Why haven’t I updated more often “from the field” ?

During an interview this past week, the interviewee mentioned that she has read this blog in its entirety. I apologized for not updating it recently. I had thought (and mentioned) that I would be sharing more regular updates from “the field”. I know some student start blogs to “report back” (to their family and friends?) from the “field”. I speculate that their desire is to share what they are learning and what they are up to from their fieldwork sites.

But strangely, since returning to Nairobi in January, I have felt less of a desire to post on this blog. Why? Well, first and foremost, I am busy!! 😉 But also, I think it is because I am interacting with the people that in my mind were my audience for this blog – my Kenyan interlocutors. Third, I don’t feel like my findings are articulate yet in a form that would be meaningful to share. I’m still incubating on them… Given that many interlocutors are reading this, perhaps I feel particularly self-conscious about posting any intermediary findings before they have really been fully worked out.

I started this blog out of a desire to open up a channel of communication between Nairobi interlocutors while I was not in Nairobi. I had a feeling that I needed to “report back” from the university so that it didn’t feel like I had just left Kenya and “gone back.” I don’t know how many Kenyan interlocutors actually read my blog (although I have observed that many of my new interlocutors whom I’ve met this year have begun to read this blog!). Somehow it eased my mind to have a way of sharing what I was working on with former colleagues, friends, community advisors, and allied strangers. Now that I am back, talking to them in person is much more rewarding!

But I am still around and will do my best to post periodically so don’t give up on me yet! 🙂

Research Update – 3 Dec 2018

Richmond, CA — The standard opening of an ethnography begins with the “arrival scene” of the researcher to foreign host country. As those who have been following my blog know, part of why I have been blogging (albeit sporadically) has been to foreground my own research training and process and to complicate the idea of the “field” (as scholars like Gupta and Ferguson 1997 have long been doing). I think my outlining here of the learning and research work that I have been conducting while still located in Northern California (Richmond Annex to be exact) helps to displace the idea that ethnography only begins once we land on foreign soil. What kind of preparation and work (beyond just reading a sh*t ton) goes into getting ready for our ethnographic engagements? How do we ensure we are getting ourselves into the right headspace while fully recognizing and being ready for things to completely and utterly shift once you are in the field? I believe this is in line with what McGranahan (2014) has written about as ethnographic sensibility. Raul Pacheco-Vega (2016) has also blogged about his understanding of what an ethnographic sensibility might mean.

As I increasingly find my project turning into a “digital humanities” project that includes setting up a data archive, I am necessarily having to skill up and prep myself to have various ideas and “tools” in my arsenal to help foster and facilitate the engagements I anticipate in the field. Therefore, I have been thinking of this phase of the process (between passing my orals and arriving in Nairobi) as my “skilling-up” stage where I am learning more about IP, tech tools, server pricing and technologies, available qual data repositories and accompanying policy and guidance documents, etc. Who knows what will turn out to be relevant (and I know I will need to learn much more once in the field) but I hope that this will help to get me ready for the work that is to come in 2019!

Below I repaste a slightly modified version of my first “official” email update to my dissertation committee since becoming “ABD” (all but dissertation). I plan to send them snapshot updates on a monthly basis all of next year as a way to keep the members of my academic committee updated while I am in Nairobi. I also plan to circulate a similar type of “summary” of the month to the various research organizations I will work with as a way to not only keep them in the loop of what all I am doing but also as a way to “circle back”/ “repeat back” to them what I observe and hear (and leave space for them to dispute/correct anything as needed).

Continue reading “Research Update – 3 Dec 2018”

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.

Where My Head’s At: Research Update

Part of my rationale for starting this blog was–in addition to being a space for reflection–also as an additional accountability tool. As I mentioned in passing in my first blog post, I have decided to set up a “community advisory committee” in addition to the required academic advisory committee.

I see this as an important way to hopefully ground my project more meaningfully as part of ongoing conversations based in and relevant to communities in Nairobi (rather than in/for academic conversations at the University of California – Irvine). I feel strongly about this because I am not doing my PhD project solely for the service of advancing theoretical knowledge about Africa. Rather, I’m keen to have it be grounded in topics/areas of research of interest to people living/working in “Africa” (using scare quotes here because I always feel squeamish about referencing the continent as if it is/were a singular whole — more on this in future posts!).

I came to my project because of what I experienced first-hand myself being the subject of repetitive research questions time and time again in my job as research manager at the iHub in Nairobi. Why weren’t those who came to interview me more prepared? Despite having done a “literature review,” why had none of them ever read any of our papers and work? (Answer: because a lot of it was “grey literature” that was not in the top-most prestigious peer-reviewed journals and also particular ideas about who is doing “expert knowledge”?). Why–despite my explicit request–did not a single one of them ever send me follow-up material from our talk or even at the very least a transcript of the conversation (which I wanted to use to forward to future research requests!)? I must emphasize (and I’m sure I will continue to say this): my project doesn’t seek to fling blame or critique, but rather to understand more broadly how these behaviors may be better understood through the structures of contemporary (global) knowledge production. More interesting to me is how to move beyond critique and towards potentially expansive and imaginative work.

In line with such experimentation, I am attempting to set up a local advisory structure analogous to the academic advisory committee (which for me is based at my academic institution of University of California – Irvine). I’m calling this a “community advisory committee” for now, but haven’t figured out the details of the engagement yet. I’m drawing insight from Montoya and Kent (2011) and trying to figure it out as I go. (Any suggestions/experiences/ideas always much welcome!)

I’m envisioning an annual or twice/year face-to-face meeting with the 2 – 4 members of the committee to whom I will send short updates (to be also cross-posted on this blog!). I also hope to engage with the different members on one-on-one basis as needed / when relevant. Thus far I’ve asked and received acceptances from two members of the CAC. As with the announcement of the chair for my orals last week, I’m going to refrain from giving out identifying details yet until I’ve spoken with them about posting the information publically.

I will have a section in this blog for these regular updates for now and invite my CAC members (and also the wider public) to review and offer any suggestions/feedback/thoughts you may have!


Hello World! (for the umpteenth time…)

This is my umpteenth “hello world” post… Here’s hoping that this blog successfully gets past the one opening post!! (*fingers crossed!!*)

I’m starting this post to hold myself accountable to myself, my community advisory board in Nairobi, those with whom I plan to conduct my research project, my academic advisory board in Irvine, my family and curious onlookers to this whole research process.

At the heart of my PhD project is a question of methodology, openness, and whether more open approaches to knowledge production can lead to those who are studied feeling less exploited! This blog is an attempt to practice what I preach and learn in the process. Through this blog, I know I will experience first hand the tension between theoretically wanting to do things the ideal way (i.e. being as open /equitable as possible, sharing everything you can, etc.) and the real everyday burdens of limited time/money/resources and operating within existing pressures/incentive structures of the academy.

If you’ve found your way here looking for answers to some of the contradictions in knowledge production and research, I don’t have them. I am just meandering through this grey world along with you while trying to reflect on the whole research enterprise as I go. I hope to figure out better ways to do science and research, but I will trip along the journey and I promise to share those trip-ups with you so we can discuss together. Onwards!