Research Methods for Community Informatics
Andy Bytheway, University of the Western Cape. Email: email@example.comColin Rhinesmith, University of Oklahoma. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Mark Wolfe, University of Calgary and University of Alberta. Email:email@example.com
Community informatics (CI), as a field of research and practice, has welcomed a diversity of theoretical and methodological approaches since its inception. These approaches have drawn from a broad range of academic disciplines and cultural traditions, from economics and cultural anthropology to feminist theories of technology and indigenous forms of knowledge. These areas often recommend their own research strategies that are both respectful to and build upon existing knowledge in each field. For example, participatory methods that engage participants in conducting research and retaining ownership of data may be more appropriate in some research settings than positivist approaches that rely more heavily on the expertise of outside researchers to collect, analyze, and report the findings. The researcher's belief system about how knowledge is created and justified, or the researcher's epistemology, therefore plays a significant role in decisions surrounding both the theory and methods used in CI.
In addition to the researcher's values, ethics, and underlying assumptions about the creation and dissemination of knowledge, decisions surrounding research methods are often shaped by research questions. These questions emerge after the researcher has done an exhaustive review of the existing literature to find gaps in our knowledge about a topic. While it may be difficult for practitioners to gain access to closed scholarly resources outside the academy, open access journals such as the Journal of Community Informatics have made it easier for researchers and practitioners with access to the Internet to determine such research questions. Once the questions have been formulated from the scholarly literature and/or cultural traditions, the researcher then asks what are the best methods to help answer the research question?
This special issue focuses on the research methods used to investigate how information and communication technology (ICT) can be used in support of local economic development, social justice, political empowerment, and other community-defined development goals. CI has been described as a point of convergence concerning the use of ICTs for diverse stakeholders, including community leaders and activists, nonprofit groups, policymakers, users/citizens, and the range of academics working across (and integrating) disciplines as diverse as Information Studies, Management, Computer Science, Social Work, Planning and Development Studies. This diversity brings a range of methodological approaches and tensions to the field.
This special issue seeks to both disentangle and organize the use of existing methods in CI and to explore innovative new approaches used by researchers and practitioners in their work with communities. The call for papers sought contributions focused on methodological topics and issues related to CI research and how this research could inform practice. We encouraged submissions from a wide range of disciplines and perspectives that could contribute original thinking about research methods for CI. We requested articles that would elaborate on researchers' actual experiences with different methods, including quantitative, qualitative, critical, and indigenous methodological approaches, without given preference to any particular method.
The journal received fifteen submissions of which eight are included as peer-reviewed research articles and three as notes from the field, which are not peer-reviewed but received extensive feedback from us as the co-editors. The notes include contributions from CI practitioners that describe relevant methodological topics and issues. In choosing the articles for publication, we looked for known and unknown research problems that were elucidated or even solved, and we selected those articles that demonstrated an understanding of the envelope of CI and CI research. In addition to the criteria above, all of the papers included were selected because of their strength in reflecting on a particular method or methods and elaborating on the opportunities and challenges of using the method to advance our understanding of CI. We believe the field can benefit from this more introspective look at the decisions surrounding researchers' use of methods; we hope it will assist readers in extending our collective understanding of different research methods, their application and their value, across a multiplicity of CI contexts.
The articles and notes from the field in this special issue represent what we believe to be the current and cutting edge thinking about research methods in CI. The contributions in this issue not only extend our understanding about traditional methods, such as surveys, interviews, and focus groups, but also introduce novel approaches to methods that have not previously been used or considered in CI. The papers focus on the following research methods: participatory research and design, ethnography, qualitative meta-synthesis, focus groups, reflective evaluation, mixed-methods, research methods for course and curriculum development, methodological design of interventions, literature reviews, and "First Mile" methodologies. Taken together, we believe this exciting and diverse set of methodological contributions will benefit junior CI scholars and practitioners as well as more seasoned scholars and veterans in the field, by considering the individual contributions as well as the breadth of strategies and perspectives included.
