The smart initiative that offers food for thought

Jamie Stevenson
London 51° 30' 23.112" N, -0° 7' 37.956" E" E

Smart city initiatives, like people, come in all shapes and sizes. Now, a project in Madrid is using technology, cartography and collaboration to shed a light on the city's 'food environment', in the hope of improving residents' health.

The initiative, named Photovoice Villaverde, is described as a 'participatory study on food through photography', and is part of the Heart Healthy Hoods (HHH) European project that runs from 2014-2019, which focuses on how the social and physical characteristics of a city affect the health of its residents.

Photovoice Villaverde brings together residents and researchers, asking the former to go out and snap pictures of their local food environment, whether it's takeaways, salad bars or anything else. These photographs, and the accompanying testimonies of the residents, then paint a picture of how this food environment influences citizens' food choices.



We spoke with Manuel Franco, the Principal Investigator of HHH, who explains the purpose of the study:

"The relevance of this study lies on the direct participation of the community in a topic of utmost importance for the health of our cities: food and nutrition. Hearing the voice of the residents of city neighbourhoods through innovative approaches is a fundamental step to improve the health of our cities."

"City residents understand better than anyone the reality of their daily life, the reality of their environment and the health of their people."

People power

The project is being carried out in two different neighbourhoods in Villaverde - Los Rosales and San Cristóbal - in the south of Madrid. Manuel explains that this district presents much lower socioeconomic and health indicators than the average Madrid city.

Hoping to shed a light on why this is, the study lives and dies on the collaboration of the residents of these underserved areas. Gathering two groups in each neighbourhood, separated by gender, 24 residents participated in the project and took and discussed a total of 163 photographs.

Participants gathered once a week for six weeks to analyse and debate in full group sessions. A final number of 31 photographs were chosen by the participants to represent their main concerns. Manuel explains:

"These photographs, and their corresponding narratives, were then organised around five main themes (1) eating 'in moderation', (2) cultural diversity, (3) type of food stores, (4) social relationships and (5) economic crisis and poverty, which reflect their food environments in relation to residents' diets."

"Residents participated as co-researchers, gathering and analysing data, selecting the photographs and narratives to be used in all dissemination activities."

Make it visual

This approach, however, would only pay dividends if the images and narratives could be shared in a way that was both accessible and unique, capturing citizens' imaginations and enabling them to see the importance of their food environment.

The images are captured in a photobook, a photographic exhibit, a video and a website with an interactive cartographical application (powered by HERE).

These have been exhibited in four different venues so far, with Manuel keen to stress the importance of cartography - where the information provided by the participants is displayed on an interactive HERE map.

He explains, "Cartography helps to show a spatial reality for the residents. Cartography and spatial analysis allow the addition of data that are related at different level of reality (layers), while interaction with the user is another important reason for choosing this methodology."

In terms of success, participants of the study have generated 16 concrete policy recommendations to improve their neighbourhood food environment, which were derived from their group discussions and pictures analyses, while several Photovoice workshops are planned.

There are even plans for expansion, both in terms of geography and subject area, according to Manuel:

"Another research group is currently using this methodology in Barcelona. We are also using it in Madrid to understand characteristics of the urban environment in relation to physical activity and a third Photovoice project will focus on alcohol in the city."

Indeed, through a mixture of collaboration and technology, Photovoice is shedding a light on an incredibly important area of society and could make a real, tangible difference to the way cities are run. Manuel concludes:

"This study adds a citizen's perspective to urban health research and therefore has incredible potential to help translate research and scientific evidence into policy decisions."

Topics: Features, Smart cities, Weekend reads