On Digital Ethnography: mapping as a mode of data discovery (2 of 4)

WendyHsu_pineconeEditor’s Note: Can ethnographers use software programs? Last month’s guest contributor, Wendy Hsu @WendyFHsu, says YES! In Part 1 of On Digital Ethnography, What do computers have to do with ethnography?, Wendy introduced her process of using computer programming software to collect quantitative data in her ethnographic research. She received a lot of great comments and suggestions from readers. 

Part 2 of of Wendy’s Digital Ethnography series focuses on the processing and interpreting part. In fascinating detail, Wendy discusses mapping as a mode of discovery. We learn how using a customized spatial “algorithm that balances point density and readability” can reveal patterns that inform the physical spread of musicians’ fans and friends globally. Geo-location data clarified her qualitative data. We are already in great anticipation for Part 3! 

Check out past posts from guest bloggers


The Hsu-nami's Myspace friend distribution in Asia

Figure 0: The Hsu-nami’s Myspace friend distribution in Asia

In my last post, I introduced the idea of using webscraping for the purpose of acquiring relevant ethnographic data. In this second post, I will concentrate on the next step of the ethnographic process: data processing and interpreting. Remember The Hsu-nami, the band that I talked in the last post? The image above is a screenshot of their Myspace friend distribution, a map that I created for analyzing the geography of their community. This post is about the value of creating such maps.

Processing data in the digital age can be both exciting and daunting. Digitization of social and cultural life has generated for us more data than ever. We could now easily log geo-location data with the use of GPS. We could potentially tap into the world of APIs to acquire whatever social data relevant to our online research inquiry. But what do we do with all this data? How do we make sense of it? Jenna Burrell has raised some concerns regarding the quantity and quality of data in light of the recent big data trends. With those very critical notions in mind, I have been experimenting for a while a series of digital methods to play with data that I have gathered from my own field research of online and offline music-cultures.

What happens when we can see the geo-spatial patterns of our findings or hear the noises in our field recordings? A multimodal engagement with data will make visible patterns that are previously hidden to the eye, the ear, and the mind. Computers are really good at recontextualizing data and highlighting its materiality. In what follows, I will offer a few methodological ideas for locating patterns within data. Also, I will mostly focus on the use of open-source or, what I would like to call “vernacular” technologies. This discussion, by design, precludes expensive (and powerful!) software programs N’Vivo and Atlas Ti that qualitative researchers have used for decades.

I want to use this as an opportunity to move away from the current disciplinary focus on text (interview transcripts). Instead, I want to highlight the capacity of the digital to engage with data in sensory modes beyond the textual. We know that qualitative programs are great at the conventional machine-processing such as counting, sorting, and annotating. But information resides in many modes. In this post, I choose to focus on the spatial, geographical and positional as a context of data analysis; and I will devote the next post to talk about the the dimension of sound in field research.

You may find my discussion to be more experimental than conclusive. This is because I orient toward this process with a kind of playfulness. Oftentimes I’m using the technology in unintended ways. Experimentation leads to failures and happy accidents. And I invite both.

Transforming the role of geography in ethnography

I’ve been working to conceptualize how to leverage emergent GIS technologies for ethnographic endeavors. I’m particularly interested in thinking beyond the traditional ethnographic practice of using a map to locate the community of the physical field work. Mapping can be used as a method of discovering spatial and place-based patterns. This technique can be particularly useful in light of multi-sited field research that is more common than not these days. What I’m advocating for the practice of dynamic mapping that associates the locales of our field findings to geographic data, and in turn contextualizes qualitative data in a geospatial form for the purpose of analysis. Geography, in this sense, transcends its former role as a context of analysis to become a part of the content of ethnographic analysis.

Here I pick up from where I left off in my last post on how I developed a webscraping API to extract geographical information from Myspace. As a reminder, my research questions that drove this digital process were: Where in the world are the members of this intimate, but geographically dispersed community on Myspace located in real life? What is the geography of this digital diaspora? What might the musicians’ connections to the geographical Asia look like? My questions were calling for a visual answer.

My next task was to turn the harvested data (in the form as .csv files) into a meaningful visualization. I used OpenLayers, an open-source web mapping resource based on JavaScript to a create dynamic map containing all the points of the physical locations of the band’s Myspace friends and performance tours. To contextualize the reading of the physical points, I added a Google street map layer to label the visualization with the proper name of countries and cities.

