Dream, imagine, envision - exploring opportunities and engagement for an insight infrastructure programme

Tim Davies

Tim Davies

On Monday 6th March, participants from 12 organisations working on issues related to poverty gathered for a workshop in London to dream, imagine and envision potential directions for an ‘insight infrastructure’ to support action on poverty, social and economic inequality.

This was the second workshop in an appreciative inquiry series. The first‘Discovery’ session is documented here.

In this post, we summarise some of the key themes explored in the workshop, and document the ideas and suggestions made that will feed into the next workshop, which will focus on the design of stakeholder engagement, and governance proposals for insight infrastructure.


About the JRF Insight Infrastructure Project The Joseph Rowntree Foundation insight infrastructure programme started work in 2022. The project is currently in an early development stage, exploring how JRF could support work to generate new sources of data and disseminate timely insight into poverty, social and economic inequalities in the UK. The project operates with a mission and infrastructure mindset, seeking to inspire, collaborate with and support others’ work. A project website will be launched in Spring 2023, detailing the different components of this early development phase.

About Connected by Data Connected by Data is a new organisation and campaign working to change narratives, policy and practice to give communities a powerful voice in data governance. We undertake selected research and consultancy projects to support organisations in the design and evaluation of participatory approaches to data governance. You can find out more at https://connectedbydata.org

About this work Connected by Data were asked by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation to carry out an ​​Ecosystem Mapping and External Engagement process, to develop a better understanding of potential insight infrastructure stakeholders, their needs and demands in relation to new and timely insight on poverty and related issues, and to identify effective engagement strategies for working with these stakeholders. This will inform current and new projects within the insight infrastructure portfolio, to ensure JRF activities are relevant, accessible and generate further ideas.

Dreaming: an infrastructure for…

The first part of our workshop looked at some of the challenges we dream might be overcome.

Organisations seeking to use quantitative and qualitative data, information and insight to address poverty, social and economic inequality are engaged in many different forms of activity. As we discussed dreams for an insight infrastructure, participants used many action words, providing a virtual A-Z of the kinds of tasks insight can support. An insight infrastructure could be deployed in support of:

  • Advocating for large scale policy change, for resources to go to particular communities, and for the needs of individual clients.
  • Building networks, communities and projects that cross silos, funding or organisational boundaries.
  • Contextualising data and turning raw information into shared understanding of problems and opportunities.
  • Delivering frontline services, from food hubs and direct support, to helplines and advice services.
  • Engaging with stakeholders, and knowing what information to collect and how.
  • Fundraising by using insight to make the case for resources.
  • Helping those in poverty to access services they need.
  • Inspiring stakeholders to try different solutions and new ideas.
  • Linking & layering data, particularly to draw comparisons, and understand progress against similar areas, or against benchmarks.
  • Learning particularly about what works, and what is currently being done, to address poverty and social inequality.
  • Localising policies or services by understanding specific very local needs.
  • Partnering and identifying organisations to work with.
  • Quality-assuring data and insight so that it is well-respected and able to influence national policy processes.
  • Responding to political moments and opportunities.
  • Scrutinising how funding and resources are allocated, or how policies are working in practice.
  • Targeting resources and services to priority needs and areas.
  • Zooming in, and zooming out to see the bigger picture in which local action takes place.

Digging into the particular difference that a JRF-backed insight infrastructure could make, we surfaced a number of key themes: **timeliness, granularity, comparability and intersectionality, problems vs. solutions, and connection and collaboration. **

These are written up below as “We dream of…” sentences. This is not intended to suggest that these dreams were universally shared. The broad, and not always overlapping, variety of desires and dreams for an insight infrastructure was a particularly striking aspect of the workshop.

  • Timeliness: We dream of better insight lead times, allowing us to get ahead of issues and focus on prevention over patching. More timely insight should support more responsive and effective services, improve lobbying and advocacy, and help shape research findings to address current needs.

  • Granularity: We dream of data that helps bring power and resources to the local level, and joins up the national and local picture. This may involve better disaggregation of national datasets, but also providing space for bottom-up data that provides detailed insight into local experience.

  • Comparability & intersectionality: We dream of being able to more easily draw comparisons across datasets from different organisations and being able to understand how particular groups and communities are differently affected.

  • Problems vs. solutions: We dream of having a deeper understanding of the problems whilst also having access to evidence on the solutions that can address them. For this, we also need to be able to identify and ask the right questions.

  • Connection and collaboration: We dream of being able to more easily discover organisations to collaborate with, resources and assets to draw on, and ideas that work, at both national and local level. We dream of a social infrastructure that supports conversations and learning.

