Category Archives: Knowledge Streams

Illustrated Blogging Advice for Researchers

I really think that you should blog. That whatever is getting in your way, you should shove it aside and just write something.

But let’s be honest, my advice is insufficient. As my last couple of posts went up I could just picture some of you saying, “well sure, it’s easy for you, you draw cartoons.”

So I sought out a little help (or rather, a lot of help). Today’s post features expertise from (and cartoons inspired by)…

  • Seth Godin (
  • Beth Kanter (
  • Henry Jenkins (
  • Robert Kosara (
  • Jessie Daniels (
  • Nathan Yau (
  • Lisa Wade (
  • Ewen Le Borgne (
  • Tom Murphy (
  • David Henderson (
  • Jane Davidson (
  • Molly Engle (
  • Jara Dean-Coffey (
  • Bonnie Koenig (
  • Stephanie Evergreen (
  • Karen Anderson (
  • Pablo Rodriguez-Bilella (
  • Chi Yan Lam (
  • Ann Emery (
  • Sheila B Robinson (
  • Molly Hamm (
  • Jamie Clearfield (

The Questions

I asked two questions, other than the slightly leading nature of the questions (woops, I’ll do better next time), I provided no direction on response length or style, so the responses varied greatly.

1. What’s been your biggest blogging challenge (finding the time, picking good topics, the technology, etc.)?

2. What piece of advice would you give (or have already given) to an evaluator or researcher interested in starting a blog?

Advice and challenges change over time, so it was important to me to reach out to bloggers with a wide range of experience. This post would not exist without the expert help. I’ve thanked each blogger, but if you get anything out of their advice, please send them your own appreciation.


A little admin before we get started…I’ve been considering putting together an online workshop on blogging for evaluators and researchers.

The basic approach would involve walking through content development, helping you set up the technology, and talking about strategies for reaching an audience. The workshop would take place on the web and include video tutorials and practical lessons.

I would want to do it right, so this would take a lot of work on my part, and I’ll only set this up if there is enough interest. So if you are interested, sign up here to let me know.

Jamie Clearfield

On challenges

I’d say the biggest challenge for me is actually hitting the publish button. Getting an idea that I think is worth writing about is challenging for sure – but I think the bigger issue is believing in the idea enough to actually put it out on the web. The first blog post sat as a draft for a bit and finally it was a “rip the band-aid off” moment…

Hit the damn publish button


I think the best advice I’ve gotten and would give is to just keep things simple and believe – believe in your ideas and experiences and that there are people who are reading. Don’t over think things too much and have fun.

Jamie Clearfield Advice

Molly Hamm

On challenges

Biggest blogging challenge: Keeping up with all of the information from other bloggers in the field while finding time to create your own contributions. I find that it can be easy to get so involved in following other conversations that you forget to add your own two cents! So you may feel as though you are actively participating in blogging and other e-communities while your own blog sits in silence (yes, I need to update my blog!)

Embarrassing story, blog journal


Create a regular schedule for blogging and stick to it. This is something that I really need to work on, but I think it’s important to set a realistic writing goal for your blog (number of posts per week, month, etc.) and then reserve a specific day/time per week/month where you commit to writing on a regular basis. This will ensure that you take the time to gather your thoughts and put them out into the blogosphere.

Also it’s useful to have handy a notepad (tdigital or Post-it!) to jot down inspiration/ideas when they hit. Especially useful to write down ideas as you’re sifting through other blog posts, tweets, reports, websites, e-learning, etc. This allows you to constantly use available information to inform your own writing (reading with a purpose that is actually connected to your blog!)

Molly Hamm Advice

Sheila B Robinson

On challenges

My biggest challenge is content. I have lots of ideas that spring to mind, but my challenges lie in:

a.) having enough “meat” to go along with an initial idea to flesh it out and write something I think will be relevant, interesting, helpful or useful to someone, and

b.) having the confidence to put it out there – I hold back sometimes thinking about the fact that lots of people are blogging about similar ideas (after all, the “hot topics” are of interest to lots of us), and wondering if I have enough of an original spin on something to create a viable post.

Blog diet program


I would give someone the same advice I received (from someone you know VERY well!) [ed. note: she’s talking about me :) ]

a.) Just do it! You have virtually nothing to lose. I overcame the concerns about “what if I won’t have enough time or enough content, or enough visitors,” etc. by coming to terms with the fact that if I write something, there it is and it’s fine.

If I don’t have time or content, I simply don’t post. If the blog goes by the wayside and I decide to move on to other projects, I’m OK with that. Holding myself to a weekly schedule didn’t work for me for very long after all, and I’m OK with that. It may very well work for others, so I would advise them to try a schedule and see how it goes.

Blogging is somewhat like dieting – you may have to try different strategies; some may work for a short time, or a long time, or not at all, and you have to be willing to change your strategies based on your results. And your expected results are unique to you. Some people diet to lost weight, some to alleviate a health problem, some to feel better. Some people blog for fun and because they enjoy writing; others do it to build a reputation or clientele, or to sell their products.

b.) Some posts will be more interesting and receive more traffic than others, and so be it. Whether you’re Seth Godin, or Sheila Robinson, traffic will ebb and flow and I’ve learned that that is not what it’s all about for me.

Sure, it’s fun to watch the numbers and I get excited when I get more traffic and people are paying attention to my work. Who wouldn’t? But neither am I crushed when a post fails to generate much interest. It’s all fun for me, and the evaluator in me finds it interesting to look at my data and think about what people like and want to read. But I have nothing to sell right now, so my goals may be different from some others.

Sheila Robinson Advice

Ann Emery

On challenges

At first: Nor having anything to write about.

Now: Having way too much to write about.

Live Blogging a Meeting


Include an image with every post. Images make your content more share-able (aka a mini version of your image will show up when you and others link to your post on LinkedIn, Facebook, Google+, Pinterest, etc.)… which means more views and more appealing, interesting posts.

Get creative. Avoid those generic stock images. Go for screenshots, photos you took yourself, videos, sketches, and cartoons.

Ann Emery

Chi Yan Lam

On challenges

My biggest blogging challenge… probably has to do with finding the time. It takes a real commitment to sit down and produce something of a ‘blah’ quality, let alone something of a ‘wow’ quality. It’s challenging because blogging isn’t particularly accorded any value within academia. (Can it really go no my CV? No.)

I wrote this post for you


1) I kept a blog for more than a year before gaining any traction. The turning point for me was when I started the 5×52 project. I let go of the idea that I had to write full-length scholarly ‘high-quality’ posts.

I realized that the blog could be a space for my thinking. Instead of insisting on writing for an audience, I wrote for myself. I guess what this boils down to is this: Blogging is simply a platform. There are many successful models of blogging. The important thing is to make blogging goals consistent with one’s goals. Don’t Emulate. Create.

2). I really buy into the whole concept of digitals scholarship. It starts with the belief that no research is good unless communicated. Building on that, I believe that all academics/researchers should engage in knowledge dissemination. For a practical field like ours, it makes sense to engage in digital scholarship — blogging, tweeting, etc…

Chi Yan Lam

Pablo Rodriguez-Bilella

On challenges

Being regular and constant has been my biggest blogging challenge. Some (good) months I can write two or three times what I write in others (bad months). I have also tried to have at least a “light post” each week (smartly call “Viernes Light”), but the issue of regularity has also been present there.

I cannot say that I can´t find good topics to pick, usually the problem has been that there are several good topics I would like to write about them.

I was spam


Writing a post is usually lot of work, but don´t forget to let the world know about it! You should become a good friend of Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, and find the smartest way to post in each of them.

For instance, in LinkedIn you should carefully select the groups more appropriate for your topics, and be careful to not spam every group with your messages (you will receive some warnings before being expelled for not following the etiquette).