I also added a layer of world’s regions to distinguish the continents. Finally, I turned the points into clusters [Figure 1]. I used an algorithm that balances point density and readability, so that the contrast between the smallest and the largest clusters is adjusted. In this instance, a single-point cluster could still be seen and the largest concentration of the friends located in northeastern United States would not dominate the entire map.

The Kominas Myspace friend map

Figure 1: screenshot of The Kominas’s Myspace friend map

Explore the dynamic map of The Kominas’ Myspace friends: HERE

Mapping as a mode of discovering

Playing with these dynamic digital maps, I have discovered new visual and geospatial patterns of the bands’ global friend networks. These maps, quite literally, make visible communities that were previously invisible. This has particular implications within the context of social discourses that render the Asian American subject silent and the marginal position that Asian American artists occupy in the independent rock music scenes. These maps also prove the existence of a transnational stronghold that musicians have established through social networking.

The map’s capacity of zooming in and out afforded me insights on the contour and content of these unique music diasporas. In the case of The Kominas, a band with Pakistani and Indian American membership, for instance, I discovered a substantial presence of friends in South and Southeast Asia [Figure 2]. The band’s friend base in Pakistan is most likely tied to the members’ heritage and personal relations to the country. But the friend distribution in Malaysia and Indonesia came as a surprise (to me and the band) because the members of the band have no personal connections to these places.

Myspace Friend Distribution in Asia: The Kominas

Figure 2: Myspace Friend Distribution in Asia: The Kominas

Seeing the band’s friendship in Southeast Asia led to a new line of inquiry about The Kominas’ perception of punk in geographical terms. This discovery affirmed the band’s goal in decentering the punk music terrain away from the US and the UK. In an interview, bassist Basim Usmani launched a defensive remark against the the interviewer’s comment about the assumed geographic spread of punk within the Anglophone world. In his comment, Basim expresses feelings of connection to Pakistan and Malaysia. He relegates the U.S. to a place of music commerce that spawns the consumption, but not fruitful for the production of punk music. Setting the U.S. and the rest of the Anglophone world as sites of punk inauthenticity, he gravitates toward Asia while validating it as a more legitimate site of production of punk rock.

With the intention to use the maps as a spring board to generate the bands’ thoughts on their perception of Southeast Asia and its punk scenes, I followed up with a phone interview with one of the band members. When I told Basim about the map, he not only shared with me his impression of the punk music scenes in Indonesia and Malaysia and the role of religion in those scenes. He also proposed the idea of using the map pitch a tour in Southeast Asia. I thought that his response illustrates an unusual perspective on the ethics of reciprocity in field research. My gift in exchange for the band’s time spent with me, in this case, would be marketing analytics. I have no idea if the band actually used the map for organizing their performance tours. But knowing that my visualization, an outcome of an ethnographic analysis, would help promote the band adds a strange twist to the meaning and function of ethnography in the contemporary, digitally-mediated age.

This visualization also ignited my interest in the reception of The Kominas worldwide. Subsequently, on Twitter, I began tracking conversations related to Taqwacore and Southeast Asia following the hashtags of #mtaqx and #indotaqx that were coined by The Kominas’ brother band Al Thawra.

A more meta view

I came at these maps with an interest in the bands’ transpacific connections. When I zoomed in on the region of Asia on these maps, I saw differences in patterns that enabled me to visualize “Asia,” an entity unique to each band’s distinctive community created through the practice of “friending” on Myspace by these American indie rock artists of Asian descent. Seeing visualizations has helped me theorize the meaning of Asia from the perspective of Asian American musicians; and it makes visible the specific ways in which the transnationality between Asia and Asian America is forged through online communication.

These visualizations said more when I compared the results between bands. I discovered patterns of friend distribution that reflects the ethnic and geographical affiliations of each group. On my blog, I compared the visual results between The Kominas and Kite Operations, a New-York-based band with mostly Korean American membership and Myspace friend distribution in East Asia [Figure 3].

Kite Operations Myspace friends in Asia

Figure 3: Kite Operations’ Myspace friends in Asia

When I zoomed all the way back out, I was able to see a representation of a radically transnational community created by these bands. I played with the various baselayers – street vs. satellite layers – depending on the content specifics of the narrative I’m trying to communicate. I often use the satellite view of The Kominas’ friend map [Figure 4] to convey a kind of global social geography, one that was spawned in the digital environment of Myspace and has certainly spilled into the physical lives of the members of the community.

