Social stoplighting is a participatory assessment and planning tool for use in community development, local governance, and reconstruction projects. This project combines community mapping and assessment methodologies with digital, geo-referenced maps to create tools that can be scaled up for national or international policy making and down for village level planning, monitoring and evaluation. Municipal officials in San Carlos, Colombia, anthropologists from the University of Antioquia and Duke University, and undergraduate students at Duke University collaboratively created these methods.
Social stoplighting builds upon three projects that were underway in San Carlos between 2010 and 2012. The first was a participatory municipal budgeting process. The second was an International Organization of Migration (IOM) community strengthening project. The third was a security assessment methodology used to facilitate return and reconstruction.
The first two projects created village development plans that identified local strengths and weaknesses. The third—called stoplighting–used simple color-coded maps to illustrate the security status of the seventy-six villages in the municipality. The national government, the army, the municipal governments of Medellín and San Carlos, and village leaders worked together to provide this information. The simple visual format provided useful information to all entities involved, offering an example of effective data sharing in reconstruction projects.
Social stoplighting adapted the security methodology to create village development plans for use in a four-year municipal planning project. During village meetings in 2012, community members used a variety of media—ranging from hand-drawn posters to spreadsheets in three-ring binders–to identify the quality of resources such as education, roads, the environment, and security.
The following year, Duke University undergraduate students used these spreadsheets to create color-coded maps using both open-source and proprietary mapping software as part of a class in the BorderWork(s) Humanities Lab. Through a Humanities Writ Large grant from Duke University, students were able to field test these methods and maps in San Carlos the following summer. The result was simple visualizations that illustrated village-level perceptions of the status of over fifty socio-economic, political, and natural resources.
This methodology offers multiple benefits to the community. First, it places village-level geographic and socio-economic information in the hands of municipal governments. Second, it provides structures for information sharing and institutional memory in large projects with many actors and interests. Third, it helps promote transparency and local governing capacity. Finally, it enables national and international organizations to better target assistance according to community strengths and needs, which lays the groundwork for greater sustainability in reconstruction and development projects.
The purpose of this website is not to create a methodology to be duplicated but rather to offer an example of one path towards participatory local policy-making and the problems and possibilities of such a process.