Pablo Rodriguez-Bella Advice

Karen Anderson (

On challenges

I’ve been blogging for a couple years now and I’d say the fire burns out for me at times and I can’t think of anything fresh or relevant.

Blogger's Block


Don’t start, it becomes quite the addiction. (lol)
look outside of evaluation for inspiration and tips…places like problogger.
Make efforts to engage and partner with bloggers online and offline.
Consitency is king
Find a niche…quick, you don’t want people guessing what they’ll get from you all the time.
Subscribe and comment on other Eval blogs
Have a larger purpose for your blog, what mark do you want to make, what’s the ‘end goal’?

Karen Anderson Advice

Stephanie Evergreen

On challenges

Opening myself to criticism. Blogging was originally just an outlet for me but as it grew and got attention I realized the world includes people who like to argue and Internet trolls.

Troll Armor


Choose topics you want to learn more about and use the blog as an excuse to bone up on your skills or knowledge a bit.

Stephanie Evergreen Advice

Bonnie Koenig

On challenges

I haven’t had any particular blogging challenges. Perhaps because I came ‘late to blogging’ compared to many of my colleagues and friends, I asked for a lot of advice before I started blogging and mostly knew what to expect (and perhaps challenges to anticipate).

Heed my words


Blog when you have something useful to share – don’t be bound by specific timelines and feeling like you ‘have to write something’.

Bonnie Koenig Advice

Jara Dean-Coffey

On challenges

I think it is probably two things:

1) Finding a concentrated amount of time (at 2 to 3 hours) to focus in on a topic and then move in to writing a strong enough drive that requires no more than 30 minutes to refine, and

2) Creating a range of voices that speak to our approach, our experiences and reflections that resonate with a variety of audiences and which compel others to take risks, have confidence in their inherent knowing and to strengthen their intentionality.

There it is behind the couch


Spend some time looking at other people’s blogs and the blogs they read. Find ones that speak to you in terms of perspective and tone.

Ask yourself a few questions (I have a couple worksheets) such as:
a) why do I want to write,
b) what do I want to write about,
c) who is my audience and what interests them,
d) what is my perspective/voice (expert, trainer, synthesizer….) ..etc.

And now, just write. Make yourself a schedule and commit. It doesn’t get any easier unless you practice. Oh, and part of the value I find in blogging is disciplined reflection on my own practice.

Jara Dean-Coffey

Molly Engle

On challenges

My biggest blogging challenge is what to write…there is so much; yet is it timely, needed, wanted? I have to remember that evaluation is an everyday activity…however obscure. (I ignore the technology unless something goes wrong; I am, after all, a technopeasant.)

The peasants are blogging


Starting a blog—be passionate about your topic; if you are, you will always be able to write something even if it doesn’t seem timely or needed. (chocolate torte, anyone?)

Molly Engle Advice

Jane Davidson

On challenges

Definitely finding the time! Patricia and I started strong but seem to have been so swamped with other things that it is difficult to get much up on the blog. But, we would rather do good stuff less often than just fill the space for the sake of it.

Personality Removed


The blogs I love the most are the ones where the bloggers’ personalities and senses of humor shine clearly through. Write good, thought-provoking stuff, but don’t be shy about putting your own signature spin on it.

The nice thing about blogs is that people deliberately opt to tune intoyou – unlike discussion lists, where we have to be conscious of chewing up too much of the airspace. Don’t swamp people with too much content, but make whatever you put out there fun to read! And a cute cartoon will do wonders as well! ;)

Jane Davidson Advice

David Henderson

On challenges

Finding the time is a good excuse, but I am too intimately aware of my stupid internet browsing habits to justifiably argue I don’t have time to blog.

I think more challenging is not to psych myself out. I will regularly start posts all to decide that whatever “insight” I’m writing about feels so plainly obvious to me, that it wouldn’t be valuable to anyone else, and then scrap the post all together.

Too busy mindlessly surfing the web


There’s a lot of crap and dubious advice out there. I always encourage folks who want to start blogging to not be afraid to elevate their posts above the all too common nonprofit blogging dribble.

I like to think about blogs as light version of a research report or paper. In this framing, blog posts are not totally absolved of the constraints of substantiating arguments and citing sources. The best bloggers are those who I learn from. To that end, I’d advise new bloggers to think about blogging as (at least in part) a teaching platform.

David Henderson Advice

Tom Murphy

On challenges

For me it is still getting over publishing and putting myself out there. Even when I am doing more of a reported story than a blog/opinion I feel a sort of resistance to publishing and the vulnerability that comes with it once it is out there. The other stuff is relatively easy for me at this point, but there is that fear of rejection or failure that immediately follows hitting the publish button.

Handling Vulnerability


Think of it as an extension of what you are already doing. You are reading and pulling together a lot of information and resources about what you know best. Blogging is a public way to gather that information, make a few notes and share with others.

The benefits are that people will interact with you. It can foster connections and potential suggestions/opportunities that may not have existed prior. Also, there is the fact that there is evidence showing how blogging about research can lead to more citations and reads of published works. As long as the person does not say anything improper, blogging is a great support for a researcher’s work.

Tom Murphy Advice

Ewen Le Borgne

On challenges

Originally it was the discipline to get at blogging and to carve out time for it. It took me 2 years to become a regular blogger but at some point it clicked and became a bit of an addiction – of the nice type though!

No, more recently I find that the challenge has been to precisely reverse the engine and to perhaps blog a bit less but really aim at good quality posts – the wow posts you mentioned. I sometimes post a piece that I know I’m not too happy with – but it’s sometimes difficult to resist the instant gratification of getting a post out there and seeing the reactions.

Toddler Blog


First off, to find out that they are not alone in this and to look at other testimonials and experiences from other researcher/evaluator bloggers (it’s likely to be much more convincing coming from their peers than from any other source), then to think carefully about the focus of their blog and its relation with their organisation/clients etc. This can become a thorny issue so it deserves a bit of thinking.

The rest is just fly and fly higher, trial and error, reflection all along the way, engagement… and fun! My personal motto if ‘fun, focus and feedback’ and I think it suits blogging pretty well :)

Ewen Le Borgne

Lisa Wade

On challenges

Thinking big picture, one of the biggest and most exciting challenges is change. Adapting to unexpected change started right away.

When we started blogging six years ago, the idea was that it would be a place for my sociology instructor friends to swap images we were using in teaching. As more and more people started reading who weren’t sociologists, we had the opportunity to adapt the site, making it a place for anyone interested in sociological commentary. The result was a lot more work and responsibility, but the reward was proportionally exciting.

Technological change has also offered both opportunities and new demands. When we started, blogs were just blogs. As the years have gone by, the importance of being on Facebook (especially) and Twitter (secondarily so) and the fun possibilities of things like Pinterest have emerged. Now it isn’t just Sociological Images, it’s Sociological Images and its auxiliary sites. These are now all part of the day-to-day work and reward of the site.

Finally, my own career has changed in ways that I never anticipated. The blog has made me more visible as a social commentator and I’ve had wonderful opportunities to speak to journalists, write for well-known outlets, and travel for public speaking.

Together, the rising readership, expanding reach of the site, and the new dimension to my career has required me to adapt many times over. It’s been a fun, but wild ride.

Digital Media Conglomerate


Academic blogging is, I believe, win-win. As a community, the more we share each others material and try to draw attention to each other, the more social science will become a go-to way of thinking about social problems.

So, if you’re interested in starting a site, think about all other sites as your friend. Borrow their content, let them borrow yours. Talk them up and refer people there. Link and link again.

When we all do our best to draw attention to social science as a lens, more and more people will visit all of our sites. When they do that, the policy makers, voters, and Thanksgiving table debaters all become better able to understand our world and help others understand too. And that’s a wonderful thing.