Imagining: an infrastructure that enables

The second part of our workshop invited participants to imagine what an ‘insight infrastructure’ might do to help realise some of the dreams we had been exploring.

We heard a number of different aspects of infrastructure described, with participants imagining infrastructures that enable:

Community: supporting people to connect, have conversations, learn and work together. This might take the form of community directories to speed-up stakeholder mapping and discovery of partners, regularly organised webinars to explore key topics, and face-to-face meetings for small groups to connect. Participants imagined relationship management and support for networking and knowledge exchange as part of an infrastructure programme.

Participants reflected on the value of cross-organisation online networking during COVID-19, and of focussed communities of practice, such as groups using micro-simulation approaches to explore poverty. A community infrastructure approach might also be built around ‘key public/political moments’, bringing together shared insight in response to policy opportunities (e.g. the budget; election manifestos etc.) to help organisations collaborate on, rather than duplicate, research, data and insight practice.

Data and insight discovery: offering easier access to available data, and ability to navigate by data coverage and quality, as well as helping to surface data gaps. The data gaps revealed might be thematic, geographic or demographic, and surfacing them may help advocate for better data collection.

Some participants imagined an infrastructure that not only connects users with data, but that also provides opportunity to connect with researchers who might support analysis: providing a win-win for organisations seeking insight, and researchers seeking policy-relevant questions.

An infrastructure might also provide, or point to, Trusted Research Environments (TREs) in which different organisations can safely pool micro-data and allow access to it for research.

Data alignment: helping organisations to adopt common standards, both in terms of meta-data, and in terms of the categories used during data collection.

An infrastructure might provide standardised or recommended taxonomies, capacity building for researchers, and space to discuss how to better align data collection efforts.

Access to lived experience & bottom-up data: providing a platform for organisations to share insight from existing lived experience panels, or that provides access to a shared lived experience network.

Participants also talked of how an infrastructure could allow communities to bring their own data, and to comment on and add context to existing datasets and insight resources.

Envision: engagement that delivers

The final section of our agenda invited participants to envision how an infrastructure might be shaped over time, and how different stakeholders might engage with its evolution. This surfaced a number of key themes:

  • Transparency. It is important for JRF to be up-front about any organisational agendas shaping or constraining the insight infrastructure project, and about what JRF hopes to gain from the project. Transparency about resourcing, and decision making will also help build trust in the project.
  • Principles. The operation of the insight infrastructure should be shaped by a set of key principles. These could be developed through a deliberative process with key stakeholders, including affected communities and lived experience groups. These principles should address ways in which communities are represented in data, and how far an infrastructure is open to grassroots data, as well as official data sources.
  • Lead with community, conversation and network building. A successful infrastructure is as much about connecting people, as it is about data and content. JRF should consider how to support substantive insight-sharing convening both as a way to understand any particular data or technology gaps that need to be filled, and to identify effective ways of sharing insight through social relationships as well as web platforms.
  • Start small and scale. Too often projects try to do everything at once, or to solve problems on shoestring budgets. Starting with a small set of defined issues to address with better insight, and properly resourcing action to address them, offers a path to learn about what works, and to bring in collaborators bit by bit.
  • Different strategies for different people. It is important to identify the different groups affected by the insight infrastructure, and design engagement strategies that work for each group. For example, front-line organisations might need their time funded to be able to engage in design workshops or governance of a new platform.
  • Engage with government. Central government remains a key source of data and insight on poverty. It is important to think about how the infrastructure project will engage government stakeholders, including to identify where civil society data could feed into government decision making, or to provide feedback where government data could be improved to better support civil society action.

Next steps

The outputs of this workshop (along with findings from interviews and the first workshop) will feed into the development of a draft Stakeholder Engagement strategy, and Governance proposals, for the insight infrastructure project.

These will form the basis of the next workshop in our appreciative inquiry series, reviewing these designs for engagement around the infrastructure.


Thank you to representatives from the following organisations who took part in this workshop: University College London (Centre for Longitudinal Studies), Magic Breakfast, Neighbourly, Women’s Budget Group, Norfolk Foundation, Mydex Community Interest Company, Shaw Trust, Turn2Us, Resolution Foundation, Legal Education Foundation and Mind.

Thank you also to the following facilitators, Connected by Data and JRF team members: Adam Cantwell-Corn, Jeni Tennison, Tim Davies, Jonathan Smith, Obioma Egemonye, Alan Hudson and Rosario Piazza.

Do you collect, use or share data?

We can help you build trust with your customers, clients or citizens

 Read more

Do you want data to be used in your community’s interests?

We can help you organise to ensure that data benefits your community

 Read more