Dissertation Research Project (Sept 2018)

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 informal settlement 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 am examining 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: an academic department at a Kenyan research university, a for-profit research company, and a grassroots non-profit that conducts research. 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 potentially 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 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.

About the Primary Researcher

Angela Okune is a doctoral student in the Anthropology Department at the University of California, Irvine. She studies data sharing cultures and infrastructures of qualitative research groups working in and on Kenya in order to explore broader questions of equity, knowledge production and socio-economic development in Africa. Angela is a recipient of a Wenner-Gren fieldwork grant and 2016 Graduate Research Fellowship from the National Science Foundation. She is a 2018 Fellow at the UC Berkeley Center for Technology, Society and Policy. From 2010 – 2015, as co-founder of the research department at iHub, Nairobi’s innovation hub for the tech community, Angela provided strategic guidance for the growth of tech research in Kenya. Find Angela’s full CV here.