Lisa Wade Advice

Nathan Yau

On challenges

The biggest challenged with FlowingData is probably maintaining the right balance between academic and casual. If I get too technical, I confuse a lot of readers, but I can’t get too casual, because I might oversimplify concepts that are actually complex.

Minimum Viable Explanation


It’s really easy to start a blog these days, so you might as well try it out. Some researchers might be worried that the general public will misunderstand findings, but it’s a great chance for you to explain what you do and involve yourself with groups of people who are excited about the same stuff as you.

Nathan Yau Advice

Jessie Daniels

On challenges

I would say that the biggest challenge with blogging has to do with time. And, by this, I don’t mean “finding the time” to blog, but more to do with pacing.

I’ve been blogging at Racism Review since 2007, along with Joe Feagin, the blog’s co-founder (and, long ago, my dissertation chair). Ours is a scholarly blog, so we’re always trying to take some current event or news item and reflect it through the research literature to add a new dimension. The pace of how quickly things happen online and the pace of how slowly scholarly research happens are really at odds with each other. I often find that by the time I’ve really thought deeply about some item rippling through Internet, the moment of when that is ‘new’ has long since passed.

The other challenge that has to do with pacing is thinking about the long haul. We’ve been blogging since April, 2007 which, according to my math, is a little over six years. When we first started it, we tried to blog every day. Posting every single day is a pretty daunting pace to keep up with over a long period of time. To help ease that burden, we’ve tried to enlist as many ‘guest bloggers’ and additional contributors as possible, but sometimes cajoling other academics into blogging presents its own set of challenges. In general, I think we’ve done pretty well keeping it up given that Joe and I have very busy academic lives beyond the blog.

Academic vs blog timing


I get asked for advice about blogging fairly often and my biggest advice is to figure out what your particular niche or formula is. As I mentioned, at Racism Review, we try to connect current events having to do with race or racism to solid academic research. Having a really very clear, specific idea at the outset about what your contribution will be makes it much easier to get started and to maintain it over time.

Jessie Daniels Advice

Robert Kosara

On challenges

There is an obvious answer here and there is a somewhat deeper one. Of course it’s a challenge to find the time. I could do other things. I could read. I could sleep. I could go for a run.

I think the biggest challenge has been to find the right direction for this blog. After almost six years, I’m still not sure where this thing is going. I keep changing direction. Sometimes, somebody tells me they do or don’t like something. But I don’t have a clearly defined audience like a fashion blog or a technology blog or similar.

It’s not that there aren’t enough good topics, there are more than I could ever write about. Rather, the question is what do I think I can contribute to? I don’t care about just posting links to interesting stuff, others do that already and I can’t bring myself to just summarize what somebody else has done for a link posting.

The challenge is to not let that paralyze you. I keep a list of topics in my todo program, in a folder. When I don’t know what to write, I look through those and pick one. You need to keep writing, and you need to try things to see if they work. A simple posting today, a little visualization project next week, then a book review, etc.

To summarize it in a word, perhaps the biggest challenge is consistency. Consistency in topics, style, and frequency.

Which way to go


I have three pieces of advice.

1) Don’t worry about the technology. Don’t tinker. Just write.

2) Pick an audience to write for, but don’t get too focused on that. Your audience might change. People you wouldn’t have expected to read your blog will read it. Be prepared to go outside the box and change direction accordingly. But to write reasonably well, you need to have an idea of who you’re writing for.

3) Hang in there. Nobody will read your blog at first. Nobody. After a year, you might have a few readers. Don’t give up. A blog doesn’t just explode onto the Internet (unless you’re incredibly lucky). It’s going to take time. If you give up after a few months with just a few readers, you will never get more.

Robert Kosara Advice

Henry Jenkins

On challenges

Before I started blogging, the biggest concern I had was whether I would have the time to keep up with my blog. The advice I got from Cory Doctorow (Boing Boing) was “make the time.” And he was right.

Reflect and Blog


For me, a key is integrating the blog into the broader range of activities I am doing, so I am always looking for ways to use the blog in my teaching, my research, my recreation life, my friendships. You need to decide going in how often you are going to blog and stick to it like you would do any other deadline.

On any given day, there is always going to be something more pressing than blogging, so if you do not think of it as a responsibility to yourself and your readers, you will slow down and eventually stop. I think of it as like a journalist putting out a daily edition, i.e. it’s a deadline that must be met.

I put it out at a consistent time on a consistent day and I can count on my fingers the number of times I have missed a deadline since I started my blog in 2006. When I need to take a break, I announce that I am doing so and give myself permission for downtime, but I do not miss a deadline arbitrarily on a day in, day out basis.

Given the complexities of my life, this means I am planning further and further ahead, so I have a fall back if a piece of content fails to materialize. For this to work, I end up balancing between topical issues and ever-green content that I hold in reserve in case I am facing a hole on any given day that needs to be filled.

Henry Jenkins Advice

Beth Kanter

On challenges

I’ve been blogging for ten years now. I love it. I look at it my personal learning time and I try carve out a half hour or hour every day to write about something. This reflection time is so important. But, with that said, what’s hard is to keep up the discipline so I make the time to reflect and write every day. Sometimes with a busy speaking schedule and client work, it is hard to do.

My biggest challenge is when I get bored … when my muse goes into hiding. Sometimes, I’m so excited new developments or new angles on topics that I’ve been writing about – but there are some times that ennui creeps in. What I do is allow myself to write about a slightly different or adjacent topic or recruit guest bloggers and take a break.

Trolling your own posts


Look at your blogging time as a form of professional development and a commitment to write something regularly. Don’t get caught up with making it perfect either …. a blog is different from writing a research article.

Beth Kanter Advice

Seth Godin

On challenges

Decide on the audience you want and ignore everyone else.

Speaking just to us


Write every single day. If something you write spreads to the audience you care about, and if it changes them in the way you hope, write more like that.

Seth Godin Advice


Are you a blogger, if so, what are your biggest challenges? Have any advice to share, or reiterate?

Not a blogger, why not? What’s holding you back?

Let me know in the comments.

~ This post is by Chris Lysy and  originally appeared at FreshSpectrum; it is re-blogged here with permission.

Jessie Daniels in NYTimes Dialogue on the Meaning of ‘Race’

Many of our efforts here at JustPublics@365 are focused on getting scholars to share their research outside of the walls of academia, particularly through social media and big media. Workshops in our MediaCamp series, such as “Op-Ed Pieces and Pitches: Framing Research for Public Audiences” and “Being Interviewed on Camera: Big Media for Academics,” aim to do just that, and we’re excited with the various successes that we’ve had.


cc-licensed photo “hand” by flickr user JUNG HEE PARK

I’m delighted to report on another success, this time from my colleague Jessie Daniels. Jessie, one of the Co-PIs of JustPublics@365, had a letter co-written with Joe Feagin published in this past weekend’s New York Times as part of the “Sunday Dialogue: The Meaning of ‘Race'”. Coming on the heels of the George Zimmerman trial, Jessie and Joe provide a necessary reminder of the shifting definitions of race and their ramifications within our culture. Congratulations to Jessie and Joe for exemplifying what JP@365 is all about.

Full content of the letter is below (original NYTimes link):

Mr. Hodge raises an important question about how to simultaneously destroy the myth and remedy the harm of the myth of “race.” But Mr. Hodge, like almost everyone else, is operating routinely out of a particular way of seeing that filters and distorts everything about “race.” It is what we refer to as the white racial frame, and extensive social science research demonstrates the myriad ways that laws, politics, culture and social relationships are embedded in it. It makes whoever gets considered “white,” by definition, all right.

Who is and is not considered “white” shifts and changes. In 1916 hearings on an immigration bill before Congress, social science experts of the day testified that southern Italians were a different “race,” decidedly not “white,” were incapable of assimilation, and therefore should be barred from entering. So, indeed, “race” is in one sense an “arbitrary … classification imposed on a continuum of physical differences,” but it also systematically and consistently works to the advantage of some (mostly whites) and to the disadvantage of those classified as “others.”

