Welcome to the Stories to Action edition of Ethnography Matters! Over the last few decades, organizations have learned to use the tools and approaches of ethnography to inform product and service development. But the idea of gaining context-specific insights about users before a product or service is engineered is still relatively new. This month, we want to show that the ethnographic process is more than just an insight-generating machine. As ethnographers, we gather stories, analyze them, and identify the relevant insights. But, we do so much more.
Editor’s note: In the last post of the Stories to Action edition, urban research designer Adriana Valdez Young @thepublicagency tells us how she used stories gathered from ethnographic research to design a game for architects and planners. Her “action,” a game called Arrivalocity, allowed users to access stories from her fieldwork. Although not all “actions” turn out as we expect. Adriana shares with us how she would approach this process if she were to do this again. All designers and researchers can learn from her very open and honest reflection.
Adriana Valdez Young makes creative learning and research platforms that engage people with their city. She is the co-founder of English for Action in Rhode Island, helped launch KARAJ in Beruit and is the co-editor of Betta, an architecture zine on lifestyle and conflict.
One day in Eindhoven for a lighting workshop. The next day, back to London for a one-hour walk down the street, followed by six hours drawing plans for a boutique hotel, art cinema, and food market to present to city officials. This is how a group of architecture firms spent two days in the spring of 2012 shaping a gentrified vision for Rye Lane (Olcayto 2012).
Designers, planners and developers shape our cities, yet they can spend little to no time in the field before delving into decision making. In the context of culturally-complex and rapidly changing streets, the results can be generic and damaging characterizations, leading to bland and detrimental designs.
As a researcher with the ‘Ordinary Streets’ project at LSE Cities, I spent several months in 2012 learning about the culture of trade on Rye Lane – a dense, multicultural high street in the neighborhood of Peckham, South London. Rye Lane is a street where businesses and shoppers regularly out-maneuver tight spaces and budgets. It is an entrepreneurial and cultural destination, where a newly arrived immigrant can rent an outdoor market stall for a daily rate of £10 – using only a mailing address and a mobile number to secure a permit; where a woman can buy exactly the same foods she cooked, hair style she wore and movies she watched in Lagos – all in the same shop; and where a refugee from Iraq manages a store that he subdivided from one to eight micro businesses – each one run by immigrants.
Editor’s Note: Memes means, “unit of cultural transmission,” and that’s what designer and artist An Xiao Mina @anxiaostudio does in the Story to Action edition of Ethnography Matters. She moves from Ugandan chickens to Western Lolcat, from meme to meaning, deconstructing each meme with cultural analysis. The “action” in this case is a new model for internet culture analysis and a new project that An Xiao is launching in the coming months, the Civic Beat. Her analysis and project compliment the recent publication of Henry Jenkin’s, Sam Ford’s, and Joshua Green’s Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture.
In my first week in Uganda, I was scheduled to give a lecture at a local university, discussing memes and civic life in China. I used a modified version of a talk I’d given previously, tailored slightly for what little I knew about Uganda at the time. The talk and venue themselves were quite familiar—smart people sitting in a row, an air-conditioned room, a shiny projector. It looked like any lecture hall I’d spoken in.
But the story of getting there was another matter entirely. I decided to take a long route, which had me walking past some chickens in coops. The road was mostly paved, but sometimes I had to walk on a dirt road. And that particular day I didn’t see any goats, but every now and then they’d cross my path.
As I’ve spent more time in Uganda and explored both Kampala and the upcountry regions, I saw more and more of them: chickens, goats, cows, a few pigs, the occasional duck. In the urban areas of the US and China, I’d grown used to a different menagerie, consisting mainly of cats, dogs and squirrels. But as a majority agricultural society, Uganda and its capital are filled with livestock, and the animals waddle, meh, oink and cluck away like a scene from the Farmer in the Dell.
I hadn’t realized it at the time, but my physical journey to talk about social and political memes from China helped gave me some insight into Uganda’s meme culture, and global internet culture in general.
Editor’s Note: We are lucky to have Morgan G. Ames @morgangames back from her fieldwork in South America to contribute a post to March edition of Stories to Action. Morgan gives us an insider’s view of a One Laptop Per Child’s (OLPC) project in Paraguay. Her insights reveal how ethnographic work creates a critical eye to reveal the truth behind what she calls “performing success.” Her story helps us see how the real benefits that users experience with a technology are often covered up with mythologies that we tell about the device. The result of her work provides invaluable insights for OLPC.
Morgan shared this story below at Microsoft’s annual Social Computing Symposium organized by Lily Cheng at NYU’s ITP. Watch the video of her talk. After her presentation, Morgan also hosted the geek version of My Little Pony or Porn Star (take the test if you haven’t yet!) in having us guess the technology referred to in overly optimistic quotes about new technologies. You can play along by watching the video of Morgan hosting the game with the conference attendees. Morgan created a tumblr, Techutopianism, dedicated to tracking technology utopian quotes!
