Editor’s Note: Global health research is not easy to coordinate. Publicly shared global health research is even more complex. That is why last month, Ethnography Matters was so excited to feature Erik Bigras‘s and Kim Fortun‘s innovative research methods for The Asthma Files, a project at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute where ethnographers gather and publicly share data about asthma. We believe their work signals to an important turn in policy oriented and public ethnography.
In Erik’s and Kim’s first post, Innovation in Asthma Research: Using Ethnography to Study a Global Health Problem (1 of 3), they focused on why The Asthma Files is necessary and introduced some of the technical logistics for creating a crowd-sourced qualitative data health gathering project.
In this month’s Ethnozine, Erik and Kim’s second post details the exciting process of choosing the best data sharing platform for their project, Plone. We learn about how the Tehran Asthma Files was born out of a close collaboration with the Samuel Jordan Center for Persian Studies and Culture at the University of California, Irvine.
We look forward to their final post in this series that will discuss how other researchers from social scientists to epidemiologists and global health experts can participate in the research project and make use of the data.
Check out past posts from guest bloggers.
Choosing the Right Platform
Our ethnographic experiments are made possible partly because of the choice of online platform that The Asthma Files uses. Choosing the right platform is anything but simple. Each platform has its own capabilities, and these don’t necessarily align with the goals of the project. For The Asthma Files, we’ve so far been through three different platforms. We eventually settled on Plone because it was the one most suited to our needs.
As we said in our previous post, one of the goals of The Asthma Files is to rethink the everyday work of ethnography. In order words, we’re trying to understand how digital environments can transform the everyday, mundane, things that ethnographers do. As such, one of our primary audiences is ourselves as ethnographers and researchers. For this purposes, we needed an online platform that would be more than a delivery mechanism. We needed something that would act as a fully developed workspace where we could share, store, and create material.
The first two platforms that we used were a wiki platform and Ning. However, it quickly became apparent to us that neither of these would be adequate. As social networking platforms, they offered many advantages when it came to content delivery. Both were relatively easy and intuitive to use. However, neither really allowed us to store and share material easily, nor to experiment with new types of workflows. We therefore needed a new option.
Cue Plone, an open-source content management system. The fact that it is open-source is important to us. It means that we’re able to modify it to suit our needs, and then share these modifications with other social scientists and humanities scholars who also want to experiment with online work spaces.
Also important to us is that Plone is optimized for more than simply content delivery. It allows us to store and share files easily and securely. This is especially important when it comes to IRB-protected material. Social networking platform security mainly relies on anonymity to create security: something is secure if no one knows that it is there.
For example, such platforms differentiate between public (unsecured) and private (secured) pages. Public pages are those pages available for everyone to see. Private pages, on the other hand, are available in a different folder on the server, and are only available if 1) one knows the URL to the page, or 2) one has FTP access to the server. While Plone does differentiate between public and private, it also takes a different approach. It allows individual Plone folders to be password-protected so that the material inside can only be accessed by the users with the appropriate permissions. Plone security is not contingent on the existence of a space beyond the platform. It is created within the platform.
So with most social networking platforms, if the audio files from interlocutor A and interlocutor B are both in the private space, interlocutor A will potentially be able to see interlocutor B’s files when he or she goes to access his or her materials for review. With Plone, this is impossible unless interlocutor A also knows the password to interlocutor B’s folder. Also, because Plone’s security is handled at the level of the platform, interlocutors are not required to install any kinds of software on their own system (such as FTP clients).
Another important consideration is the way in which Plone organizes itself. As we explained in our previous post, we try to use a logic of juxtaposition to create new understandings of the world. Most social networking platforms rely on the creation of new elements that can then be added to the overall collection of material. With Plone, however, the overall goal of users is to bring pages together through juxtaposition in order to create a sense of play where the newness is not in the information being displayed but in the ways in which the juxtapositions were created in the first place. This particular feature allows us to put material together in news ways in order to provide ourselves and our interlocutors with a different understanding of asthma research.
Ethnography from Up Close and from Afar
Having a digital platform for ethnographic work has changed and enabled our practice in a number of ways. First, it has changed the way individual ethnographers work, giving each of involved a place to archive and visualize our material within a structure that situates our individual work within the larger project; shared questions stimulate without over constraining our work; material contributed by others provides context and comparisons.
The digital platform has also enabled us to work together, sharing material and analysis at an early stage of development, even if we aren’t co-located physically. This enables a type of peer review and collective deliberation that is worth nurturing. It also allows us to bring in junior scholars (including undergraduates and high school students) who work alongside us, in something of an apprenticeship mode; they have their own focus and space to work, with guiding structures and examples.
The digital platform has also allowed new kinds of collaborations, which bring really differently focused researchers together. For the last year, for example, we have had a sustained collaboration with the Samuel Jordan Center for Persian Studies and Culture at the University of California, Irvine, to build a set of Tehran Asthma Files. The Iran Studies specialists are interested in our project because it provides structure for a new kind of interdisciplinary collaboration within area studies.
We are interested in Tehran’s dramatic air quality problem, and how it is being governed, but couldn’t get very far trying to explicate this without area studies expertise. Again, The Asthma Files has provided the structure and space for a new kind of work to play out. The digital platform has also allowed us to work organically with Tehran Asthma Files, customizing how we proceed in a way that makes sense to all involved. We began the Tehran-focused collaboration with a face-to-face workshop in Irvine last May, for example, followed by monthly Skype meetings to figure out next steps.
Through this, we decided to experiment with an online discussion to jumpstart our understanding of how variously positioned people understand air quality and environmental health in Tehran. This web forum – rich with images and videos to think with – is what we came up with. In the future, we will further experiment with ways to use The Asthma Files web platform to engage with our colleagues and interlocutors in new ways, using the platform to both generate and share ethnographic understanding.
These new engagements have allowed us to cross disciplinary boundaries both personally and collaboratively. Personally, ever since we’ve started using Plone, we’ve had to act as occasional programmers and full-time system administrators. While some of the researchers on the project do possess some computer-related expertise, these were nonetheless types of work that we, as ethnographers, were not originally trained to do. However, we’re now successfully able to install and manage our own platform.
Collaboratively, we’ve had to seek out different kinds of expertise whenever our own knowledges were incomplete. Using Plone has put us in contact with web designers, computer scientists, and database managers, all of whom have had some impact in the ways in which The Asthma Files is shaped. In fact, due to some of Plone’s intricacies, we’ve had repeated interactions with the Plone community of developers and users itself. Each of these encounters becomes a micro-ethnographic moment that allows us to try to understand why we would want to think of The Asthma Files in the ways that we do.
So far, our series of posts have dealt with what the project is, and how it helps us do our everyday ethnographic work. The final post in this series will detail how other researchers can become involved with The Asthma Files.
IN THIS SERIES