Author Archives: Bronwyn

Flickr for Visual Data Research and Analysis

In the spring term of 2013, CUNY sociology Professors Juan Battle and Bill Kornblum offered a unique course called CUNY As a Lab, in which MA and PhD students at the Graduate Center conducted research about CUNY itself. Together, the class documented the wide variation in student experience across the wide array of CUNY institutions. JustPublics@365 helped CUNY As a Lab students collect, store, share, and analyze visual data using the online digital photo storing and sharing site Flickr. While there are many ways to collect and store visual data, I want to highlight some of the tools that made Flickr especially useful for research and teaching.

How did we use Flickr?

In small groups, CUNY As a Lab students used multiple research methods to profile each of the 23 CUNY colleges. They profiled campuses using history, ethnography, demographic analysis, interviews, and observations about campus space. As students conducted research on their respective campuses they uploaded pictures to a Flickr account shared by everyone in the class. Photos from each campus were grouped into “sets”. In order to preserve confidentiality of research participants, the Flickr account was kept private so only students in the class could see it.

Why visual data?

Visual data is different from “data visualization” which usually involves representing abstracted quantitative data in creative ways. The visual data collected by CUNY As a Lab students was digital photographs which students analyzed for clues about life on any given CUNY campus. Because the Flickr account was shared, students could also analyze each other’s photos during the research process for insight into what their peers thought was important to document. This helped students to generate ideas about what they wanted to capture in their photos.

Why Flickr?

Flickr is a great place to store photos if only because it is free, open, and easy to use. It allows users to choose from a range of licenses for each of their photos, including a license which allows people to contribute to a commons of photos with “no known restrictions” which can be used and shared by anyone. Often people don’t know that the photos they find using a Google image search can’t necessarily be used and shared freely due to copyright restrictions.  Flickr offers many open access photos, and makes it clear which ones are free to use and which aren’t.

Beyond being a great place to store photos, Flickr offers a number functions which make it a potentially rich tool for pedagogy and research practice. For the purposes of CUNY As a Lab we focused on annotating, tagging, mapping, and sorting photos into sets. As students uploaded photos to their campus sets, they came up with tags which conveyed themes that were represented in their photos.

Tagging is kind of the equivalent of coding.  That is, the process by which social researchers identify and keep track of themes in their qualitative data shares much in common with “tagging” in social media. After students had tagged (or, coded) their photos they could click on any given tag and a Flickr-generated group of photos with the same tag from all campus sets was produced. This allowed students to compare themes like “common area,” “leisure,” “activities,” and “security” across campuses. The following Flickr-generated tag cloud indicates the range of tags students came up with:

Flickr-generated tag cloud

Flickr-generated tag cloud

Another feature offered by Flickr is the opportunity to annotate photos. If tagging photos is like coding, annotating is like taking field notes. Some students made notes on particular sectioned-off parts of their photos to draw attention to what they thought was important about the photo. Flickr allows notes to be tagged by theme and linked together. We didn’t take full advantage of that in CUNY As a Lab, but here’s a link to a great idea for an exercise that does.

One of the most visually compelling outcomes of the use of Flickr in CUNY As a Lab was the  Flickr-generated map of New York City with CUNY campus locations tagged. Here’s a frame which encompasses all the locations tagged in photos of CUNY City College:

Flickr Maps function

Flickr Maps function


Most students who responded to my survey of the class reported that they hadn’t collected visual data for research purposes before their CUNY As a Lab research, and all agreed that the collection and coding of visual data enhanced their projects. One student commented that:

[Using Flickr] “gave me an additional frame of reference when thinking back and analyzing my data.”

Most responded that they had spent time looking at each others’ photos during the research process and that the open, collaborative nature of the Flickr account enhanced their own research. The process wasn’t perfect.  A number of students commented that there could have been more parameters set for the collection of photos. One great suggestion that emerged from the class survey was that the instructor could specify a set of tags or themes beforehand that students would then go out and look for. As one student commented, this could make for a more cohesive research and photo-browsing experience.