This vignette problematizes the value of first impressions by illustrating an example of participants’ desire to perform success to visitors, especially high-profile ones. In the process, it shows the value of ethnographies, as more sustained research initiatives which ideally last long after the novelty effect of the visitor and of the (techno-)social interactions they are studying have worn off.
The day started like many schooldays in Paraguay. It was a Tuesday in late October, 2010, well into spring, and several months into my fieldwork studying the medium-size One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project there. The sun was beating down and temperatures had already climbed into the high 20s C when we rolled up to the school at 8am with our visitor in tow, just in time for the start of classes.
The visitor, one of OLPC’s founding members and chief software architects, was in the country for a whirlwind five-day visit. The local non-governmental organization (NGO) in charge of the project, Paraguay Educa, had carefully filled his itinerary with meetings with high-ranking officials they hoped to convince to support the project as well a visit to Itaipu Dam, one of its most high-profile donors – and this school visit.
I was excited and intrigued that this visitor was going to actually visit a school and spend time in a classroom. After several months of fieldwork, I had noted a number of positive aspects about the project, especially due to the sustained efforts the NGO had been putting into teacher training, community outreach, and laptop maintenance, but I had also noted a number of troubling issues, some of them caused by OLPC’s design or support choices. Would he see these issues, and if so, would he act on making them better?
Editor’s Note: This month’s Stories to Action edition starts off with Heather Ford’s @hfordsa’s story on her experience of watching a story unfold on Wikipedia and in person. While working as an ethnographer at Ushahidi, Heather was in Nairobi, Kenya when she heard news of Kenya’s army invading Somolia. She found out that the article about this story was being nominated for deletion on Wikipedia because it didn’t meet the encyclopedia’s “notability” criteria. This local story became a way for Heather to understand why there was a disconnect between what Wikipedia editors and Kenyans recognised as “notable”. She argues that, although Wikipedia frowns on using social media as sources, the “word on the street” can be an important way for editors to find out what is really happening and how important the story is when it first comes out. She also talks about how her ethnographic work helped her develop insights for a report that Ushahidi would use in their plans to develop new tools for rapid real-time events.
Heather shared this story at Microsoft’s annual Social Computing Symposium organized by Lily Cheng at NYU’s ITP. Watch the video of her talk, in which she refers to changing her mind on an article she wrote a few years ago, The Missing Wikipedians.
A few of us were on a panel at Microsoft’s annual Social Computing Symposium led by the inimitable Tricia Wang. In an effort to reach across academic (and maybe culture) divides, Tricia urged us to spend five minutes telling a single story and what that experience made us realize about the project we were working on. It was a wonderful way of highlighting the ethnographic principle of reflexivity where the ethnographer reflects on their attitudes/thoughts/reactions in response to the experiences that they have in the field. I told this story about the misunderstandings faced by editors across geographical and cultural divides, and how I’ve come to understand Articles for Deletions (AFDs) on Wikipedia that are related to Kenya. I’ve also added thoughts that I had after the talk/conference based on what I learned here.
In November, 2011, I arrived in Nairobi for a visit to the HQ of Ushahidi and to conduct interviews about a project I was involved with to understand how Wikipedians managed sources during rapidly evolving news events. We were trying to figure out how to build tools to help people who collaboratively curate stories about such events – especially when they are physically distant from one another. When I arrived in Nairobi, I went straight to the local supermarket and bought copies of every local newspaper. It was a big news day in the country because of reports that the Kenyan army had invaded Southern Somalia to try and root out the militant Al Shabaab terrorist group. The newspapers all showed Kenyan military tanks and other scenes from the offensive, matched by the kind of bold headlines that characterize national war coverage the world over.
A quick search on Wikipedia, and I noticed that a page had been created but that it had been nominated for deletion on the grounds that did not meet Wikipedia’s notability criteria. The nominator noted that the event was not being reported as an “invasion” but rather an “incursion” and that it was “routine” for troops from neighboring countries to cross the border for military operations.Read More… Isolated vs overlapping narratives: the story of an AFD
Editor’s Note: Opening up the Stories to Action edition is Panthea Lee’s @panthealee moving story about a human trafficking outreach campaign that her company, Reboot, designed for Safe Horizon. In David Brook’s recent NYT column, What Data Can’t Do, he lists several things that big data is unable to accomplish. After reading the notes to Panthea’s talk below, we’d all agree that big data also leaves out people who live”off the grid.”
As Panthea tells her story about Fatou (pseudonym), a person who has been trafficked, we learn that many of the services we use to make our lives easier, like Google Maps or Hop Stop, are also used by human traffickers to maintain dominance and power over people they are controlling. Panthea shares the early prototypes in Reboot’s design and how they decided to create a campaign that would take place at cash checking shops.
We’ve made great strides in data-driven policymaking, open government, and civic technology –– many of the folks in this room have made significant contributions in these domains. But, as we know, many people, even here in New York City, still live “off the grid”––and the issues of access go beyond “digital divide”.
As a designer working on governance and development issues––fields where economists regularly eat anthropologists for lunch––this is something I think a lot about.