The special issue begins with a focus on the early stages of CI project design, including the ways in which the design intentions of various stakeholders shape common visions and goals of CI projects. To gain a deeper understanding of the dynamics that shape community-based design interventions, the authors of this first article in our collection investigate participatory research and design methodologies as well as ethnographic approaches. In their analysis of multiple case studies, the authors found that "the transition from exploration to design is most significantly marked by shifting design intentions, which in CI projects are multiple and constantly evolving as they are informed by the knowledge and interests of different stakeholders" (Halabi, Sabiescu, David, Vannini, and Nemer, this special issue). In doing so, the authors contribute a new way of thinking about research methods that allows CI researchers and practitioners to study the role of stakeholders in shape CI design-oriented projects and their impacts.
The second article shifts outwards to include a broader scope within which to study CI projects. In this paper, the authors provide an in-depth analysis and discussion of Qualitative Meta-Synthesis (QMS) as a qualitative method that analyzes the findings from other qualitative studies. As the authors explain, "QMS focuses on a particular phenomenon of interest, and infers relationships between the studies to create a common frame of reference about the phenomenon" (Twinomurinzi and Johnson, this special issue). The authors argue that the use of QMS can help policymakers and practitioners make sense of disparate findings on a particular topic, because of its focus on synthesis. In addition, the article contributes a new way to appreciate what the authors refer to as the "dissonant findings" in the field of CI.
The pluralism that exists in CI research might also be considered its strength. In the third article, the author investigates and embraces this particular phenomenon in her study of the use of focus groups among a group of elderly women living in a remote rural community in South Africa. The research team embraced feminist and critical theoretical perspectives to ensure that the voices of women and their needs were heard and addressed by the ICT platform employed. In doing so, the author found that "appropriately modified focus groups can de-centre the authority of the researcher, allowing for a more egalitarian and less exploitative dynamic than other research methods." The article contributes to our understanding of CI research methods by promoting a non-traditional approach to focus groups, "notably with respect to focus group size, the active role that the research participants played in setting the agenda and guiding the research, and the use of focus groups to answer questions and to reach consensus" (Smith, this special issue).
The fourth article, entitled "Reflective evaluation of civil society development: A case study of RLabs Cape Town, South Africa" contributes a novel approach to studying past events. The authors use what they call "reflective analysis" to investigate the longitudinal factors that contributed to the success of a grassroots civil society project. More concretely, as the authors describe, "The use of a blank time-line acted as a visual aid which allowed the participants to have an active role in recording their story and acted as a memory aid. In the interviewing process, participants were able to give a fuller account by using arrows to link events to people or events in the past" (Willis, Parker, and Willis, this special issue). In addition, the visualization of the snowball-sampling network provides an effective way to understand how the method was used to answer the research question.
Museums have also been considered important local sites for civil society development. In the next article, the authors discuss the use of "Visitor Research" as a framework for studying CI and ICT4D theory and methodology. The authors' approach provides a method for "understanding the level of interaction and engagement of visitors with a biotechnology exhibit at five science centres in South Africa." After establishing its fit within the CI and ICT4D literature, the authors explain how they used a variety of methods to collect data from "semi-structured interviews with staff members; observations, questionnaires, and semi-structured exit interviews with visitors." The authors found that this methodology shed light on the importance of early visits to the centres; insights from people "who are very knowledgeable about the context" were useful to the project (Alexander, Gelderblom, and De Kock, this special issue). The article extends our understanding of the value of Visitor Research by providing a framework for studying community interactions where technology artefacts are involved.
The development of new courses and academic curricula involves a kind of research. The next two articles in our special issue focus on the use of mixed-methods research and design science research to achieve these educational goals. In the first of two articles, entitled "Teaching Open Data for Social Movements: A Research Strategy," the authors describe how research was used "to understand why people want to use open data, the main impediments of it, and the desired improvements." The researchers used student evaluation questionnaires and participant observation to collect data in response to the following research questions: "(i) why social movements use data (motivations); (ii) what are the mains problems (impediments); and (iii) what could be done to enhance the use (improvements). Also, the evaluations about the course can be used to improve it" (Tygel, Campos, and Alvear, this special issue). The article contributes a novel approach towards understanding both the value of open data in social movements, but also how popular education can be used as a dialogical approach to answering specific research questions.