Students used photos in their final presentations about each campus. The following slides are from CUNY As a Lab students Rachael Benavidez and Amy Blair’s final presentation about CUNY Community Colleges in Queens. Many students chose to document the outdoor spaces of their respective campuses, which made for really interesting comparisons of the range of physical environments on CUNY campuses:

Slide from student Rachael Benavidez's final project

Slide from student Rachael Benavidez’s final project

In the slide below, the same students captured a theme that was reiterated in their interview data, that access to advisement is slow and difficult at both LaGuardia and Queensborough Community Colleges:

Slide from student Rachael Benavidez's final project

Slide from student Rachael Benavidez’s final project

While we know that photos enhance our ability to communicate ideas, the use of Flickr in CUNY As a Lab suggests that the process of collecting, coding, and organizing photos can also be useful before the presentation stage. Organizing visual data can be an opportunity for a class to collaboratively clarify and organize their ideas, and learn from each other’s work in the process.

If you’re interested in this technique and would like to learn how to take better photos with your mobile device, you might consider taking one of these workshops designed to help you do that: Smart Photos with Smartphones.

Round Table Discussion on Ending the School-to-Prison Pipeline

The New York City school police force is the fourth largest police force in the country. It’s bigger than the entire City of Boston police force. This sobering statistic is just one in a huge volume of numbers that tell the story of what is referred to as the “school-to-prison pipeline,” the idea that schools become an early sort mechanism that pushes some children into the hands of the criminal justice system. 

School to Prison infographic(Infographic from here.)


On Monday, I participated in a round table discussion among academics, activists and journalists as part of the JustPublics@365 Summit on “Resisting Criminalization.”  In one of three concurrent round table discussions, participants were invited to discuss ways to people in different arenas (academia, journalism, activism) might work together to “resist criminalization.”   All the invited round table sessions addressed three questions: 1) what’s the underlying problem? 2) how do we address it? and 3) what can we do when we leave here to create change?

What follows is a brief summary of the round table discussion on ending the school-to-prison pipeline.

What are the underlying problems causing the school-to-prison pipeline? The broad view of schools as a place where children are channeled into prison was further informed by the stories of social workers, activists, and directors of community-based organizations about what that reality looks like on the ground. On the one hand, students who are still in school don’t have adequate supports. They often need housing, job training, and caring, adult mentorship. On the other hand, the school-to-prison pipeline is the result of particular choices about how society responds to the behavior of young people. Youth need compassionate accountability processes when they mess up, rather than the full force of the correctional system. In addition to holding students accountable for their actions in compassionate ways, participants agreed that we need to hold accountable the multiple layers of systems that produce bad school experiences.

The school-to-prison pipeline also happens because we put police in schools. How do we come to see kids as criminal threats? Well, the police toolkit doesn’t come with very many different ways of viewing a problem. As Aaron Kupchik (University of Delaware) put it: when you put police in schools, more kids go to jail.

School to Prison Tweet Screenshot
(See all the Twitter updates from this session here.)

Many others pointed out that policing (as in police in uniforms) and incarceration are only two of the most visible manifestations of zero-tolerance, criminal-justice-style disciplinary practices that have overtaken schools. Many American schools are put in the impossible position of trying to manage more kids with fewer and fewer resources all the time. This context contributes to an environment where any non-conforming behaviors (including gender presentation or questioning authority) become disciplinary problems.

How do we resist? In addition to the school-to-prison pipeline, many participants talked about the prison-to-school pipeline. We learned about a lot of work being done to help formerly incarcerated people attend University. The experiences of formerly incarcerated people in the room spoke strongly to the value of education as a way out of the criminalization cycle. More than a few participants talked about the need to love and care for young people who have been marginalized. Others agreed and asked what it meant to put love into action in our day to day reality – what does love look like in the context of school? In the context of a community organization? How do we build community power so that parents and students feel confident resisting criminalization at the school and neighborhood level? Can community organizing against these processes be achieved in community organizations as we know them today? Or is the funding model too restrictive?

What can we do? In the last part of the panel we discussed how we could best share the harsh realities of criminalization and all the work being done to resist it with the many “publics” whose minds we need to change in order to be able to mobilize on a larger scale. One activist told a story of distrust and trepidation toward the news media. A journalist who had spent four weeks with him and his organization as they did outreach work with a community of drug users ended up publishing a long news story that focused mainly on the sensational problem of drugs and addicts, rather than the effective work being done to respond to those problems. This raised questions of what community-based organizations can do to be in control of media representations of their work? Or, if that’s not possible, how can both activists and academics make our own media? One journalist spoke of the value of telling specific and detailed stories in order to garner public understanding about issues that can sometimes seem remote. Academics in the room asked activists what kind of information would be useful for their work. Still others insisted on the need to link personal stories to the systemic scale, insisting that both are vital to the process of criminalization. The need for team building and collaboration came up again and again as we listened and made connections between the many vantage points in the room.