The harm of white racism is real, and takes the lives of black and brown on a daily basis, decade after decade: Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, James Byrd Jr., Yusef Hawkins, Emmett Till and so many others. The danger in trying to dismantle the myth of “race” before we are ready to remedy the harm of racism is that we will do neither.

New York, July 18, 2013

The writers, professors at CUNY Graduate Center and Texas A&M University, respectively, are the co-founders of the scholarly blog Racism Review.

“Reading the Riots” : Academic-Journalism Partnership

Partnerships between academic social science researchers and journalists hold great promise for addressing inequality.  At a meeting earlier this month at the London School of Economics (LSE), Professor Tim Newburn of the LSE discussed the Reading the Riots project. This project was run jointly with The Guardian with the aim to produce evidence-based research that would help explain why the rioting spread across England in the summer of 2011. The slides are below and the full podcast of the event is available.  It’s definitely worth a listen to hear Newburn describe the opportunities and challenges of this unique academic-journalism partnership.

As Newburn describes, one of the key opportunities the partnership with The Guardian provided traditional academic researchers is reach.  The readership of The Guardian far exceeds that of any academic publication by several orders of magnitude and that’s really a game-changer for social science research.  At the most basic level, it means that academics need to think about who they want to speak to (and with) when moving beyond the narrow scope of other specialists.

Among the challenges that Newburn enumerates are the radically different pace of work for academics and journalists.  Journalists are trained to write quickly to meet deadlines.  Academics, well, we like the sound of deadlines as they “whoosh” passed and are accustomed to a much, much slower pace of producing writing (aside: I think this is part of why blogging proves so challenging for many academics).

Newburn also points to some of the interesting methodological issues that arose during this collaboration. He observes that academics and journalists are often engaged in the same practices (e.g., interviewing people, analyzing data), but that academics are often mired in contemplating “how” we engage in these research practices. (Following Newburn’s remarks, the podcast of the event continues with an interesting discussion about “impacts,” something that we’re very interested in here at JustPublics@365.)

In our own academic-journalism partnership between The Graduate Center and the CUNY J-School, I’ve been delighted and amazed at the success of this collaboration around creating the MediaCamp workshops. These workshops offer skill–building in media and digital media  combine research and digital media for the public good. We haven’t yet attempted collaborating around a specific research topic, such as the Reading the Riots project, but perhaps that will be next.

What Newburn’s Reading the Riots project and our own MediaCamp workshops mean to me is that there is a new kind of space opening that combines the best of both research and journalism.  In this hybrid space, academics and journalists will increasingly collaborate, borrow and remix methods from both fields, and at least potentially, reach wider audiences beyond the narrow range of specialists. Perhaps most exciting to me, is the idea that academic-journalism collaborations could be an innovative way to address issues of social inequality.

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.

For Whom Do We Write?

C. Wright Mills once wrote about being at a party of sociology grad students at Columbia who were working on the PhDs. “After they’d introduced themselves, I’d ask: What are you working on?” It would always be something like ‘The Impact of Work-Play Relationships among Lower Income Families on the South Side of the Block on 112th St between Amsterdam and Broadway.’ And then I would ask: Why?”

C. Wright Mills(Image of Mills from here)

Mills called the tendency to conceive of one’s work in narrow terms “abstracted empiricism.” In contrast, he believed that the task of sociology should be to encourage public discussion of things that really matter. He called for a bigger, bolder sociology, one that would take on the big issues of the day, in a fashion that was engaging, and that would help people living in an increasingly complex world to make sense of their lives.

I remember that when I first encountered Mills as an undergraduate, he had an enormous impact upon me. I was captivated by his idea of a “sociological imagination” that would allow individuals to see the connection between personal troubles and public issues, biography and history.

But is it possible to channel Mills’ spirit to reimagine sociology, and sociological writing, today?

As sociologists we write to convey ideas, change the way people think, and influence public opinion. We also write to assert our scholarly authority and to advance our careers. But there’s a tension between these two sets of goals. We advance our careers by publishing in peer-reviewed journals, and by speaking to others like ourselves–not by influencing the broader public.

But these goals were not always at odds with one another. In 1895, in the first issue of the American Journal of Sociology, founding editor Albion Small described the goal of the journal as follows:

[This journal will] attempt to translate sociology into the language of  ordinary life . . . It is not . .. essential to the scientific or even the technical character of thought that it be made up of abstractly formulated principles.  On the contrary, the aim of science should be to show the meaning of familiar things, not to construct … a kingdom for itself in which, if familiar things are admitted, they are obscured under an impenetrable disguise of artificial expression.

Writing in sociology journals, at least through the 1940s and 1950s, was essayistic, dialogical, and marked by the author’s presence. But over the next few decades, it came to resemble natural science journals—with growing attention paid to literature reviews, charts, and tables, and methodologically driven articles–what Ben Agger calls “secret writing.” Professionalization went hand in hand with an emphasis upon quantitative analysis of empirical “facts” and an aspiration to a natural science model; sociological writing came to emulate the scientific journal article.

Mills feared these trends. The use of specialized language, addressing concerns that are mainly disciplinary in origin—the “private” as opposed to the “public” intellectual would, he believed, lead to intellectual introversion. Rather than valuing small incremental increases in knowledge, we should do “big picture” research, he believed. He saw sociology as an activist project and believed that a sociological imagination could “counter the drift toward conformity, homogenization, and instrumental rationality.” Critical, publicly engaged sociologists, he believed, could lead the way to a better society.

Today the field of sociology is larger and more decentralized than it was even in Mills’ day. Hierarchies of prestige are reflected in the rankings of academic journals and graduate departments. When competition for employment and promotion is fierce, greater rewards accrue to those who adopt professional identities that conform closely to hegemonic understandings of the discipline. Since academic advancement is securely mainly through publishing and communicating with other experts, professional intellectuals have little incentive to translate their work to broader publics. When professional gatekeepers pronounce upon the student who is and isn’t doing important work, and indeed, who is and isn’t doing “sociology,” students and faculty internalize these standards and receive rewards for adhering to them.

Over the past decade, those who are looking for an alternative have gravitated toward what some call “public sociology.” Public sociology is not a specialty, a set of theories, or a methodology: it is a way of thinking about one’s work that shifts conceptions of audience, and values the importance of clear communication.

I’ve written about some of these issues. See, for example, “Discipline and Publish: Public Sociology in an Age of Professionalization,” in Bureaucratic culture and escalating world problems: Advancing the Sociological imagination, edited by Knottnerus JD, Phillips B (2009): 156-71.

I’m also co-authoring a primer for those wishing to do public sociology, and in periodic posts I’ll share some of this work in progress.

~ Arlene Stein is Professor of Sociology, Rutgers University, and co-editor of Contexts, a quarterly magazine of the American Sociological Association. This post is a re-blog from here.

Smart Phones and Academic Research

For academics, smartphone cameras can be used to gather and document information during field research, augment presentations, and connect to a wider audience through the myriad of communities online. Scholars in fields as different as clinical medicine and art are using smartphone technology to not only aid in research but also to share their findings with people who would not otherwise be engaged with their academic research. We’ve put together a list of some examples below.

(Photo from Flicker Creative Commons)

Pelckmans, Lotte. (2009). Phoning anthropologists: the Mobile Phone’s reshaping of anthropological research,” in Mobile phones: The new talking drums of everyday Africa, 23-49.

Pelckmans addresses the new methodological options of the phone as a multiple tool (visual, archiving, recording, broadcasting) and its potential as a research assistant.

Baker, C., Schleser, M., & Molga, K. (2009). Aesthetics of mobile media art. Journal of Media Practice, 10(2-3), 2-3.

