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Small Methods for Big Data


[Image via GIPHY]

We are currently soliciting contributions to the March/April edition of EthnographyMatters. The aim of the edition is to document some of the innovative methods that are being used to explore online communities, cultures and politics in ways that connect people to the data created about/by them. By ‘method’, we mean both the things that ethnographers do (interviews, memo-ing, member checking, participant observation) as well as the principles that underpin what many of us do (serving communities, enabling people-centred research, advocating for change). Ethnography has never been tied indelibly with qualitative methods: the practice of ethnography requires using a suite of methods in order to reach our goals and there are multiple methods that ethnographers share with Big Data researchers.

The availability of data that is generated as a by-product of online activities offers researchers with useful ways of understanding online communities. Such methods can go far beyond merely the collection and visualisation/analysis of that data outside of the human context that constitutes the majority of Big Data research. ‘Small Methods for Big Data’ is not about methods “in the service of” Big Data but rather in the “context of”. Not “either… or” but rather “both… and”. Not one before the other, but both together in a circular motion towards understanding.

Examples of fresh ways of connecting data and people include:

  • Defining the fieldsite by employing the metaphor of a network [Burrell, 2009];
  • Using social media such as Instagram to write public field notes and memos [Wang, 2012];
  • Conducting interviews with users by bringing in visualised traces of the user’s online experiences [Dubois and Ford, 2015].

There are, however, many others and we want to collect them as well as to publish reflections on their principled use in ethnographic and mixed method research in a small sample/vignette of innovative approaches. The vignette could then be used in teaching and research, inspiring others to add to the collection of methods and strategies used to connect people and data in innovative ways.

You can participate by sending details about interesting methods, strategies or reflections that you have encountered/experienced, or by writing a post for the upcoming edition.

Contributions to the vignette should be 300 words and should cover: what the method is, how the method works, why it works as well as where researchers can find more information about it.

Posts for Ethnography Matters’ ‘Small Methods for Big Data’ edition should be maximum 1,000 words and can offer a series of methods or focus on a single method and reflections on the use of that method. Contributor guidelines are here but email me if you have any questions.

Deadline: Friday 4 March, 2016

What’s the matter with Ethnography?


Robert PottsRobert Potts is a filmmaker, lecturer, designer, and PhD candidate at the HighWire Centre for Doctoral Training who takes special interest in a diverse range of subjects including shared narratives, urbanism, and ‘joined up’ thinking. Rob’s doctoral research revolves around an ethnographic study at Hyperisland, a unique type of design school.

Editors note: Ethnographic praxis in 2016 has long since transcended the work of the gentlemen anthropologists from yesteryear. As a designer, artist, filmmaker, ethnographer and lecturer – not to mention PhD candidate – Rob’s work ‘joins up thinking’. In this piece Rob takes us on a journey that shows us how Rob’s unique ability to join up threads of thought informs both his ethnographic practice, and how it may influence the future of ethnography. What can we learn from films like Oppenheimer’s ‘The Act of Killing’? How does the act of ‘making things’ (i.e. turning concepts in material matter) allow for the development of richer insights? How do intensely emotional experiences (losing a child to cancer, for instance) provide designers and ethnographers with raw materials from which ethnographic nous can be applied, leveraged, and articulated in unique forms? Taking us on a journey via a ‘documentary of the imagination’, through the critically acclaimed video game ‘That Dragon, Cancer’, to Rob’s experience as a filmmaker embedded in research projects, this piece explores how matter embodies what matters, for the future of ethnography.

This post is part of the Post Disciplinary Ethnography Edition based on work done at the HighWire Centre for Doctoral Training and curated by Joseph Lindley. The other articles in the series are “What on Earth is Post Disciplinary Ethnography?“, “Everybody’s an Ethnographer!“, “Don’t Panic: The Smart City is Here!”  and “Lemon Difficult: Building a Strategic Speculation Consultancy“.

dark matters 2.png

Or we could ask; what is the matter of ethnography? Or; what matters to ethnography?

We all are motivated by purpose; to make things matter. I followed an unorthodox path in discovering the value of ethnography, a path that revealed some intriguing connections along the way. ‘Matter’, of course, has two meanings. A substance of which some specific object is made or a concern, a situation, or even a question. The meanings entwine, physical matter makes up what matters to us most. I want to share how ethnography matters to me and how matter matters to ethnography, and why that should matter to the Ethnography Matters readership.