In the era of Big Data, as we become increasingly reliant on capital-d Data, I wonder what might exist in the negative space? Who are we not capturing in our datasets? And how might we reach them?
A few months ago, I met a young woman from Benin who I will call Fatou (not her real name). Fatou had been adopted by an American preacher on mission in Benin, and brought to the United States. She and her family were overjoyed at her good fortune.
Fatou was pleased, she felt taken care of with her new “mother” and “father” in Queens. They started her on English lessons to help her adjust to the US and to allow her to enroll in school, a longtime dream.
But even from the outset, some things seemed strange to her.
Whenever they left the house, “to keep her safe”, her mother always held her by the wrist, keeping a firm grip. She wasn’t allowed any possessions beyond clothing. Her belongings were regularly searched for any material she kept, particularly information (pamphlets, papers). If found, they were confiscated. She worked long hours at a school the family owned. She was never herself enrolled in school, as promised, and when she inquired about her education, she was told to stop being ungrateful.
At first, Fatou thought these were just US customs. But then things got worse.Read More… Reaching Those Beyond Big Data
Welcome to the Stories to Action edition of Ethnography Matters!
Over the last few decades, organizations have learned to use the tools and approaches of ethnography to inform product and service development. But the idea of gaining context-specific insights about users before a product or service is engineered is still relatively new. In May, Jenna Burrell is curating an edition on how to talk to organizations about ethnographic research (please reach out if you’d like to guest post for that edition!).
This month, we want to show that the ethnographic process is more than just an insight-generating machine. As ethnographers, we gather stories, analyze them, and identify the relevant insights. But, we do so much more. We do stuff with those stories and insights. We design products, services, apps, campaigns, and programs. We create new approaches to problem-solving. All that analyzing? It never stops. Like software programmers, we are constantly improving our designs.
To ethnographers this is all obvious. But it’s not always clear to others.
Clients often focus on end-product insights, failing to realize that ethnographic practice is a complex and multi-stage process. It is common among ethnographers working in the private or public sector to share frustrations that clients want ethnographic insights, but do not grasp the fieldwork and analytical work required to produce deep insights.
As ethnographers, we can feel the fieldsite in our bones. It stays with us. We can recall every participant’s face, the colors of their clothes, the texture of their hair, and the way they hold their cellphones. Long hours of fieldwork are sprinkled into memos, invoices, project management files, and proprietary qualitative software.
We can close our eyes and envision the tangible evidence of shadowing and participant observation: the project room filled with colored sticky notes on the walls, black and red sharpies strewn over the table, and white boards full of diagrams.
We are haunted by the people we interview—the woman whose hands trembled as she told a deep secret that she had never told anyone else or that kid who showed so much joy when he started leveling up.
The meaning of these experiences, these stories, and every minute detail of the research is clear to us. We know the weight of our analysis.
All the client sees: one powerpoint.
With the client’s myopic focus on insights, ethnographers may mistakenly think that clients don’t need to see the messy stuff. Fieldnotes, stories, and analysis seem less important.
Both clients’ focus on insights and ethnographers’ acceptance of this had led to an undesirable outcome for the field of business ethnography: many of the core practices of ethnographic observations and analysis become invisible and devalued.
Our hope is to offer more examples of how ethnographic research can contribute to amazing design decisions. Great stories from the field inform our actions in the development phase of our projects. For this month’s story edition, we wanted to showcase the strength of amazing stories that can go a long way to inform insights and actions.
I had asked several researchers to share a specific story from their field experience, the insights gained from the story, and how those insights shaped their projects. This edition will feature posts that will further explore important stories from ethnographic research that have led to important insights from prominent ethnographic researchers:
- While working for Ushahidi, Heather Ford did fieldwork on Wikipedia. She shares a particular story that stood out for her, the insights gained from the story and how it informed Ushahidi’s understanding of the intersections between global and local narratives.
- Panthea Lee will talk about Reboot’s fieldwork on human trafficking and how it informed the outreach campaign they designed.
- Morgan Ames will talk about her research with OLPC and how stories helped her understand how participants deal with first impressions.
- An Xiao Mina will share her story about discovering the local context of internet humor in Uganda and how it will inform her new project, the Civic Beat.
In addition to the stories shared at the Social Computing Symposium, we also have a guest post from Adriana Young Valdez about how she used stories gathered from ethnographic work to design games.
The posts in the Stories to Action Edition will shed some light on the important stories behind ethnographic research that may sometimes be overlooked when clients are only looking for big picture insights.
OTHER POSTS IN THE STORIES TO ACTION EDITION:
- Reaching Those Beyond Big Data by Panthea Lee @panthealee
- Isolated vs overlapping narratives: the story of an AFD by Heather Ford’s @hfordsa
- Performing Success: Ethnography and the risk of first impressions by Morgan Ames @morgangames
- The Chickens and Goats of Uganda’s Internet by An Xiao Mina @anxiaostudio
- Play to Plan: mobile games to value street-level trade by Adriana Valdez Young @thepublicagency
 This post is primarily about ethnographers who produce reports for clients, though the points also would apply to academics and their published research findings.