In this article, three London-based creative practitioners examine the new emerging possibilities of mobile media in the domain of art and media practice. The three practice-based research projects reflect their diverse backgrounds and perspectives within the emerging field of mobile media, in an effort to define the new genre of mobile media art aesthetics. Despite the different approaches towards working with mobile media, a shared original aesthetic emerges specific to the mobile phone. The article focuses on the pixilated, low-resolution mobile screen aesthetic, interface, production processes and uses, made possible by the mobile phone, revealing their contribution to the field of screen media in the decade of HD. Within the collaborative examination of the work, the authors attempt to define an emerging category of Mobile Media Art.

Clinical Medicine
Jayaraman, C., Kennedy, P., Dutu, G., & Lawrenson, R. (2008). Use of mobile phone cameras for after-hours triage in primary care. Journal of Telemedicine and Telecare, 14(5), 271-274.

Mobile phone images might be useful in after-hours triage of primary care. We conducted a study to identify population access to mobile phone cameras and to assess the clinical usefulness of mobile phone cameras. The survey was conducted among 480 patients attending two rural New Zealand practices. There were significantly more Maori owners compared to non-Maori (P = 0.002). Age was a significant factor influencing the ownership of mobile phones. We also conducted a clinical quiz among health professionals to assess how the provision of images on a mobile phone and on CD-ROM (to simulate the image that would be seen if email was used to transmit the images) influenced diagnostic confidence. Ten photographable clinical conditions were used to quiz 30 health professionals who were randomized into three groups of 10 each on diagnostic confidence. Images were found to significantly increase diagnostic confidence in all cases except one. It appears that mobile phone cameras are generally acceptable to patients and likely to be of practical use to rural practitioners in a range of clinical scenarios. 

Early Childhood Education
Plowman, L., & Stevenson, O. (2012). Using mobile phone diaries to explore children’s everyday lives. Childhood, 19(4), 539-553.

This article describes a novel approach to experience sampling as a response to the challenges of researching the everyday lives of young children at home. Parents from 11 families used mobile phones to send the research team combined picture and text messages to provide ‘experience snapshots’ of their child’s activities six times on each of three separate days. The article describes how the method aligns with an ecocultural approach, illustrates the variation in children’s experiences and provides sufficient detail for researchers to adapt the method for the purposes of collecting data in other contexts. The article summarizes the benefits and shortcomings from the perspectives of families and researchers. 

Beddall-Hill, N. L., Jabbar, A., & Al Shehri, S. (2011). Social mobile devices as tools for qualitative research in education: iPhones and iPads in ethnography, interviewing, and design-based research. Journal of the Research Center for Educational Technology, 7(1), 67-89.

This paper’s focus is on the development of research methodologies to investigate learning in higher education. These methodologies have made use of Social Mobile Devices (SMD) for data collection, a relativity new concept in qualitative research. The paper provides examples of practice linked with discussions from the Learning Without Frontiers Conference 2011 (LWF 2011) around the constraints, affordances, and ethical issues inherent in the use of SMDs for research. While the researchers used Apple iPhones and Apple iPads, this should not limit the applicability of the paper to other devices. It is hoped that this paper will aid the development of these tools for research purposes in the future through wider discussion, use, and dissemination. Technological development of SMDs continues unabated, hence developing methodologies around their use is an important task that will enable researchers to take advantage of the future applications they provide, whilst being aware of their impact upon the research process.

Wells, K. (2011). The strength of weak ties: the social networks of young separated asylum seekers and refugees in London. Children’s Geographies, 9(3-4), 319-329.

This paper is about the social networks of young unaccompanied asylum seekers and refugees in London. It discusses the findings of a 12-month qualitative study using photo elicitation interviews with eight young refugees to explore their social networks. The analysis points to the potential of social networks to provide emotional and material support for young refugees and discusses the extent to which social capital flows through these networks. It explores the importance of place and gender in shaping their entry into and formation of these networks. It concludes that the formation of weak ties particularly to institutional actors is important in providing young refugees with access to material and cultural resources. 

Weng, Y. H., Sun, F. S., & Grigsby, J. D. (2012). GeoTools: An android phone application in geology. Computers & Geosciences.

GeoTools is an Android application that can carry out several tasks essential in geological field studies. By employing the accelerometer in the Android phone, the application turns the handset into a pocket transit compass by which users can measure directions, strike and dip of a bedding plane, or trend and plunge of a fold. The application integrates functionalities of photo taking, videotaping, audio recording, and note writing with GPS coordinates to track the location at which each datum was taken. A time-stamped file name is shared by the various types of data taken at the same location. Data collected at different locations are named in a chronological sequence. At the end of each set of operations, GeoTools also automatically generates an XML file to summarize the characteristics of data being collected corresponding to a specific location. In this way, GeoTools allows geologists to use a multimedia approach to document their field observations with a clear data organization scheme in one handy gadget. 

Reading, A. (2009). Mobile witnessing: ethics and the camera phone in the ‘war on terror’. Globalizations, 6(1), 61-76.

Some of the first images rapidly circulated globally in news media of the London Bombings on 7 July 2005 were taken by non-journalists using mobile camera phones. This paper explores some of the ethical issues raised by mobile phone witnessing in the ‘war on terror’. The article uses a performative approach to witnessing in which mobile testimony is seen in terms of performances and speech acts between different parties, including mute witnesses, the survivor witness and the witness(es) to the survivor (s). The approach enables us to see the significance of global mobilities and mobilizations in relation to ethics and mobile witnessing, rather than focusing only the ethics associated with the discrete mobile witness image itself. The article examines some of the global virtual traces and data trajectories on the World Wide Web associated with a mobile camera phone image taken by a witness survivor, Adam Stacey in the 7 July 2005 London Bombings. This suggests that mobile witnessing involves a fluid and travelling involvement in data capture, data sharing, and receipt, through global networks mobilized through multiple mobilities. Mobile witnessing has trajectories across and moments of emplacement between the self and the other, the individual and the group, the private and the public, the citizen and the professional journalist, the living body and the machine. In traversing the ordinary and the extraordinary, speech and speechlessness, mobile witnessing can involve engagement beyond mere spectatorship, establishing new ways of recording events in the ‘war on terror’.

Cox, R. J. (2007). Machines in the archives: Technology and the coming transformation of archival reference. First Monday, 12(11).

Technology is transforming the way in which researchers gain access to archives, not only in the choices archivists make about their uses of technology but in the portable technologies researchers bring with them to the archives. This essay reviews the implications of electronic mail, instant messaging and chat, digital reference services, Web sites, scanners, digital cameras, folksonomies, and various adaptive technologies in facilitating archival access. The new machines represent greater, even unprecedented, opportunities for archivists to support one of the main elements of their professional mission, namely, getting archival records used.

Smart phones are also being used in historical, archival research.  Here is a recent article from the NYT.

Information & Library Science
Boyer, D. (2010). From Internet to iPhone: providing mobile geographic access to Philadelphia’s historic photographs and other special collections. The Reference Librarian, 52(1-2), 47-56. contains more than 95,000 map and photographic records from the City of Philadelphia Department of Records and other local institutions, searchable and viewable by geographic location and other criteria. The Department of Records further expanded public access capabilities through the release of optimized for smartphones, enabling users to view historic photos of a location as they stroll the streets of Philadelphia. serves as a case study for how libraries can use mobile technologies to increase access to their special collections and provide learning opportunities that transcend the traditional web site.

Gromik, N. A. (2012). Cell phone video recording feature as a language learning tool: A case study. Computers & Education, 58(1), 223-230.