During my tenure as a PhD researcher at HighWire, ethnographic practice has become central to my work. My research blends several streams. I observe groups of experts collaborating in organisations, usually in creative or technology contexts. I also embed in interdisciplinary research projects as a filmmaker (Coincidentally, we even made a film about Dark Matter). In collaboration with other researchers contributing to this blog series I use ethnography to understand innovation. We use ethnographically derived methods to develop technology strategy and new methods to explore potential futures. Our experiments blend design methods. Our purpose is to do ethnography with, rather than on, people. Three relevant EPIC papers that Joseph, Dhruv and I have co-authored are here (Shared Ethnography for Shared Cities)here (Design Fiction as an Input to Design Ethnography) and here (Operationalizing Design Fiction with Anticipatory Ethnography).

My parallel practice as ethnographer and filmmaker embedded in research projects highlights to me the ways in which we interpret and encode insight. Film seeks to tell an inside story. It also opens us to how people interact through their emotions, expression and creativity. Using ethnography one day and film production methods the next, I can’t help but notice how these practices connect and mutually inform one another. Gathering and interpreting insight involves structuring narratives; opening windows into how people make sense of activity. Editing and coding are both interpretive activities that seek to organise experience into a coherent flow. These narratives aren’t always linear, sometimes they feel like networks. Insights need to be embodied, they need a place to be, usually they are written down; reading matter…Read More… What’s the matter with Ethnography?

What on Earth is Post Disciplinary Ethnography?


This post is part of the Post Disciplinary Ethnography Edition based on work done at the HighWire Centre for Doctoral Training and curated by Joseph Lindley. The other articles in the series are “What’s the matter with Ethnography?“, “Everybody’s an Ethnographer!“, “Don’t Panic: The Smart City is Here!”  and “Lemon Difficult: Building a Strategic Speculation Consultancy“.

joe lindely gif

‘Jargon free’ text is the name of the game according to the Ethnography Matters style guide, so titling the introduction to this edition ‘Post Disciplinary Ethnography’ – a bit of a mouthful if ever there was one – seems slightly counter intuitive. Before this post is finished I will invoke a range of other, less-than-straightforward, locutions and idioms. For instance I will have to touch upon the mysterious ‘HighWire’ and the lofty-sounding concept of the ‘method assemblage’. Thankfully, even if the words themselves are unfamiliar, I believe that with some simple explanations we can cut right to the point.

First of all though, I will introduce myself: I am Joseph Lindley, a 32-year-old male of the species ‘homo sapiens’, I reside in Manchester (UK) and I like to think I ‘know where my towel is’. I have a bit of a miscellany of life and work experience including being a manager in a healthcare organisation, working as an IT professional, studying interactive arts, and being a musician under the moniker Joe Galen.

For the last four years though I have been a postgraduate student where I attained a masters degree in research methods and am currently studying for a doctorate on the strange topic of ‘design fiction’. The postgraduate part of that story has all taken place at Lancaster University’s ‘HighWire’ doctoral training centre. All of this edition’s content will come from researchers at the HighWire centre, so before proceeding any further, let me describe it.

HighWire is a 5-year project that was funded by the UK Research Council’s ‘Digital Economy’ programme. HighWire’s approach is fundamentally post disciplinary, which is rather different to its more commonly seen cousins that we refer to as inter, cross and multi… disciplinary (this report offers a fantastic definition of each of these terms and explores their nuances). These related terms, each describing how people (or concepts) with different expertise (or philosophical foundations) come together form teams (or produce insights) that are in some way ‘greater than a sum of their parts’. More often than not, those outcomes are achieved by, as Blackwell’s title suggests, ‘creating value across boundaries’. The properties and tropes of each discipline remain in tact, but, extra value can be created bridging the gaps between them. Post disciplinarity I see rather differently.Read More… What on Earth is Post Disciplinary Ethnography?

We have a Slack! Join us at Ethnography Hangout to discuss applied ethnography


Last week, we announced the rebirth of Ethnography Matters with a retrospective of the last five years of posts. Part of the rebirth involves meeting the community where it is at. And one of those places is Slack. So the Ethnography Matters, Anthrodesign, and EPIC teams have created a Slack channel for conversations about ​ethnographic methods. At Ethnography Hangout, we are an interdisciplinary group wearing many hats from design to tech and research, so you don’t need to have any formal background in ethnography to participate.