Myspace is more than a phonebook, an index of friends. It is a space where actual relations are transformed. What the map shows is a sociocultural space created by punk rock sound and the exchanges of mix-tapes, mp3s, face-to-face visits, shows, tweets, zines, blog posts, hyperlinks, virtual hugs, encouragement and strength. In a way, I find this visual statement, more compelling, than many words that I could say about its transcendence of the east-vs.-west, American-vs.-Muslim geopolitical binary that is so entrenched in the post-9/11 discourse. The Kominas has reconfigured the world’s map and created its own punk rock diaspora.

Satellite view of The Kominas' Myspace friend distribution

Figure 4: Satellite view of The Kominas’ Myspace friend distribution

Taqwacore has gone through several cycles of death and rebirth since the time of my research. The Arab Spring and the recent events around the Israel-Palestine conflict has redrawn some of the relationships regarding the global experience of taqwacore. In light of these changes, I would happily archive these maps as historical documents as they capture a silver of social life in the fleeting digital temporality.

In light of punk and subculture studies, this project has revisited some of the earlier conversations regarding geography and ethnicity in the formation of music and subcultural community. Dick Hebdige, in Subculture: the Meaning of Style, foregrounds geography in his interpretation of the meaning of reggae to the black Jamaicans through illustrating a Rastafari cultural geography.

“Africa thus came to represent for blacks in the Caribbean forbidden territory, a Lost World… It became a massive Out of Bounds on the other sides of slavery” ((1979, p. 32).

Hebdige’s narrative, though rich in geographic details, is confined in the domain of text and text-based semiotics.

Music represents space; as importantly, it travels in space. The relationship between two sensory-rich modes deserves a new methodology, I think. These dynamic web maps make a visual and an analytical extension from Hebdige’s work into the realm of the digital. They serve as a platform to examine the relationship among music, meaning, and space. I see my maps as the beginning efforts to concretize the relationship between music and migration, among others such as the Lomax Geo-achive, Sound Maps at the British Library, Radio Aporee, Musical World Map out of New Media Lab at Graduate Center of CUNY.

Tracking field and cultural movement

Since I finished my dissertation last year, I started a second project about the postcolonial itinerant music-culture known as “nakashi” in Taiwan through the lens of street-based market economy, disability, tourism, and technology. In this project, I’m experimenting with mobile mapping technologies, i.e. using GPS to log live location information tracking, to document the ad-hoc performance locales of the remaining musicians of this tradition. Not only that, I have been able to deepen my analysis by identifying possible correlations between the performances’ spatial performances and urban and social structures.

In my three-week pilot study this summer, I used just the Google Maps app on my smart phone (I experimented both with iOS and Android) to email the exact lat-long coordinates of the performance sites that I encountered in the field. I then hand-copied the coordinates, along with other information relevant to the performance (name of performer, field recording link, photo, field notes), into a spreadsheet in Google Fusion Tables. With the one-click “Map of Locations” tab, I could see the locations of these street performances as pins on a map [Figure 5]. Not only that, I could click on the pin to view the media and contextual information of each performance.

Figure 4: Street Musicians in Taiwan

Figure 5: Street Musicians in Taiwan

See larger map: HERE

Looking at this map as I continue to populate it, I have generated the following questions to deepen my investigation: Since the nakashi culture in Taiwan spawned along the Danshui River during the Japanese Occupation era, how has it deviated from its place of origin? Do these nakashi musicians, mostly in their 50s through 60s, still hang out in their old stomping grounds (Beitou and Wanhua)? How is this street music culture spatially related to present and past patterns of tourism, migration, urban development and renewal projects? Do other interesting spatial trends, e.g. correspondence to routes of Taipei’s public transit system, emerge?

In addition to single-point analysis on a map, I have also experimented with tracking routes using a GPS app. I recently did a workshop on mapping in an Urban and Environmental Policy class at Occidental College. At the workshop, I asked the students to use different modes of transportation and track their individual route from the library to the auditorium on campus. Using the MyTracks app, the students documented their unique tracks, sent them as .gpx files. They imported these .gpx files into a shared customized map using Google Maps. This map shows the idiosyncratic routes that each student group took [Figure 5]. (Here’s a great tutorial produced by one of my students.)  A small-data and free alternative to Path Intelligence, this method could be potentially useful as a way to document informants’ movement and migration in urban ethnography projects.