This paper reports on a case study conducted at a Japanese national university. Nine participants used the video recording feature on their cell phones to produce weekly video productions. The task required that participants produce one 30-second video on a teacher-selected topic. Observations revealed the process of video creation with a cell phone. The weekly video performances indicated that students were able to increase the number of words they spoke in one monologue. The surveys indicated that participants believed that using the cell phone video recording feature was a useful activity. However, they did not believe that such a task was transferable to other courses. The discussion emphasizes that, due to technological advances, educators need to understand the benefits and challenges of integrating cell phone devices as learning tools in their classrooms. In addition, whereas in the past researchers focused on reading and writing skills, this article reveals that it is now possible to use the video recording feature to evaluate learners’ speaking skills.

Anzai, Y. (2013, March). Mobile Photo Note-taking to Support EFL Learning. In Society for Information Technology & Teacher Education International Conference (Vol. 2013, No. 1, pp. 2012-2020).

We take photos to reinforce our memory in our daily life. However, it is not so common to take photos in language classrooms, in spite of the fact that mobile phones are a device almost all students have, and taking photos with mobile phones is also a common activity. So, in this study, we explore the effect of mobile photo note-taking, which may have a significant impact on how we learn. An EFL instruction was developed based on the dual coding theory (DCT) framework. There are scarcely any studies which have examined mobile photo note-taking to verify the dual-coding theory. The study found that mobile photo note-taking has positive effects on EFL learning, particularly in memorizing and retaining English vocabulary. The author concludes with a call for further study to identify the cause of the positive effects.

Rollo, M. E., Ash, S., Lyons-Wall, P., & Russell, A. (2011). Trial of a mobile phone method for recording dietary intake in adults with type 2 diabetes: evaluation and implications for future applications. Journal of Telemedicine and Telecare, 17(6), 318-323.

We evaluated a mobile phone application (Nutricam) for recording dietary intake. It allowed users to capture a photograph of food items before consumption and store a voice recording to explain the contents of the photograph. This information was then sent to a website where it was analysed by a dietitian. Ten adults with type 2 diabetes (BMI 24.1–47.9 kg/m2)recorded their intake over a three-day period using both Nutricam and a written food diary. Compared to the food diary, energy intake was under-recorded by 649 kJ (SD 810) using the mobile phone method. However, there was no trend in the difference between dietary assessment methods at levels of low or high energy intake. All subjects reported that the mobile phone system was easy to use. Six subjects found that the time taken to record using Nutricam was shorter than recording using the written diary, while two reported that it was about the same. The level of detail provided in the voice recording and food items obscured in photographs reduced the quality of the mobile phone records. Although some modifications to the mobile phone method will be necessary to improve the accuracy of self-reported intake, the system was considered an acceptable alternative to written records and has the potential to be used by adults with type 2 diabetes for monitoring dietary intake by a dietitian.

Kikunaga, Shigeshi, et al. (2007). The application of a handheld personal digital assistant with camera and mobile phone card (Wellnavi) to the general population in a dietary survey. Journal of Nutritional Science and Vitaminology, 53(2), 109-116.

This study was carried out to examine first, the validity of a new dietary assessment method, a handheld personal digital assistant with camera and mobile phone card (Wellnavi), in comparison with a weighed diet record as a reference method and second, the relation between obesity and underreporting in the Wellnavi method in 27 men and 48 women volunteers aged 30-67 y from the general population. On the validity, there were significant correlations (0.32-0.75) between the daily nutrient intakes measured by the Wellnavi method and the weighed diet record method in all the subjects except for some nutrients such as iron, magnesium and vitamin E. Results similar to those from the group of all the subjects were obtained in the men’s group and the women’s group. In all the subjects and the men’s group and the women’s group, the differences in the daily nutrient intakes between the two dietary assessment methods were statistically significant.

Winddance Twine, F. (2006). Visual ethnography and racial theory: Family photographs as archives of interracial intimacies. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 29(3), 487-511.

I propose a model for employing photograph-elicitation interviews in longitudinal ethnographic research on race and intimacy by drawing upon research that I conducted among British interracial families between 1995 and 2003. I evaluate my use of family photographs in photo-elicitation interviews as a methodological tool, a source of primary data and as evidence for theory. I used photo-interviews as a collaborative methodological tool to clarify and challenge theories that I had developed to explain how white birth mothers of African-descent children negotiate their “racial profiles” in public and private arenas. I analyse a case study of one transracial mother who strategically employed family photographs to project respectable “presentations” of her interracial familial life.

An undergraduate sociology student named Amanda Hills “spent six weeks showing adolescent girls how to use iPhones to record and edit videos about their lives.”
See a report about this work here.

* * *

Inspired by this cutting edge work and want to learn more about ways to incorporate smartphone cameras into your own work? You may want to take one of these workshops on Smart Photos with Smart Phones” on Wednesday, July 24 (register here) and Thursday, August 8 (register here). The workshops are offered by JustPublics@365 in collaboration with the CUNY J-School.

Data Anywhere: an Open Data Commons

Data is available in bits publicly, but aggregated by companies that want to charge for it.  Other data may be free in aggregate form, but governments and well-funded institutions function as the custodians, excluding smaller institutions, local community groups, and individuals from contributing to open data initiatives.

Using open source tools, the Data Anywhere project aims to solve these problems, one data set at a time.  The solution is to set up simple database, which will replicate itself, and simple scrapers on various virtual machines.  These are cheap (about $5+/mo on digitalocean), and many go unused/underutilized.


March Occupy Data Hackathon, James Gallery

The immediate goal is for the servers to aggregate any type of data, and make it accessible to the public. The longer term vision of this project will appeal to any data geek.  We’d like to use the data for examining unexpected relationships chronologically at first, but could be compared along any index.

Although just taking off, the Data Anywhere project has the potential to help many organizations. It integrates a persistent data model; if one machine is shut down, no permanent loss is incurred to the data set, since it replicated itself to several other machines. These servers can be used to aggregate any type of data, and make it accessible to the public at large, through a simple RESTful web interface.

We are actively looking for more individuals and community partners to grow the Data Anywhere community.  Our very first workshop was at the March Occupy Data hackathon.  We had two groups initiate projects, and we’re planning our next workshop for a summer Occupy Data hackathon.  At these events, participants are provided with simple instructions on how to set up and secure a server, and databases that maintain themselves, and replicate. Knowledge of Linux or Python is helpful but not necessary. Patience and a willingness to learn is MUCH more important.

More Info:  Our next workshop is being planned for this summer and is lead by an incredible software developer and Linux admin, teaching Linux basic system admin, MongoDB setup and usage, and flask web API. For Data Anywhere announcements subscribe to the Occupy Data discussion list, follow @occupydata on Twitter, or join us

Public Sociology in the Digital Era

While traditionally trained sociologists and other academics may have once had the luxury of speaking to small audiences of specialized experts, the digital era, changing economic models and pressing social problems are creating a new set of expectations, challenges and opportunities.  Last week, I gave a talk about this in the Sociology Department at Rutgers University.   I was there at the invitation of Professor Arlene Stein, who is both a public sociologist as editor of Contexts magazine, a quarterly magazine of the ASA that aims to be the “public face of sociology.”  Stein also teaches a graduate seminar on the practice of public sociology.  Here are is my slide deck from that talk (check the ‘notes’ view for links, image credits and additional resources):

The key takeaway is that sociology, as a discipline, must begin to reimagine scholarly communitcation for the public good in the digital era.

If public sociology can find a way to be digitally engaged and more fluent in the digital lexicon of the 21st century in which we find ourselves, then I believe there is hope for sociology to be a force for social good, and by that I mean, an engaged citzenry, and a more democratic and egalitarian society.

If, instead, sociology chooses to cling to a dying, legacy system of higher education, invested in status wars and internecine theoretical debates,
it will fade into irrelevancy.

The future of public sociology is up to all of us.

Visualizing Big Data, Resisting Criminalization

Visualizing big data sets with easy-to-read illustrations can help tell a story and make complex data easier to understand by more people.