To us, creating a single Slack channel made a lot of sense to have our overlapping communities join into one place for conversations that extend beyond our own organizations and mailing lists.

We envision the Ethnography Hangout Slack to be a place for anyone to discuss applied ethnography. Those interested in discussion specifically grounded in the discipline of  Anthropology can also check out American Anthropology Association (AAA)’s Slack.

Founded in 2002, Anthrodesign’s mailing list established a new space for people working at the intersection of applied anthropology and design. Since 2005, EPIC has been promoting ethnography in organizations though the field’s premier annual conference, and more recently through an online community and professional resources at epicpeople.org . Launched in 2012, the Ethnography Matters blog has created publicly accessible content from people working in industry to academia at the cross section of technology and people. Despite having been formed at different times for different reasons, all three organizations  are committed to a people-centric to organizations, products, and services, thereby expanding the field of applied ethnography.

To join the discussion on Slack , please fill out this form where we ask for some information about you and your work. Read our Slack guidelines. We look forward to seeing you on Slack!

For any question about joining Ethnography Hangout Slack, please contact the administrators.

Ethnography celebration and retrospective: We’re back!


The editors of Ethnography Matters are pleased to announce that we’re back to our regular editorial calendar for 2016. We’ve set up a new series schedule for the year, with a focus on “centers of ethnographic practice.” Centers could be geographical (such as the focus on work happening at the interdisciplinary center, Highwire, in our first edition of 2016 edited by Joe Lindley), or centered around a particular idea, method or person. Each series will evolve over two months and will be edited by one of the team or by a guest editor.

celebration

In November last year, we celebrated the four-year anniversary of the founding of Ethnography Matters. Born in November 2011, Ethnography Matters was launched when we assembled a founding group of individuals who wanted to explore how technology makes us and how we make technology. Our original goal for starting Ethnography Matters was to create a body of work about ethnography that would be accessible in plain language to the public. No paywalls. No jargon. No degree waving. We wanted to build a community across industry, academia, and civil society. In the past four years, we have had an impressive collection of 182 posts, 13 editions, 14 interviews, 3 series, and 30 methods. Posts have been cited and reproduced in numerous academic publications and books, and the site has been featured as a resource for ethnographers in books by Christine Hine, Patricia Sunderland’s and Rita DennyGerrish & Lathlean, Gaillet & Eble and Bucchi & Trench.

Since 2011, we’ve watched this community grow on our WordPress dashboard from 500 readers a month to 15,000. It’s not only about numbers, though. We recognise our community not only in the numbers but in the stories we regularly hear from people who look to Ethnography Matters as a resource and talking point.

All communities need a narrative for why they exist, and Ethnography Matters is no different. Ethnography matters to us because it helps to keep technological development real. We believe that technologies need to develop close to the needs and experiences of users. Technologies need to aspire – to help us to not only do what we need to do but to be better people, to help us become a better society. These ideas have always mattered, but they matter now more than ever. In recent years, we’ve witnessed the global rise of new forms of automated and flextime labor systems such as Uber, Instacart, and Seamless. Technology is becoming increasingly embedded into our daily lives, bringing with it a particular set of logics that are difficult to resist. It’s clear that we’re in the middle of yet another social transition, but the question is, into what?Read More… Ethnography celebration and retrospective: We’re back!

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

The Addiction Algorithm: An interview with Natasha Dow Schüll


Addiction by Design, book coverEM: Can you tell me a little bit about your book?

NDS: I was in the first cohort of the Robert Wood Johnson Health & Society Scholar postdoctoral program. I was definitely an outlier as a cultural anthropologist, but the pitch I made to them at the time was that research angles on addiction should include more qualitative work, and should also attend to the addictive effects of consumer interfaces and technology, not just drugs, as a public health issue.

I think any good addiction researcher would recognize that addiction is in a large part a question of the timing of rewards or reinforcements, or the so-called event frequency. So it makes sense that if digitally-mediated forms of gambling like slot machines are able to intensify the event frequency to a point where you’re playing 1,200 hands an hour, then they’re more addictive. Waiting for your turn at a poker game, by contrast, isn’t as fast – there are lots of pauses and lots of socializing in-between hands. Slot machines are solitary, continuous, and rapid. Uncertainty is opened up and then it’s closed — so quickly that it creates a sense of merging with the machine.

If you accept that gambling can be an addiction, you can then broaden the conversation to include other less obviously addictive contemporary experiences, whether it’s an eBay auction or Facebook photo clicking or even just checking email, and certainly texting. It’s so compelling to take your fingertip and just keep clicking, clicking to get that response.

