The tools we use: Beyond Cassette Tapes

by Schill

The tools I used for my dissertation research were extremely simple.  I had a cassette tape recorder and a big stack of blank cassette tapes.  I was pretty cheap at the time, so I would sometimes reuse the cassette tapes after completing a transcript.  I lost the recordings for a couple of interviews that way. For my field notes and interview transcripts I used Word documents.  I should note that this was after 2000, but prior to the arrival of the iPhone and the whole world of apps that came along with it. I suppose being able to search within documents was an efficiency improvement on the practice that predated it, arranging and rearranging notecards. At any rate, the range of tools has broadened considerably. Here are a few I have tried (and recommend) or plan to try in the near future…

Highlight 2.1 – is audio recorder software for iPhone and iPad.  It costs a very reasonable $4.99. I still prefer my Zoom H2 Recorder which produces incredibly high quality recordings under difficult (noisy, windy) conditions. However, What this app offers that my Zoom recorder does not, is an interface for tagging interviews making it easier to browse and revisit specific sections. It’s also possible to share tagged audio files and to sync with Dropbox.

Saturate App – I really wish I’d tried Saturate App out before I invested so much time importing my interview transcripts and field notes into NVivo. This is a lightweight, clean and easy to use qualitative data analysis web app that works with Safari, Firefox, and Chrome web browsers (but not Microsoft IE).  Because it is a web app, it is particularly useful for team projects allowing multiple team members to contribute to coding interview transcripts. The interface that displays interview transcripts and codes is simple, clean, and easy to browse.  Like I said…really wish I’d tried this out before investing so much time in NVivo.

Presentation tools – it’s worth exploring ways of presenting data and analysis beyond prose or PowerPoint. These web services broaden your options.  One to display data, description, analysis across time (TimeGlider) and another that helps to display it across space (Source Map).  Of course the limits here are linear time and Cartesian space, which may be too limiting for some of us…

Time Glider – a standard timeline-building application. It describes itself as “Google Maps, but for time.” I have not yet found a use for this and it pegs itself primarily as a tool for history students.  To the extent however that ethnography and historiography are complementary practices, this could be quite useful to have available.

Source Map –  is a project based out of the MIT Media Lab for documenting and publicizing the global supply chains of manufactured goods.  With a slight bit of repurposing, I found it to be a potentially useful presentation tool for multi-sited ethnographies in the mode of “following the object.” Case in point, my source map of the distribution of secondhand computers arriving from the US and Europe to Ghana. This source map doesn’t just document their arrival into Ghana, but also the path they take in country from the port, to the shops where they are sold, the Internet cafes where they are used, and eventually to the scrap metal yards where valuable metals are extracted, and the waste dump where what is left is deposited. Source map allows you to attach text and photos (from Flickr) to points on the map and to the links between. As a presentation tool for multi-sited ethnographies this helps to break away from the linearity of prose, linking images and descriptions and giving a stronger spatial sense of phenomena that is so geographically vast in scope that it is otherwise hard to get a good grasp of its coherence and continuity.

Any experience with using these specific tools?  Are there other software/web app tools for data collection, analysis, and presentation that are especially useful to ethnographers and other qualitative researchers?


Read other posts in the Tools We Use series:

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9 Responses to “The tools we use: Beyond Cassette Tapes”

  1. August 28, 2012 at 5:45 pm #

    A advert for TagPad (which we developed when I was at UCSD), it’s a free iPad application designed specifically for interviews and supports interview schedules and tagging.

  2. jennaburrell
    August 28, 2012 at 6:08 pm #

    Yes, a great one to add to the list. Different from Highlight 2.1 which offers more basic functionality and doesn’t integrate with interview schedules. I’ve downloaded it, but not yet had the chance to try it out.

  3. Joachim
    August 28, 2012 at 7:05 pm #

    Jenna, thanks for the tip on Saturate App! After too much frustration using nVivo on my mac with a virtual machine, I’ve been searching for another analysis platform. DeDoose is another interesting web-based option. A more nuts-and-boltsy free app is TAMS Analyzer which is Mac native and uber powerful, but steep learning curve and not ”drag and drop” user friendly. For the relatively straightforward analysis — basic coding and recoding — Saturate looks perfect*, stress free.

    *My only concern is that, as they note in their terms-and-conditions, their data is transmitted and stored without encryption, using third-party vendors. That’s a little bit scary for sensitive ethnographic data that hasn’t already been totally sanitized. I’d jump into SaturateApp right now if it weren’t for the security concerns.

    On the audio front, I’ve been eagerly awaiting the release of Mikey Digital from BlueMics. I’ve had transcriptionists tell me the older Mikey product gives them some of the best quality audio they’ve had to work on.


  4. August 29, 2012 at 11:59 pm #

    Yes, useful reminder! Data security is another important thing to think about with all of these tools beyond what they offer in functionality and ease of use.


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