You can watch the archived livestream of the session here.  Soon, we’ll have a more polished video that we’ll share.

Why tweet while someone else is talking?

Since joining twitter, my “presence” has been sparse and mostly carefully curated from the comfort of my own home. From there I can scan the internet for things that I am sure are worth sharing, mull over a clever 140 character-description, and then type it out on my laptop to avoid potential embarrassing autocorrect mistakes on my phone. As far as I can tell this is the opposite of how twitter is supposed to be used. So when I offered to livetweet from a conference last week for JustPublics@365 I was kind of throwing myself into the deep end.

What I discovered surprised me. Audience members used twitter as a space for props, critique, and documentation. Watching the thoughts of other audience members unfold on my phone screen deepened my own listening experience. It was far from being the distraction I thought it might be. (Disclaimer: I know people have been doing this livetweeting thing for a while now! I am late to the game – let this be a little “aha!” moment from one open-minded-but-not-very-tech-savy person to another).

The event was called “a Symposium on Race, Law and Justice: Strategies for Closing the School-to-Prison Pipeline.” It was organized by the Office of the District Attorney (Kings County) in collaboration with Medger Evers College (CUNY). The panelists and audience members were a fantastic array of social workers, academics, politicians, school administrators, religious leaders, and activists. My own research is about the criminalization and management of racialized youth in Canada and I was excited for this opportunity to learn about how these issues play out in New York. I’m familiar with the broad strokes of debates around the school-to-prison-pipeline but I was hoping to figure out what the particular dynamics/disagreements/nuances are in discussions among New Yorkers who broadly agree that the “school-to-prison-pipeline” is a problem. Twitter was a space where some of these dynamics were made visible. Here are a few examples that surfaced under the hashtag #RLJ13 (RaceLawJustice2013):

(@marlon_79) “Being patient, but I am disturbed when ppl are surprised when they hear black kids get suspended 2 much” #RLJ13

(@ruby_beth) “Do NOT ignore the courts as resources.” – Judith Kaye \\ this is hard to do when courts are sources of anxiety & not support for many #RLJ13

(@marlon_79) Not 2 many men in attendance at #RLJ13 this is an issue on most forums. Where r the men? Y aren’t convos marketed for us? Y we don’t come?

These tweets (and others) were counter-conversations; questions; people making visible (and then attempting to fill) gaps in the official program. Without twitter I think these thoughts would have probably remained as private notes scrawled on people’s free conference notepads.

There weren’t that many people tweeting under the #RLJ13 hashtag (which was developed by a few of us in the absence of an official suggestion). But it was easy to see how, at a larger event (or one which explicitly promoted the use of twitter), many different sub-conversations could emerge. An event organized around sitting and listening to presentations about the school-to-prison pipeline could become, in the twitterverse, a collaborative project of thinking through the issues being raised in real-time.

Just like any other digital technology, twitter doesn’t change anything about conferences, or activism, or academia independent of us deciding to use it in particular ways. But it does provide a space for conversations to be layered and laid-out in ways that I think are unique. The way we were using twitter at #RLJ13 made the summit feel like a more interactive and more participatory space than the official set-up actually allowed for. There are barriers to tweeting that make it less than totally democratic – the most obvious being that you need a material electronic device that costs a lot of money in order to participate (and I would love to hear more about what others think about the democratic potential of twitter). But I definitely heard voices I wouldn’t have otherwise heard and made connections with other audience members that I wouldn’t have otherwise made.

  • Please join me as I tweet for JustPulbics@365 from this event next week. Beth Richie will be talking about her new book Arrested Justice: Black Women, Violence, and America’s Prison Nation at King Juan Carlos Center in New York, and I will probably literally tweet everything she says because she is brilliant.
  • You can also follow the upcoming Theorizing the Web (#Ttw13) conference on twitter. There will be an official hashtag moderator livetweeting from each session and compiling questions from the twitterverse.