EM: That’s fascinating. Or this word game on my phone — it’s become really, really addictive for me. I’m curious if you’ve had interactions also with people in game design? There’s a certain point of view that seems really prevalent right now about game design and play.

NDS: People in the general world of game and app design don’t see themselves as in the business of producing addiction but they have reached out to me. Often they want to hear about how to avoid creating addiction.

I was recently invited out to the Habit Summit, an event in Silicon Valley held at Stanford, with lots of local tech people who are all there to figure out how to design habit, how to retain attention. In my presentation to them, I talked about the increasing prevalence of little ludic loops in design, as ways to retain attention. With Candy Crush and so many phone apps, if you ride a subway in the morning there are people sitting there zoning out on these little devices. I think the reason they’re so able to retain attention and form habits is that they are affect modulators. They’re helping people to modulate and manage their moods. It’s addictive because it’s right there at your fingertips, and you’re able to reach out and just start clicking this thing to create a stimulus response loop.There are more and more moments of zoning out – to use a phrase from the slot machine gamblers – moments that are configured very much like a slot machine in terms of the continuous, rapid little loop where something is opened up and then it’s closed… open it up and then it’s kill the monster; kill the monster again; kill the monster again.

It’s so compelling to take your fingertip and just keep clicking, clicking to get that response.

Read More… The Addiction Algorithm: An interview with Natasha Dow Schüll

App-ography: A critical perspective on medical and health apps


www.flickr.com/photos/alf/200290221/ by alf eaton + commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Anatomical_position.jpg by Connexions (cnx.org/content/m47807/latest/)

All My Apps by alf eaton +
Anatomical Position by Connexions

I have been thinking and writing about mobile apps recently and how they are used for medical and health purposes. Millions of apps designed for smartphones, tablet computers and other mobile devices have been developed since their first appearance in 2008. Many of these are health and medical apps. In mid-2014 there were over 100,000 health and medical apps listed in the two major app stores, Apple App Store and Google Play, and new ones are being issued every day.

Several health and medical apps feature on Apple’s lists of popular apps, and download figures provided by Google Play show that some health and medical apps on their store have been downloaded hundreds of thousands or even millions of times. In late 2012 a Pew Research Center survey found that 85 per cent of American adults owned a mobile phone. Fifty-three per cent of these were smartphones, and one fifth of smartphone users had used their phone to download a health-related app. The most popular of these apps were related to monitoring exercise, diet and weight. A more recent market research study found that almost one-third of American smartphone users (equivalent to 46 million people) had used apps from the health and fitness category in January 2014Public health researchers have sought to evaluate their use in health promotion campaigns and gathering data on health-related practices. But few researchers have investigated the broader social, cultural, political and ethical dimensions of medical and health apps.

Healthcare practitioners and administrators are also increasingly using apps as part of their professional practice. Hundreds of apps have been developed by hospitals and other healthcare providers. A growing number of medical schools are now offering at least part of their education via apps and require their students to own a tablet computer. In one study that surveyed American doctors, more than two thirds said that they used apps as part of their work. Another survey of medical students and junior doctors in a UK healthcare region found that over half of both students and junior doctors had medical-related apps on smartphones, with apps for medical education purposes the most popular. The medical literature now often refers to ‘prescribing’ apps to patients.

Despite the ever-increasing popularity of apps, very little academic research focused on these devices has been carried out in the social sciences and humanities. Numerous market research reports and medical journal articles have been published that provide some quantitative data on their content, accuracy and use, but these are largely instrumental and descriptive rather than critical.

Apps are digital technology tools, but they are also sociocultural products… active participants that shape human bodies and selves as part of heterogeneous networks, creating new practices and knowledges.

