This is a guest post from Mitchell Sipus, interdisciplinary Community Planner specialized in designing creative solutions for the world’s most complex environments.
Throughout the last ten years I have conducted qualitative research in a variety of conditions. I have immersed myself into the backstreets of Havana Cuba, the rolling hills of American Appalachia and the dangerous corridors of Mogadishu, Somalia. Throughout every research initiative, deep immersion into the language, culture, and local communities was a critical element to identifying and solving problems such as violence reduction and economic development.
Traditionally, ethnographers enter the field with limited tools. A notepad and a pen are essential, while a camera can be helpful for later analysis. Mixing methods such as participatory interaction, non-participatory observation, and semi-structured interviews, the traditional ethnographic process requires the researcher to make only quick notes in the field for later expansion in the evening. In this regard, the research is always straddling between the field and the office, attempting to pull material from one side to the other. Qualitative analysis techniques are often slow and imprecise, with most researchers relying on narrative construction or at best, exercises in coding by deconstructing the subjective notes into objective themes.
I recently completed several weeks of ethnographic research utilizing Fulcrum in Ethiopia. This did require some minor changes to the field research process, yet by adapting my research methods to the advantages of Fulcrum, I discovered improved abilities to penetrate, record, and later analyze my findings. Furthermore, the organizational structure of Fulcrum permitted the ability to effortlessly quantify my findings, expanding the analytical capabilities beyond traditional qualitative practices in text analysis and coding. With my data already structured for GIS tools, I could quickly map my findings and layer data for spatial correlations or statistical analysis.
To maximize the effectiveness of Fulcrum, I designed two separate Apps, the first of which contained nothing but a blank text box and a trigger for the mobile phone camera. Because mobile phones are ubiquitous throughout Africa, using a mobile phone was less invasive than a large camera, provided the ability to record video, and in many ways was less intrusive to record notes. Unlike the drama of a notepad, many people would assume I am writing and sending a SMS text message to a friend, and taking notes on my phone never interrupted the conversation.
During the first several days of research, I simply took photographs and took notes, which were then accessible in the form of spreadsheet. The GPS coordinates of each record provided a spatial context to the recorded notes. Inversely, the notes contextualized the map, aiding my memory about the character of various neighborhoods, and thus rapidly orienting my understanding of new territories.
The organizational structure of Fulcrum’s web interface enhanced the ability to identify themes across the material I had collected. From this pool of information, I began to break down the themes into manageable categories. From the findings of this rough analysis, I designed a second research App. Initially sketching the themes on paper, I was able to then quickly design the flow of the App, beginning with four general categories of research, and narrowing each one down into a variety of options.
A key element of success is the creation of proxy indicators for intangible social processes. For example, I learned via traditional ethnography that a plastic cup inverted on a stick and positioned near a doorway in Ethiopia indicates that the household distills and sells a local form of moonshine (see image below). After visiting a couple such establishments, I learned that these are also dynamic social spaces, where people of all social strata can be found, sharing news and gossip. Consequently, if I want to use Fulcrum to document something about public space in Ethiopia, the plastic cup on a stick becomes a useful indicator for documentation and mapping.
The inverted cup as an indicator
Across the three weeks of research, I simultaneously used both Apps in the research process. When encountering new conditions or bodies of information, I would use the first app to simply record a snapshot, the location, or make quick notes on the incident. When themes would organically emerge from this quick and dirty data collection, I would later incorporate the new content into the design of second research App.
One would assume that a data capture tool like Fulcrum would pose an obstacle to qualitative research, yet in contrast, I’ve found that it provides greater freedom. By working across Apps, and one can collect data from general to specific, and with the benefit of GPS-located content, I was able to more quickly assemble my research instrument and obtain the information sought. Most importantly, this increased capability was accompanied by less disruption than traditional research tools, allowing me to focus on the most important element of the research: to connect to other human beings and gain a glimpse of the world through their day-to-day experiences.