Earlier today at the Graduate Center a panel of experts discussed a range of visualizations that may help in efforts to resist and transform criminalization.  The panel was moderated by Evan Misshula, Data Visualization Fellow with JustPublics@365.

In her presentation,“Data Visualizations in the Newsroom,” Amanda Hickman, CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, shared some of the ways that she teaches aspiring journalists to dive into data.  Given that journalists are doing the hard work of translating academic jargon into plain English, Hickman also made a plea for the academics in the audience to avoid “academese.”  She closed by offering this list of resources, including a link to the course she teaches at the J-School:

Following next on the panel were María Elena Torre and Scott Lizama,“Visualizing Stop and Frisk Data” Morris Justice Project and the Public Science Project.  María and Scott presented work on their community-engaged project in the Morris Avenue section of the Bronx.  They have been meeting every Saturday for several years to collect, compile and visualize data with the Morris Justice Project, which is a collection of community members, academic researchers, and activists. Most of the data they are compiling has to do with the stop-and-frisk policing of the NYPD.  Working with members of the community, they have created a range of visualizations of this data from fairly high-tech mapping illustrations to what they described as “very low-tech, pen-and-paper illustrations.”

The final member of the panel was Sabrina Jones, a graphic artist, Brooklyn, NY who talked about her work illustrating “Race to Incarcerate: A Graphic Re-Telling” based on Marc Mauer’s academic, no-picture text Race to Incarcerate.

Race to Incarcerate Graphic Re-Telling Cover Illustration
Participants in the Summit’s Invited Round Tables earlier this morning were given complimentary copies of Jones’ book. Jones discussed her influences from art history, to classical Greek mythology, to contemporary artists.  When asked about how she imagined her work contributing to social change, she responded, “I’ve already seen it create change when people who’ve been incarcerated read it and realize, ‘it’s not me, I’m part of a larger system, and there’s a movement to resist.’ ”

All the panelists talked about the need to work collaboratively with others to create work that connects to broader audiences and transforms social inequality.  As María Elena Torre put it, “we’re able to work for change because we work in solidarity.  We come together with people who are good at what they do, like displaying things on the sides of buildings…” referring to The Illuminator who displayed some of their data on the side of a public housing project in the Bronx. Torre continued,”And, we work in solidarity with people in communities who are experts at the lived experience of what it means to be stopped-and-frisked thousands of times.”

The archived livestreamed video of the event is here.  To follow soon, we’ll post a more polished video recording of the panel discussion.

Opportunities for Digital Activism: How Social Movement Repertoires, Data, & Community Partnerships Provide Them

Lessons from the Birth of the “Stop and Frisk Watch” App

I recently reached out to the New York Branch of the American Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) in order to find out more about their new “Stop and Frisk Watch” app for IPhones (available in English and Spanish) and Androids (only in Spanish).   This app appeared to be a perfect unison of grassroots activism and digital technology in addition to being a good example of how digital technologies can alleviate a social injustice.  As I later found out from the NYCLU Communications Director, Jennifer Carnig, the way that this app came to fruition also provides important lessons for academics trying to incorporate digital technology into their research and/or activism.


The stop-and-frisk practices of the NYPD having been troubling academics, community groups, and digital activists alike.  Just two weeks ago, Dr. Michelle Fine and Dr. Maria Elena Torre spoke at the participatory, open, online course “POOC”: Reassessing Inequality and Reimagining the 21st Century: East Harlem Focus, on their participatory action research study of the NYPD’s “Stop and Frisk”.

Stop and frisk raises grave concerns over racial profiling, illegal stops, and privacy rights.  You only need to take a closer look at the NYPD’s own facts and figures to notice a troubling pattern.  Looking at NYPD data reveals that among the thousands of law abiding citizens that are stopped every year, the majority of them are black and Latino.  Last year alone – of the 533,042 New Yorkers that were stopped:

  • 89% were innocent
  • 55% were black
  • 32% were Latino
  • 10% were white

The Stop and Frisk App

With this persistent and growing concern, NYCLU seized the opportunity to partner with a Brooklyn-based visual artist and software developer, Jason Van Anden.  Van Anden was the developer who had previously created the Occupy Wall Street app, “I’m Getting Arrested.”  Together the NYCLU and Van Anden set to create an app that would provide New Yorkers with the tools needed to monitor, report police activity, and hold the NYPD accountable for unlawful stop-and-frisk encounters and other police misconduct.

The app currently allows New Yorkers to:

(1)   Film an incident with audio which after being submitted would go to the NYCLU for review.

(2)   Receive alerts of when people in their area are being stopped by the police.  This is an important feature for community groups who monitor police activity.

(3)   Report a police interaction they saw or experienced, even if they didn’t film it.

(4)   Learn about their rights when confronted by the police through “Know Your Rights” resources that instruct people about their rights when confronted by police and their right to film police activity in public.

stop and frisk app nyclu

(cc Capital New York)

 Lessons for Seasoned and Aspiring Academic Digital Activists

1)  Pay close attention to current trends in social movement offline and digital repertoires of contention.

The New York Civil Liberties Union developed this app as a result of what they dub, “intersection between crisis and opportunity”. During the height of Occupy Wall Street, the NYCLU kept getting press calls about an app called I’m Getting Arrested, which allowed Occupy Wall Street protesters to send a text message to select people to alert them that they were getting arrested.  The NYCLU loved the app and immediately thought about all of the ways that same technology might be useful to deal with the issue of unlawful stop-and-frisk practices among young black and Latino men in New York City.  They reached out to Van Anden to discuss possible collaborations and he was immediately sold on the possibilities of bringing technology to social justice.

2) If the data presents a disturbing trend – don’t just report the trend.  Also, consider and propose ways that free and easy to use digital tools can empower your population of interest to take matters onto their own hands!

The NYCLU noticed a disturbing trend since 2011.  During this time, they saw that police street interrogations were skyrocketing. Over the course of the Bloomberg administration, stop-and-frisks had gone up more than 600% – from 97,000 in 2002 to nearly 700,000 in 2011!  Concurrently, 9 out of 10 people stopped are eventually found innocent, and as noted earlier more than 85% of people stopped are black or Latino.  The NYCLU thought it would be empowering for New Yorkers to have a free, easy way to fight back, using the one tool that most people have in their pockets all the time – a smartphone.  Stats show that two-thirds of young adults own smartphones. This technology clearly has the power to help change the way we look at and understand the world around us.

3) Always embed your research and digital activism within grassroots networks and grassroots realities

In putting this app together the NYCLU relied on their network, Communities United for Police Reform, of which they are part of the steering committee.  This allowed them to get much needed feedback and support from other member organizations who were either formally or informally involved with developing, testing or sharing information about Stop and Frisk Watch. They also noted that Justice Committee and its Cop Watch groups have been particularly helpful in testing and their members are using the app themselves as they observe the police.  At the same time, they partnered with NYC immigrant social justice group, Make the Road by Walking, who translated their app into Spanish.

4)  Although the digital divide is alive and very much real, make sure to understand the technology trend among your target population

In choosing to develop an app, the NYCLU was well aware that 2/3 of young adults own smartphones; by 2013, 3 out of 4 Americans who acquire a new mobile phone will choose a smartphone; and 72% of smartphone owners will be between 24 and 35. This age range is the perfect demographic for the NYCLU to reach as it is this same group that is being targeted by the police and as such the most likely to use the app.  They also designed the app so that it would be extremely easy to use and hope that its usability will turn passive observers or other disenfranchised by this disturbing trend to become empowered community-problem solvers.


