The Community Success Institute conducts research on collaborative and co-design processes that build Communities of Trust. Empowering communities to become co-designers of their own data practices raises new research questions that are currently being explored through case studies. 

Our research addresses the complexities of doing human-centered design in communities so that others can apply these strategies to their own local contexts. Tools and services that we build feature built-in measurement methodologies to ensure progress towards goals. 

The following is an overview of our work in Memphis, Tennessee, one of several demonstration sites where we conduct case research.


Gathering comprehensive information from students, families, and Klondike Smokey City community members about students’ home conditions is an established practice, but there has so far been no standard way to capture, assess, and code those recorded needs. Community organizations require a way for their field staff to efficiently collect and analyze accurate data using mobile devices. They also require ways to deliver interview guides and other types of guidance via mobile devices, and need access to dashboards with appropriate permissions and security layers in place. 

Klondike Smokey City, Tennessee

The Klondike Smokey City neighborhood in Memphis, Tennessee is a community of primarily African American families facing numerous challenges: intergenerational poverty; substandard access to quality food; limited public transportation; lack of educational resources; minimal social services; as well as high rates of crime, drugs, gang activity, domestic violence, and homelessness.

Problem Statement

This exploratory case study focuses on an emerging partnership involving community organizations, schools, and families located in the Klondike Smokey City neighborhood of Memphis, Tennessee. Specifically, we explore the social processes that occur when schools and families share student data with externally funded and staffed service providers to improve educational outcomes. We examine the mitigating effects of trust and transparency when negotiating human, legal, and technical agreements across multiple institutional and organizational contexts. 

Research Questions

  • What social interactions and social processes occur across multiple stakeholders, including design partners, that contribute to (or detract from) transparency and trust during the inception stages of new data practices?
  • What basic social processes are involved when families, schools, and community organizations share identifiable and de-identified student data?
  • What factors contribute to the ability of school administrators and community organizations to build, manage, and maintain trust and transparency when developing new data practices to improve student educational outcomes?


There are few guideposts to guide the design and development of trust frameworks that focus on accessing, collecting, and sharing data in education. Therefore, we draw on established theories to help inform how trust frameworks can be co-designed with community end users, including the following: 


People who design and engineer software tend to be tech-savvy, highly educated, and more affluent than members of low-income or minority groups. The cultural advantages of being in a well-educated socioeconomic demographic may perpetuate biases and assumptions that are “socially distant” from the way low-income or special needs groups access information and resources. 

Software designers and engineers may be so unfamiliar with the social and cultural disadvantages of impoverished communities or vulnerable populations that instead of helping end users, they inadvertently inflict harm. 

Unchecked biases and assumptions, through a series of unexamined or uninformed choices, can show up in data architectures. Our research draws on social distance theory to inform design methods that minimize social distance between designers and end users.


Information poverty often goes hand-in-hand with economic poverty. Research suggests that “insiders” in an impoverished community may, without realizing it, shield themselves from needed resources. Insiders include those who share common cultural, social, religious, and economic perspectives, among other norms. Creating information barriers may happen when insiders seek to protect their autonomy, or exert perceived control over potential “outsiders” who appear to not understand their world. 

For insiders to benefit from information received from outsiders, there must be some aspect of trust associated with the source.  Information grounds theory helps us to better understand what constitutes a trustworthy source, and how to convey information in a way that builds trust.


The strength of interpersonal ties influences efforts to diffuse information, to enable greater social mobility, and to foster social cohesion (Granovetter, 1982). The strength of an interpersonal tie is defined by a combination of the degree of emotional intensity, time spent together, reciprocity, and intimacy shared between people. 

There is evidence that the stronger the tie, the more similar people are. Surprisingly, weak ties turn out to be more instrumental than strong ones for transmitting important information. Weak ties are more likely to act as “bridges” between segments in a network and enable the flow of information between otherwise disconnected parties. 

Granovetter’s theory about the strength of weak ties can help guide design methods, especially when tapping community networks for information about needs, assets, and how to access available resources.