Tag Archives: mobile ethnography

Sensory postcards: Using mobile media for digital ethnographies


As a mobile media practitioner interested in mediated everyday experience and urban space, my use of technology for collecting data, sharing impressions and observing cultural practices has shifted from using specialized equipment (high-quality portable recorders, professional cameras and video camcorders) to the smaller, more flexible and already at-hand iPhone (or equivalent Android, Windows, etc.). With a continuous stream of mobile applications and externals, both the design community and the community of ‘prod-users’ and researchers are adopting multimodal tools[i] in their practices. In this piece I want to present ‘sensory postcards’ as a model and method for do-it-yourself digital ethnographies that unite sensory ethnography[ii] and cultural studies[iii] toward questions around urban experience.

Sensory Postcards as method

Sensory postcards collage

Screenshots from the author’s sensory postcards using Soundcloud and dbBlox Check, posted on Twitter

So how are sensory postcards a method? Everyday mobile media production deserves study in its own right as a novel form of media literacy, signaled by participation in social media communities such as Instagram, YouTube and reddit (to name just a few). From a research standpoint, sensory postcards are a form of multimodal inquiry that engage sensory ethnography as an access point into urban life, place and human geographies, as well as power relations and models of situated learning. As an inductive approach, generating sensory postcards means sensing first, capturing second, and iterative interpretation as patterns settle into media artefacts. The metaphor of ‘postcard’ here is an attempt to evoke a ‘moment in time’ sensibility while de-emphasizing the visual component. In mobile videocam recordings the narrative of the event or action becomes central; removing that by using a static image and sound recording emphasizes instead the temporality of sound, allowing the listener to engage their imagination in constructing a scene without video filling in the blanks. Clean the palate, re-experience, re-engage. Below is a case study of the use of sensory postcards in one Vancouver neighborhood, starting with sound as a unique entrypoint.

Case Study: Yaletown, Vancouver, Canada

Yaletown is a wealthy area that overlooks the English Bay in the heart of downtown Vancouver. I wanted to explore how different spaces are characterized sonically and visually, and compare recordings I made with my direct experiences. One of the first things that caught my attention was how the landscape and soundscape interacted to form an almost intentionally designed experience. In particular, the careful arrangement of the visual environment tricked my ears into hearing less noise, and ultimately experiencing my surroundings as peaceful and serene (in correspondence with the ‘Sailboat’ postcard below) when the actuality was much more busy and noisy (reflected in the ‘Seawall’ postcard below).

The above are literally two sides of the same street, a few feet away from each other. On one side we have a popular open-patio restaurant, a lot of music and the sound of talking leaking out to the street. Across from it we overlook the marina and the seawall, which is often used by people biking and walking. Curiously, not only is the visual landscape different (and the atmosphere and connotation it carries), but crossing the street shaves off almost 10 decibels from the overall soundscape levels. One reflection here is that the perceptual convergence I experienced in putting together the soundscape with the landscape is less an intentional design (as if city planners actually considered sound in any aesthetic, rather than purely functional sense!), and more a result of habituation to constructed media images, where soundscapes are ‘replaced’ and carefully matched to the mood or atmosphere of each image.Read More… Sensory postcards: Using mobile media for digital ethnographies

Lessons Learned From EPIC’s Mobile Apps & Quantified Self Workshop


MikeGotta_CasualMike Gotta (@Mikegotta) is a Research Vice President for collaboration and social software at Gartner. He has more than 30 years of experience in the IT industry, with 14 of those years spent as an industry analyst advising business and IT strategists on topics related to collaboration, teaming, community-building, and social networking. He has expanded his research to include quantified self trends as well as the business use and organizational value of ethnography. He is currently pursuing a master’s degree in Media Studies at The New School in New York City.

At EPIC 2103Mike Gotta (@Mikegotta) gave a workshop, Mobile Apps & Sensors: Emerging Opportunities For Ethnographic Research, that examined mobile apps developed for ethnographic research uses. I asked Mike to contribute to the January EPIC theme at Ethnography Matters because his research is always spotlighting some of the most fascinating trends in the tech industry. In this article, Mike provides a wonderful overview of his workshop, but even more interesting is his discussion of all the different ways the dialogue veered away from the original topic of the workshop. Essentially, things didn’t go as Mike had planned. The new direction, however, offered Mike a lot of insights into the future of mobile apps, which led him to reflect on personalized sensors as part of Quantified Self trends and the increasing importance of APIs in future research tools.  If you’re a qualitative researcher who wants to know how to make use of the latest mobile apps, this is a must-read article. The second half of Mike’s article can be read on Gartner’s blog.

Mike is currently at Gartner, Inc. (NYSE: IT), which describes itself as the world’s leading information technology research and advisory company. Mike is a familiar face at Ethnography Matters; during his time at Cisco Systems, Mike contributed to Ethnography Matters a piece that has become one of the most often-cited pieces of research on the role of ethnography in  Enterprise Social Networks (ESN).

For more posts from this January EPIC edition curated by contributing editor Tricia Wang, follow this link.

Slide1You might wonder – what’s a technology industry analyst doing at EPIC and why deliver a workshop on mobile apps and sensors?

The world of the IT industry analyst is becoming much more inter-disciplinary as societal, cultural, economic, media, demographic, and technology trends become more intertwined. These trends, perhaps, were always entangled in some fashion and we are only now becoming more interested in how the patterns of everyday life are mediated by various technologies.

There was a time when industry analysts could cover technology trends and their business relevance as long as they had an IT background. That might still be true in some cases – maybe – but in my opinion, being well-versed in social sciences is becoming a baseline competency for those in my profession.

Which brings me back to EPIC 2013. I had been looking into synergies across design, ethnography, and mobile and was happy to deliver a workshop for EPIC attendees to look at advances in mobile apps that support ethnographic research. As a group, we identified the pro/con’s of mobile apps and discussed how field research could be better supported. The topic was relevant not only to the ethnographic community but also to audiences who interact frequently with industry analysts: digital marketers, innovation teams, design groups, product/service managers, and IT organizations.  It struck me that EPIC (as a conference and organization) is in a position to act as a yearly event touch point between those in the social sciences and business/technology strategists interested in the same issues.Read More… Lessons Learned From EPIC’s Mobile Apps & Quantified Self Workshop