Thinking about digital research during the Coronavirus pandemic and beyond
As IHE Delft MSc students and mentors start crafting their thesis topics amidst uncertainty related to Covid19, Sharli Paphitis (King’s College London and Rhodes University) shares insights and resources on digital research methods. As shown in her students’ experience, thinking creatively, building on existing community networks, and addressing the ethical implications of online research are key for successful digital fieldwork.
With the unfolding of the Coronavirus pandemic, where fieldwork has to be adjusted to avoid in-person, particularly group based in-person, interactions, researchers have been forced to think about how to conduct their research using new methods and approaches using mediated forms to achieve their research goals. In particular many researchers have turned their attention to the possibilities and opportunities offered by digital research methods – methods described by Helen Kara in her excellent blogpost as: “encompass[ing] a wide range of methods united by their dependence on technology.” In this short post it would be impossible to discuss all the ways research could be adapted to use digital methods or to give an exhaustive list of the methods that can be used in digital research, but an excellent place to start looking into the extensive range of methods and resources available would be to turn to this crowdsource document.
In my own work with rural and peri-urban communities in South Africa I have used methods such as digital storytelling, community mapping, and photo-biographies in transdisciplinary community-based projects.
Community mapping and photo-biographies
My research team has used participatory mapping working with participants in protected areas in the Eastern Cape during life histories interviews. During this process we took digital equipment out to participants home and engaged with them in mapping their family and personal histories into the places and spaces where this had meaning, exploring the place-based aspects of their lives. Using digital maps was a new experience for most participants and allowed them to think through their life-history from a new perspective in relation to the geographies of their lives.
We also worked with community members to collect visual artifacts of significance to create photobiographies building on this mapping exercise. Participants chose the images for inclusion and created the narratives that brought images and geographies together to tell the stories of their lives in relation to the places that had particular significance. Participants designed and had full control over the final digital products.
This has been the foundation of a project where my PhD student will now be working with communities to map their water assets, and water champions will teach community members how to monitor and test their water quality.
Adjusting methods for social distancing and in contexts where researcher movements may be restricted
How can these methods be done without, or limited, researcher involvement? This question will need to be answered on a case by case basis, and there are many researchers out there grappling with this very question right now. You can join the Innovative Social Research Methods Facebook Group, where a network of over 7000 fellow academics and students are currently bouncing ideas and offering practical advice on this topic.
With a little bit of creativity an amazing amount of data can be collected and participant involvement maintained. From my own experience finding or tapping into existing networks of ‘community leaders or champions’ is a critically important step in trying to conduct your research in times where fieldwork may otherwise seem challenging. These partners can assist by acting as field workers or points of contact with participants who you can remain in contact with for the research more easily and centralize your communication electronically using telephones or the internet depending on what is available. The use of ‘drop and collect systems’ to relay any research tools or hardware to the field can also be designed, and where appropriate overseen by community champions in line with social distancing measures. This is how we will be running the narrative of participation work on water forums in the Tsitsa River Valley for one of my other students.
Ethics and digital divides
Using digital methods introduces a number of additional considerations in terms of research ethics into a project, particularly around the thorny issues of privacy and consent. The most hotly contested areas of concern here relate to research using social media, where data cannot simply be considered ‘in the public domain’, for example. There are increasingly detailed and useful resources on this topic which can and should be consulted, such as the The British Psychological Society: Ethics Guidelines for Internet-mediated Research, and the resources provided by the Association of Internet Researchers. But perhaps the most important and currently underdiscussed aspect of ethics in relation to digital methods is not merely ‘the digital divide’, but the multiple forms of digital division which exist.
It goes without saying that we need to think critically about the contexts that we are working in when designing research and choosing appropriate methods. As we start to think about introducing digital research methods this aspect of our work becomes even more critical and introduces new considerations. Of course this is true globally, particularly in low and middle income countries, access to and use of technology is embedded in a network of intersecting mobilities across physical, economic, cultural, gender, and epistemic divides. The most vulnerable members of society face barriers – not only limited to affordability and language accessibility – that are significant and remain disparate along geographic, racial and gender lines. So, when we switch to or design projects with specific ‘digital’ methods or technologies we need to ask ourselves who we are including and who we are excluding, and ultimately who does the research serve given these lines of inclusion and exclusion.
Thinking innovatively about digital research
Despite the challenges, there is a huge amount of room for innovative thinking here that takes us beyond what is currently being given the most attention in the space – namely a focus on the potential benefit of modern or new technologies. I think we need to look carefully at this idea of “new” technology, and think innovatively about what this means in a developmental context, where new can involve revitalizing old infrastructures and well known technologies, or earlier modes of communication, and simple tools, which can increase our ability to reach people across divides and include them in innovative research practices.
This innovative and contextually responsive approach was embodied in the masters project of my now PhD student, Thandiswa Nqowana. As a student passionate about water quality in her home town, Makhanda/Grahamstown, Thandie designed a large scale citizen science driven approach to her research. She deployed simple, accessible and easily transportable technology in the form of the improved hydrogen sulphide (H2S) test kit, along with culturally appropriate training material, to involve 100 school learners in a large scale, long term, water quality testing project which allowed for samples to be taken and tested across an otherwise unmanageably large site. Again using familiar, cheap technology which is already in use by community members, Thandie relayed the results of the testing to community members creating a digital water quality alert system. Finally, Thandie integrated more modern technologies into the project, using GIS mapping to generate large scale assessments of water quality across multiple sites over a whole town over time. Thandie’s project highlights the ways in which we can work with appropriate digital technologies to meet community needs, and build exciting and innovate research projects that have an enormous impact for individuals while simultaneously enhancing our own knowledge generation process.