers International (SDI), but new technology and a younger, digitally focused generation have made their work easier.

Data collectors, who are generally unpaid, are trained by organizations like SDI, and use tablets to ask slum dwellers about their history, hardships and what they need — information that can then be used to lobby local government.

For example, ISN data collectors noticed there were not enough waste bins in Johannesburg slums, resulting in a lack of refuse collection.

They worked to number homes and build maps of where residents were located “to figure out who is where,” said Moalahi.

Data collectors also promote “re-blocking,” that is repositioning informal structures like shacks to make way for fire breaks and wider roads so emergency vehicles can pass through.

The city confirmed they are implementing a re-blocking program in Ekurhuleni to provide better water, sanitation, waste removal, health care services and road access to “far-flung” settlements.

Mfunidisi Masithe, another ISN data collector, said his team also “identify people who are not in school [to help register them], people who need to register for social grants and those who are disabled and need help.”

Thousands of kilometers away, Rio’s favelas face similar issues. About 1.3 million people live in high-density communities, often without access to adequate shelter or water.

One of these is Jacarezinho, a favela of about 40,000 residents, according to a 2022 government census. At a forum in May, locals voiced their concerns around teachers’ salaries, rubbish collection, police presence, and unemployment.

“People want to be heard,” said Kayo Moura, a 28-year-old organizer with Labjaca, a collective that researches slum aid in Jacarezinho.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, organizations like Labjaca and Catalytic Communities, a nonprofit, gathered disease data in slums.

Last year, Labjaca advocated for free water access for Jacarezinho dwellers living with less than 497 Brazilian real ($100.64) per month, through interviews and at-home surveys of 70 families using a platform called KoboToolbox.

The survey results were referenced as part of a judicial action to guarantee a regular supply of water to the area in March. The outcome is still pending.

Pushing for formalization of settlements is also a big part of data collectors’ work, said Msibi of ISN.

“Ekurhuleni passed a resolution in January saying they were going to focus on formalizing informal settlements,” he said.

“This is the song we have been singing. But you cannot use a blanket approach to formalize all informal settlements, each one is different with different needs.”


Data collectors from Johannesburg and Ekurhuleni reported several challenges when engaging with slum dwellers, such as sexual harassment, suspicion of their work and requests for money.

“As a female data collector, we sometimes have to have males around. Some men will say ‘Give me something in exchange,’ when we ask for information,” said 26-year-old Mirriam Nxangane, of the South African Federation of the Urban Poor (FEDUP).

Across both Africa and Latin America, organizations cited a mutual distrust with authorities and police as well as a lack of political will as hampering efforts to improve living conditions.

Last year, hundreds of heavily armed police occupied Jacarezinho in an attempt to bring security to the neighborhood, part of a long-running project to allow the police to engage with residents.

However, the scheme suffered from budget cuts and inconsistent support from state governments — which Moura says makes it difficult for residents to trust that the state or the police will improve their situation.

“Some of the solutions for favelas are already known. Some of the good practices are already known. They’re simply not implemented,” Moura said.

For Beth Chitekwe-Biti, the acting managing director of SDI, “getting cities without slums is a pipe dream [but] having slums where people’s dignity is respected is a possibility.”