Research Relations: An Ethnography of Qualitative Data Sharing in Nairobi

Last week, one day after returning from a whirlwind trip to the 2018 Society for the Social Studies of Science (4S) conference in Sydney, I submitted the outputs that have been the bane of my existence for the last one year. That might be a bit melodramatic but as per the UCI Anthro research timeline, the third year of the PhD is dedicated to the production of the three orals documents. I’ll post links with full access to the three blog posts once they have been reviewed and commented on by the committee. I’ll also work on distilling some of my learnings from the process in a separate post (and as preparation for a workshop on the same that I’m planning to facilitate for grad students within my department next month) but for the time being, phew! What a relief! Of course there’s always more to do but one of the benefits of a hard deadline is the sense of relief after you’ve met it!

I’ve now got more time to dedicate towards updating this blog, reconnecting with those in Nairobi that I am very excited to be working with more closely again from next year and spending time with family. As one step towards the first goal, here’s a brief blurb about the latest iteration of my project! As always, comments and feedback are so appreciated!

Research Relations: An Ethnography of Qualitative Data Sharing in Nairobi

Keywords: qualitative research data, education, relational ethics, collaboration

This project examines how qualitative research data is produced, shared, and contested by diverse research groups in Nairobi, Kenya. Despite decades of research aiming to solve Africa’s problems and billions of dollars in funding, many of those who are studied see little change in their everyday lives. Particular communities such as groups in Kibera, an infamous slum in Kenya’s capital city of Nairobi, demonstrate survey fatigue, falsified responses, and even feelings of being exploited by global processes of scientific knowledge production. “Open Data” – datasets made available for public use and reuse — has gained increasing support from governments and international policy makers, and proponents argue that Open Data could enable greater development outcomes from scientific research. Through a comparative study of three Nairobi-based research organizations working in and on technology and development, I examine negotiations over privacy, quality, ownership, and ethical responsibility enacted by the processes of opening up qualitative research data. This research will analyze changing ideas about data sharing amongst social scientists in Africa, responding both to increasing concern that scientific knowledge is not benefiting the communities studied and to growing, global interest in the possible benefits of “open data.”

I propose to work with three Nairobi sites: A, B, C [will keep these anonymous for now until I confirm their participation]. These leading centers facilitate collection, storage and management of significant qualitative research data on Kenyan technology entrepreneurship and development. The bulk of my fieldwork data will be collected by facilitating discussions within and between the researcher organizations. I propose to support the development of local organizational archives hosted on an open source, virtual research environment in order to spur discussions about data sharing. My own research data, collected through this project, will also be stored and shared on this platform. I have developed this approach to data in part to move away from narratives of deficit that are heavily part of existing discourses about Africa. I am keen to work together with research groups to shake out issues that emerge when the existence of “African” data and its generation and sharing are taken as a given. Through participant observation, interviews, focus group discussions, a survey and archival work, I would like to collaborate with research groups to understand the infrastructures, cultures, and practices through which qualitative technology development research data is produced and maintained in Nairobi.

This project advances understandings of data practices and infrastructures within the fields of anthropology and science and technology studies (STS) by considering how the experiences of those who are heavily studied could inform research design, fieldwork and data sharing practices. This project also contributes to a growing body of work on “Open Science” and “Open Data” from an African context, looking at how growing global shifts toward opening up data and scientific practices are saturated with multiple and sometimes competing notions about what constitutes ethical science (Biruk 2018; Bezuidenhout 2017). In particular, I am interested in understanding how opening up datasets for the purposes of enacting social good and justice operates, uneasily, with the potential risks of commercial exploitation, decontextualization, appropriation, and use in state surveillance.

This study will contribute:

  • a socio-technical infrastructure for the sharing of qualitative data produced by research organizations working in and on Nairobi. Not only will this enable the research work to be more accessible to online publics, this infrastructure can also enable greater collaborative analysis of diverse qualitative datasets;
  • empirical evidence to help inform scholars working on the sharing of qualitative data sharing within their universities and scholarly presses;
  • best practices for qualitative research data sharing which are important for policy making regarding the role of Open Science in global South contexts;
  • suggestions to research institutions and funders on how to better ensure those studied play an important role in shaping African research agendas;
  • publicly disseminated findings via research interlocutors’ blogs to spur public debate about the benefits and risks of open research data; and lastly,
  • to my training, which will result in a dissertation and open access publication of several journal articles.

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