In recent years I have been interested in developing a research agenda in critical digital health studies, including research into medical and health-related apps. I adopt a sociomaterial perspective drawn from science and technology studies to investigate the digital health phenomenon. From this perspective, mobile apps, like all technologies, assume certain kinds of capacities, desires and embodiments; they also construct and configure them. Apps are new digital technology tools but they are also active participants that shape human bodies and selves as part of heterogeneous networks, creating new practices. Indeed apps may be viewed as sociocultural artefacts, the products of human decision-making, underpinned by tacit assumptions, norms and discourses already circulating in the social and cultural contexts in which they are generated, marketed and used. As they not only present information and health and medicine but also often invite users to generate and share digital data about themselves, apps participate as actors in the digital knowledge economy.Read More… App-ography: A critical perspective on medical and health apps

The Facebook Experiment: Cow-Sociology, Redux


Once having arrived at a set (or sets) of defensible moral positions, social psychologists should better be able to educate those outside the field concerning appropriate ethical criteria by which to judge the field's work...
Alan C. Elms, 1975
Warnings of public backlashes against psychologists, diminished subject pools, and a tarnished professional interest had little, if any, visible effect. The psychologist's ethical stance remains to his or her chosen methodology. Where the behavioristic model applies, deception is usually part of it.
C.D. Herrera, 1997
The reason we did this research is because we care about the emotional impact of Facebook and the people that use our product. We felt that it was important to investigate the common worry that seeing friends post positive content leads to people feeling negative or left out.
Adam Kramer, 2014

Now that the initial heat has faded, it is a good time to place the Facebook experiment in historical perspective. In the first two quotes above, social psychologist Alan C. Elms and philospher-ethicist C.D. Herrera represent two sides of a debate over the ethics and efficacy of relying on deception in experimental research. I highlight these two quotes because they demonstrate moments within social psychology, even if they are a generation apart, when deception surfaces as a topic for reconsideration. Elms, one of the original research assistants involved in Stanley Milgram’s obedience research, writes as deception is being called into question. Herrera, writing with the benefit of hindsight, suggests that paradigms other than behaviorist are the way forward. The crux of this disagreement lies in the conceptualization of the research subject. Is the research subject a reflexive being with an intelligence on par with the researcher’s intelligence, or is the research subject a raw material to be deceived and manipulated by the superior intelligence of the researcher?

<a href="http://akenator.deviantart.com/art/Danger-cow-signal-in-the-fog-166643929">Danger, cows ahead</a> CC BY-SA akenator

Danger, cows ahead
CC BY-SA akenator

Unseen, but looming in the background of this disagreement, is the Industrial Psychology/Human Relations approach, which developed in the 1920’s and 1930’s through the work of researchers like Elton Mayo and his consociates, and in experiments such as those at the Hawthorne plant.

This debate is worth revisiting in light of the Facebook experiment and its fallout. Any understanding of the Facebook experiment — and the kind of experimentation allowed by Big Data more generally — must include the long, intertwined history of behaviorism and experimental deception as it has been refracted through both Adam Kramer’s home discipline of social psychology and somewhat through his adopted discipline of “data scientist” [1].Read More… The Facebook Experiment: Cow-Sociology, Redux

When Science, Customer Service, and Human Subjects Research Collide. Now What?


Now What? CC BY-ND Frits Ahlefeld

Now What?
CC BY-ND Frits Ahlefeld

I’m frustrated that the state of public intellectualism allows us, individually, to jump into the conversation about the recently published Facebook “Emotions” Study [1]. What we—from technology builders and interface designers to data scientists and ethnographers working in industry and at universities alike—really (really) need right now is to sit down together and talk. Pointing the finger or pontificating doesn’t move us closer to the discussions we need to have, from data sharing and users’ rights to the drop in public funding for basic research itself. We need a dialogue—a thoughtful, compassionate conversation among those who are or will be training the next generation of researchers studying social media. And, like all matters of ethics, this discussion will become a personal one as we reflect on our doubts, disagreements, missteps, and misgivings. But the stakes are high. Why should the Public trust social media researchers and the platforms that make social media a thing? It is our collective job to earn and maintain the Public’s trust so that future research and social media builders have a fighting chance to learn and create more down the line. Science, in particular, is an investment in questions that precede and will live beyond the horizon of individual careers.

As more and more of us crisscross disciplines and work together to study or build better social media, we are pressed to rethink our basic methods and the ethical obligations pinned to them. Indeed “ethical dilemmas” are often signs that our methodological techniques are stretched too thin and failing us. When is something a “naturalistic experiment” if the data are always undergoing A/B tweaks? How do we determine consent if we are studying an environment that is at once controllable, like a lab, but deeply social, like a backyard BBQ? When do we need to consider someone’s information “private” if we have no way to know, for sure, what they want us to do with what we can see them doing? When, if ever, is it ok to play with someone’s data if there’s no evident harm but we have no way to clearly test the long-term impact on a nebulous number of end users?Read More… When Science, Customer Service, and Human Subjects Research Collide. Now What?