Making Research More Public

I was delighted to serve as moderator of last night’s panel on “Free Speech for Whom?” with danah boyd (@zephoria), Adrian Chen (@AdrianChen), and Zeynep Tufekci (@techsoc) (more about which in another post).  At the end of the panel, I asked the panelists what one thing they might change if they were going to address the issue of hate speech and other forms of offensive trolling and abusive behavior online. The closing comments came from danah boyd who urged the audience of mostly academics, activists, and web-theorizers to “be more public with your work.”  As Dorothy (@deedottiedot) tweeted:


I mention this here because danah’s call to action for the audience last night speaks directly to the core idea behind JustPublics@365.  As people who are committed to social justice, we see a lot that’s wrong with the world from hate speech, to growing economic inequality, to criminalization of large segments of the population.  We also know that there is a good deal of academic research that could speak to those persistent inequalities and entrenched inequalities that open up new ways of thinking about old problems.  JustPublics@365 is all about connecting academic research to social justice efforts already happening, and using digital media to do just that.  “Be public with your work,” well said, danah boyd.

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.

Text mining at the GC

Back in December, GC English student Sarah Ruth Jacobs posted about the possibility of losing software that might be of interest to English students:

There are 5 installations of a text mining software that can be used for qualitative and quantitative textual analysis called QDA Miner with WordStat and Simstat in room 5487 at the Grad Center. The IT person at the meeting said that it has only been used ONCE, and so if we want to keep it we need to use it.

Having absolutely zero experience with text mining software, I decided to ask the person responsible for using it ONCE if the rest of us folk were missing out on anything.

Enter the English department’s very own digital guru Amanda Licastro, who used text mining tools for a paper in Spring 2011 in order to analyze 36 digitized prefaces published between 1600 to 1800.   Drawing from Franco Moretti’s 2009 Style, Inc. Reflections on Seven Thousand Titles (British Novels, 1740–1850), Amanda used these tools to identify frequent keywords in her sample selection.  By analyzing these keywords and their contexts — with both new tools and traditional methods — she makes several suggestions about the role of the preface in the 18th century.


But the other interesting thing about her paper is her comparison of two different types of text mining tools.  Amanda experimented with both QDA Miner with Wordstat 6.1 (which clocks in around $4000 for commercial use) and also a similar (though free and open source) tool,  Intelligent Archive.   Though Intelligent Archive did not come with all the bells and whistles of QDA Miner (such as automatically outputting charts like the one shown above), Amanda did recommend the open source tool as a respectable alternative.  Just remember, regardless of which tool one uses, to “always clean up your data!”

I thank Amanda for her full comparison here:

There are remarkable differences between the two programs, and as part of this  experiment I would like to point to several that are significant in terms of textual analysis. The  Intelligent Archive allows the user to filter out common words such as prepositions and articles,  WordStat does not. It also allows you to search coded text if you have a text uploaded in the  Textual Coding Initiative (TEI) format. As of May 2011, TCP has released thousands of TEI  encoded eighteenth century texts, but they are still not publicly available to download. 6 The  QDA Miner solves this problem by allowing you to code text easily within the program. The  user can encode any amount of text and designate it as a part of a user generated category. The coded text can overlap and be coded as more than one category. The coded text is searchable,  and the user can perform content and statistical analysis using the data from one category of  coded text, or can compare multiple sets of data. For instance, you can do a word frequency on  one set of coded text and the results will show that word in the context of a sentence or  paragraph, determined by the user before the search. The user can then eliminate uses of the  word that do not fit the experiment before opening the list in WordStat to create graphs or charts  that display the results. This gives the user more control over their results by adding a process  that at this time still necessitates human intervention, because the program cannot yet identify  the meaning of a word by the context in which it is used. It would be impossible to create valid  codes and properly narrow the results without a strong understanding of the original material. In  other words, it is at this point when traditional literary scholarship is necessary.

Becoming Public: Academic Blogging as a Tool for Activism and Community Engagement

A recent feature on the London School of Economics (LSE) blog, asked a question which has been plaguing the academic community for over 10 years: Why are so many academics against academic blogging?”  There is much anecdotal evidence as to the reasons why academics refrain from blogging.  They include concerns that academic blogging:

  • Demeans or cheapens scholarly work
  • Can become misconstrued, misunderstood, and misused to fit narrow political or social agendas as it enters the public realm.  This may threaten the autonomy of academic work.
  • Takes too much time and so, takes away from “more legitimate academic activities”.
  • Leads to internalized self-censorship that comes with years of enforced academic perfectionism
  • Can hurt the academic and professional prospects of a scholar

Looking at these concerns it’s clear that academics have to mediate between the discomforts and concerns that surround academic work and the public realm. Academic blogging is merely one of the common ways that academia life intersects with the publics. LSE argued in their article above, “Academic blogging exists somewhere in an ether space between academic research and broader community.”  It is the space where academic research is made more accessible and so facilitates a more democratic relationship between academics and various publics.”  

And who is most equipped and suited to overcome these challenges and provide further definition and insight into this ether space – than academics themselves!  Many academics are trained in ethnographic and field work methods which prepare them to act as brokers and mediate between two worlds.  These are the same skills that can be used in order to merge the academic with the public and lay the groundwork for channeling  academic blogging towards activism and community engagement.

 photo ethnographicresearch_zps7999a203.jpg
(CC Image from Flickr)

Last week was the launch of CUNY Graduate Center’s first participatory, open, online course “POOC”: Reassesing Inequality and Reimagining the 21st Century: East Harlem Focus.  The speakers Dr. Michelle Fine and Dr. Maria Torres shared personal experiences conducting participatory action research (PAR) in regards to stop and frisk policy issues in NYC communities. Their talk described and emphasized the mutual reliance that academics and the communities they study have to foster and grow a shared learning process.  Academics have learned though years of hard lessons out on the field; to juggle the ethical demands and principles of their scholarly community with those that arise when they embed themselves in the lives and communities they seek to study.  Like in most types of field work research, as the mediation process is introduced, there are risks of misrepresentation, misinterpretation and exaggeration that may arise.  However, in field work we have learned to persevere and overcome these challenges. Why can’t the same difficult, long, yet rewarding learning process take place, as it is now academics and their work, ideas, and thoughts which are placed under the microscope of public scrutiny and for public consumption? The basis of much of academia is to bring people together across these boundaries, ideas, and beliefs – and we should be committed to contributing to this shared learning process.

So, my hope is that by acknowledging the difficulty of “becoming public” we can set ourselves on a path to identifying lessons we have learned in our own research and work that can help us move on and “get over it.”

With that being said, embracing a culture of connectivity is not for every academic. However, there has never been a better time to be a public intellectual thanks to the abundance of technology and digital tools available.  And as this article argues – academics are among the best equipped to help forge that path. 

What does it mean to be a “Digital Scholar”?

This post was originally published on the GC Digital Fellows blog

After reading Erin and Alice Lynn’s latest posts, I began to wonder what a “successful” digital scholar looks like.  Should success be measured by the scope of one’s digital presence?  Should it be measured by how much one’s research is cited on the web?  Or does it instead have something to do with how many digital tools one has created for / incorporated into their research?

This is a tricky question to answer; just trying to find a simple definition of ‘digital scholarship’ is a task unto itself.  Some argue that we should refrain from attempting to define digital scholarship in the first place, while others argue that digital scholarship should be defined loosely so as to incorporate diverse approaches.  If we can’t even decide how to define digital scholarship, how can we determine if one is a successful digital scholar?

I can’t say that I have an answer that could unify or encompass everything that may fall under ‘digital scholarship’, and I won’t try to offer suggestions here either.  Instead, I’d like to suggest that readers of this post reflect on problems they’ve encountered in academia (trouble finding others who share your research interests, institutional limitations on your research, difficulty gathering and assessing data, limited publication options for your topic, etc), and think of ways that these obstacles could be overcome using less traditional means.  What do I have in mind by ‘less traditional means’?

Although it is difficult – and perhaps unnecessary – to strictly define digital scholarship, it is not difficult to become a digital scholar; approaching traditional scholarship from a new angle is all that’s required.