Use of Space (or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the GPS)

08 September 2012

Taking an introductory Anthro course (on ethnographic methods) has been surprisingly rewarding. ** Don’t get me wrong; most of the historical background and ideas of pluralism, multilinearism, etc… are all familiar to me, but it’s prompting me to revisit old techniques about which I first learned when I was too stupid (or uncreative) to think of novel ways of going about measuring these topics. **

** Take, for instance, use of space. In the past we would go to a location, sit there, and watch how people use a certain space. That’s fine if you have a small area (or a large team of diligent workers), but that’s rarely the case (on both counts). What results is a very limited cross-section of how people use a very specific space. Not too informative, right? **

** Why don’t we leverage technology to answer these questions? **

** Okay, I ask that both facetiously and rhetorically. It’s facetious because Foursquare, Yelp, Facebook, and a myriad of other online services already offer you the option to “Check in” at various places. It’s entirely opt-in, but the notion of tracking where people are spending time is still pretty validly there. In its own way. **

** I also ask it rhetorically because I’m going to answer this anyway; I’m not soliciting your input (yet). **

** It wouldn’t be too difficult to write a simple Android/iOS app which would record your general location every 5-20 minutes and sent that off - anonymously - to a researcher’s server. Ethically speaking, all you’d have to do is inform the user of exactly what the app does and why (which isn’t too difficult since most app store environments provide an opportunity to disclose permissions requirements and rationales for such requests), and be damn sure the app - and the research - doesn’t do anything it didn’t announce it would do at the outset. **

** This is part of ethical tech research which involves humans. Ethically, a corporate entity such as Facebook should be clear and upfront about how it uses your data. As it stands, however, Facebook does not even agree that the data is yours to assert ownership over, so we’re not exactly on the same page, really. **

** I digress. Make a simple app which tracks roughly where you are (when you’re within a certain area like on campus), send it to researcher, researcher analyzes how space is being used on campus after a month or two of passive data intake. What’s great about this is that it makes the process of data collection trivialized; researchers can focus on analyzing the data, drawing conclusions, and (as my professor says) “describing a narrative”. **

** The logistics of incentivizing participation and affording proper anonymity and confidentiality are small (but not unimportant) matters which could be worked out fairly easily (and at worst, one can err on the side of caution in cases such as these, limiting the usefulness of the data only marginally while assuring integrity for the participants). **

** This, and the study of social network structure, has been an interesting area of study for me for some time. I still need to do some searching, but I haven’t seen a whole lot of research done in this area, even to demonstrate how feasible this all is in conceptual terms. Maybe this is something I could do…? **

** This is where comments are solicited: Would you - hypothetically - take part in a study which essentially tracks where you go on your campus? Keep in mind that it would not communicate your name or personal information, and you could opt out at any time (as well, perhaps, as evaluate your own data before it gets sent off to make sure nothing salacious shows up). I understand that conceivably a person’s identity could be deduced from the pattern of space use (someone who singularly spends lots of time in a secluded area of campus might give him or herself away to anyone who could access individual records (potentially this would be limited), or someone who exhibits a very distinct, predictable pattern), but perhaps some sort of incentive (either a guaranteed nominal gift card or a lottery chance at a substantial reward) could make it worth the inconvenience. **

** Thoughts? **

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