Mapping Occidental College via GPS, collaboratively created by students

Figure 5: Mapping Occidental College via GPS

Interact with the map: HERE

GPS is great for bridging the gap between maps, as representations of space, and the physical experience in space. In many ways, it adds to the scientific maps out there, Google Maps as an example, a perspectival and (inter)subjective layer. I’m interested in thinking about to how further deploy mapping as a narrative device that highlights spatial emphases in oral history or life story projects. Right now, I’m working on the methodological and potentially software design of a personal mapping interview technology that would encourage informants to offer placed-based narratives. This is the beginning of a big project. I’m hoping to develop a sound theoretical and methodological approach for my next field trip to Taiwan. In the meantime, I will continue to brainstorm for new ways of doing geo-locative field research and I invite you all to join me.

So far in this series, I have discussed the role of emerging technology in facilitating field data acquisition and processing with the focus on geography and space as a mode of data analysis. It’s been a whirlwind and thanks for your enthusiastic feedback on my first post.

In my next post, I will talk about how we can discern patterns and discover new knowledge as take our data into other sensory dimensions such as the sonic. I also look forward to formulating some thoughts regarding the issues around big data (or small data) from the perspective of ethnography.


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11 Responses to “On Digital Ethnography: mapping as a mode of data discovery (2 of 4)”

  1. hia
    December 7, 2012 at 12:32 am #

    Love how this reflects spheres of cultural/artistic influence… imagining an animated longitudinal/time-lapse study too. The time dimension could highlight major factors in spreading/growth of those circles (correlation with performance dates/album releases, external events, key super-networked fans…)

    • December 7, 2012 at 5:18 pm #

      Thanks for your suggestion, Hia. I too have been thinking about adding the component time to my Myspace maps. I was thinking of the Walmart growth map, created by Nathan Yau, as an example. The use of animation would be key here. I would like to look into R, Processing, or potentially Miso, the visualization software that Nathan Yau himself developed for that. There would be a big learning curve.

      On the other hand, getting back into this project would be kind of fun considering the “vintage” qualities of Myspace these days. I would be working in the realm of social media history. And I would need to update my webscraper to fit the ever changing page source code of Myspace.

  2. December 7, 2012 at 4:12 pm #

    Wendy, your work is so incredibly helpful to me as I think about issues around representation of concentrations and routes on global maps. Thank you so much for sharing! One question, you mentioned ‘The Arab Spring and the recent events around the Israel-Palestine conflict has redrawn some of the relationships regarding the global experience of taqwacore.’ Can you explain what you meant there?

    • December 7, 2012 at 5:37 pm #

      Heather, thanks for the shout and your questions. Yea, I have to admit this statement about the Arab Spring and Israel-Palestine was left really compressed, therefore vague. I had a thicker description of the taqwacore response to the Arab Spring in more academic and less methodological version of this post. But the gist of it is that those within and around the taqwacore (#taqx) circle on Twitter exhibited much interest in the Arab Spring political events. One community activist who has been intimately tied to taqwacore since the beginning of the scene claimed that “revolution is taqwacore.” In short, I used qualitative data that I acquired from #taqx discourse on Twitter about the attitude toward (geo)political events worldwide and concluded the importance of Twitter as safe space for the production and dissemination of the radical and outspoken anti-Islamophobia discourse as well as the creation of community of individuals of Muslim heritage. I haven’t done too much to visualize these tweets. If you’re interested in that, check out UCLA’s mapping of tweets related to the Arab Spring on HyperCities.

      The perspective of The Kominas’ members on the Israel-Palestine has been similarly responsive, although they have moved away from Twitter as a platform for communication and have been more vocal on Facebook.

      I’m curious, what got your interested in this particular part of my post?

  3. December 7, 2012 at 8:41 pm #

    Thanks, Wendy! I am really interested in the Arab Spring and Israeli-Palestine relations on social media (well, specifically Wikipedia, but I’m also interested in the whole social media milieu at the time of the revolutions). Thanks for sharing. I want to read your academic stuff now!

  4. December 12, 2012 at 9:07 pm #

    Reblogged this on TheAnthroGeek and commented:
    I cannot wait for the next two parts of this tale.


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