The Digital Ethnographer

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Photo of Bronisław Malinowski, feeling frustrated that the batteries on his smartphone died three months ago.
Bronisław Malinowski feeling frustrated the batteries on his smartphone died three months ago.

Over the past three years, I’ve been moonlighting as a social scientist doing ethnographic fieldwork in communities across Scotland from Callander to Orkney. Before heading out for the first time, I spent a few weeks assembling a toolkit for digital ethnography which I’ve been revising along the way. I thought I’d share a bit about what I’ve settled on using in case others are looking to upgrade their fieldwork toolkit. First, some caveats – I run Apple hardware but am passionate about Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) particularly because it is often cross-platform, so when I switch to linux for my work PC in a couple years, I’ll be able to run most of those tools without much trouble. So my goal was to avoid being proprietary and only go with what was strictly necessary. Here’s what I found:

1. Interviews

I’ve conducted dozens of interviews – and have found that it is usually good to keep things simple. Pen and paper are ideal as people as you want to set your interviewee at ease. For this purpose, I started working with a Livescribe Pulse pen (it has since been replaced with the “Echo”). This is a pretty ingenious little device – it has a small camera in the tip and an audio microphone in the top and as a result it digitizes your writing on the fly and synchronises it with the audio recording. You have to use their special paper (which has a microscopic pattern of dots so the camera can know where you are on the page) but it isn’t expensive. If you’re in the field, in playback mode the pen has a little speaker and will skip around in the audio playback just by tapping the pen on the words you were writing at a specific time. Recorded audio quality is surprisingly good and it can pick up speech in a large room (though beware ambient noise). Livescribe has a few competitors almost all of them crowdfunded (the Equil Jot 2Neo Smartpen 2, the beautiful but expensive Oree Stylograph; and the enigmatic Phree) but none of these have managed to successfully pair digital audio with digitized text quite so effectively, in particular, they require a bluetooth connection to some mobile device). Also… kickstarter prototypes, so buyer beware. There is one very big caveat – Livescribe uses cheap OLED screens on the pens, and so many people find that the screen dies (though the pen is still perfectly functional though unusable) at around 3 years of use. There are some very angry customers out there clamouring for a product recall policy (none for Europe yet) but the company was recently aquired in Nov 2015, so we’ll see what happens there. Also, FYI, livescribe has developed several new models of their digital pen but none of them have a feature set that works as well for fieldwork. For their most recent offering, the Smartpen3, you have to pair the pen with a tablet via bluetooth, the previous model, the Sky Wifi only works with Evernote (?!). This is great (I guess) if you’re a lawyer sitting in a board room, but really doesn’t work well in the field. The last thing I want is to have two digital devices out at any given time.

While I’m waiting for livescribe to replace my pen (yeah I could just buy another one, but I’m stubborn that way) I’ve fallen back on an old faithful – the Olympus WS-822 digital recorder. It works on rechargeable AAA batteries, charges last forever (1000+ hours), has a microSD slot for expandability, and gets very good recordings. Basically, it just works.

As a backup, because I do sometimes end up doing an interview unexpectedly (or unprepared), I’ve got an audio recording application on my iPhone: Audiomemos. I tested about a half dozen apps for this purpose and found this one to be the best among many. It’s a very straight-forward but feature filled app that is perfect for interviewing. It also synchronises to cloud services, such as dropbox, so I can back up my recordings as needed.

If you’re doing fieldwork that requires high-quality digital, I recommend you get an external lightning-connected microphone. I’ve currently got the Rode iXY (see review here) which plugs into the bottom of an
iphone on my Christmas list. The Zoom iQ5 also gets good reviews (like here).

2. Taking in the site

One thing that smartphones and tablet can really excel at is in helping document a space. You can take photographs with your phone which are geocoded and time stamped and I usually snap some photos of the site I’m visiting so I can bear in mind the space when I’m transcribing recordings or reading through my notes after the fact.

Because I do a lot of work with geocoded data sets (more on this later), I also use an application called “GPX Master“.

This little app turns your phone into a GPS tracker, saving the coordinates and time/date stamp at regular intervals. I did one interview at an old church out in the country and we drove around to a lot of different sites, some of which weren’t on my maps. I was able to trace my steps after the fact and because the time stamps matched up on my interview recordings could recall where I was for each conversation. Do be careful – GPX tracking will drain your device battery. I use an external battery pack with my phone while I’m in the field so this isn’t a problem. You can also change the tracking duration to lighten the load. GPX Master produces a GPX file with a set of coordinates that you can later import into Google Earth, QGIS, or most other geospatial applications.

Finally, and this is probably my favorite on-site digital trick, I use an app called “360 Panorama” to capture a panoramic image of building interiors. Basically you just start the app, hold it up and slowly move it around the room while it automatically stitches the photos together into an interactive 360º panoramic digital photograph (as shown).

Quite a lot of my conversations are about old church buildings, and so it is highly useful to be able to “look around” digitally after the fact. Sometimes a space seems larger or smaller in my memory, and it is helpful to be able to stage a virtual return visit without the long journey. I also occasionally use an application called “Magic Plan” which uses smartphone photos to reconstruct an accurate floorplan. It’s pretty amazing, but does take about 10-30 minutes to make if there are lots of rooms so I save this for sites where I know the plan will be important. All of the above apps are available for iOS or AndroidOS, and even blackberry in some cases.

3. Preparation

I use a weather app, “Dark Sky” which has been written to provide very location specific weather forecasts to prepare for conditions on the ground.

For field-notes, I mix media. I have a B5 sized Muji notebook that I keep in my bag pocket for pre/post interview notes and keeping track of things as we go. This gets quite a lot more use now that my Livescribe is out of commission.

I’ve also been experimenting with a journalling app called Day One. There are a number of useful features here – Day One has special icons you can tap while writing which will record things like current weather conditions, date and time, your location coordinates, photographs, and tags all of which are kept within your journal entry. Day One also has a free cloud sync service so your data is kept in sync across all your (Mac) devices. My only reservation about Day One lies in their license – while they claim this shouldn’t be an issue, they reserve rights for content stored on their servers, which could be particularly problematic if you’re working with confidential sources or need to keep details in your fieldnotes that will remain confidential.

4. In my bag

In my bag I’ve usually got spare batteries – in the form of Eneloop brand batteries. These are formulated to be “low discharge” which means that they don’t lose any of their charge while they’re sitting on the shelf, even for years at a time. They’re more expensive, but well worth the investment, I think. I also carry an Anker 5 port charger and an Anker battery pack.

I also carry around a beat up old Canon Digital SLR. I know I can take high-resolution photographs with my smartphone, but honestly, holding up a phone at arm’s length and tapping a glass screen to take pictures just doesn’t have the same aesthetic experience as pushing down on a shutter button and feeling the mirror flip up and down. I also bring lenses (with good glass, i.e. a refurbished Canon 50mm f1.4 lens) so I can take pictures in low light conditions. Yes, my iPhone can do this too, but the sensors aren’t light sensitive and when you use software to boost brightness it introduces “noise” (these look like little speckles) in the photo. Not ideal, particularly if you ever wanted to include a one of your photographs in a book.

So that’s me! I’ve left out dozens of applications that I’ve tried out and found inelegant or time consuming, so this list is limited just to the tools I use pretty regularly. Anyone else using digital tools for fieldwork? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

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