Design Science Research (DSR) is described in the next paper as a methodology for curriculum development to assist teachers in improving their mobile digital literacy skills. The authors explain that DSR has been used in previous CI studies, "but its use for curriculum development in Community Informatics has not been described in any length." DSR as a methodology provides CI researchers with an iterative process for designing a mobile digital literacy curriculum. In this case, the authors used survey questions to collect data on three aspects of the issue: the experiences of primary and secondary level teachers with mobile technology in teaching and learning, their interest in it, and their attitudes towards it. Through the survey and focus group methods, findings were used to guide the development of the mobile digital literacy curriculum. The authors argue that their study of DSR contributes to the literature on CI research methods by introducing a novel approach to curriculum design as "an iterative process that includes community feedback and the criteria of relevance and rigor" drawn from the DSR framework (Van Biljon, Traxler, Van Der Merwe, and Van Heerden, this special issue).
Design is a prominent theme shared by many of the articles in this special issue. The final research article considers the methodological design of interventions within the context of development projects. In contrast to the other articles that looked at: influence of stakeholders in designing CI projects; the use of open data and popular education to inform course design; and the use of design science research to develop CI related curriculum; this last article provides a methodological framework for identifying the design elements that need to be in place in order to promote the sustainability of ICT4D projects. The authors do this by focusing on the combination of donor and beneficiary factors that negatively impact sustainability and introduce "practical mechanisms by means of which design for sustained benefit can become one of the key project objectives." By calling attention to the drivers of unsustainability, the authors contribute to the CI literature by providing a method for investigating the factors that can significantly promote the sustained benefit of ICT4D interventions (Marais and Meyer, this special issue).
NOTES FROM THE FIELD
This special issue also includes three final contributions, which highlight key issues related to the methods used by researchers and practitioners in the field. These three papers offer keen insights into the social, cultural, and health contexts that can influence the design, implementation, and evaluation of CI projects.
The first paper in this set, entitled "First Mile Methodologies in Community Informatics Research: Learning from First Nations," focuses on the important role that indigenous communities can play in driving and shaping research agendas, particularly where university researchers are involved. The authors describe how a "First Mile" approach supports indigenous communities in their ability to retain ownership, control, access, and possession (OCAP) over CI project data and outcomes. The author reports on a recent field research project and describes how the methodology supported a "multi-directional transfer of skills and knowledge between community-based and university-based researchers", leading to respect and sustained engagement that in turn supported local relevance and sustainability among community members (McMahon, this special issue).
Participatory approaches to studying the design, implementation, and evaluation of community wireless networks (CWN) are the focus of the second note from the field. CWNs have long been a focus of CI research and practice. An entire special issue in the Journal of Community Informatics was devoted to this topic (Powell & Meinrath, 2008). In "What Are Community Networks For?" the author reviews three studies "about the nature of 'community' in relation to CWNs" and determines that while all "find a set of similar, limited outcomes around facilitating Internet access via CWNs; none finds broader community, civic, or social benefit" (Byrum, this special issue). The author then examines a collaborative research methodology that was used in the case of the CONFINE Consortium to argue for the use of greater participation in CWN research projects. The paper contributes a participatory methodological framework for studying the impacts of CWNs.
The final paper in the special issue introduces a research framework for studying citizens' access to e-health. The authors investigate a methodology that combines critical theory and positivist methodological approaches as a strategy for data collection. The purpose is to provide a bigger picture of the "patterns of ICT and e-health use across a population, and at the same time data on socioeconomic and demographic differences between and within different groups to highlight 'digital gradients." The authors argue that the contribution of the paper to CI research is its framework for identifying the factors and relationships to better inform how health policymakers and practitioners can "increase support for citizens' access to e-health" (Newman and Lupiáñez-Villanueva, this special issue).
The contributions in this special issue provide CI researchers and practitioners with an opportunity to analyze and reflect on the research methods used to support CI projects. The collection of articles represent a broad range of existing strategies and introduce a few new methodological approaches for addressing the present and future research questions that define our field. The articles and papers in this special issue are not meant to prioritize a particular research approach nor serve as the last word on research methods in CI. Rather, the collection is offered as a starting point for future conversations about and reflections on the effective use of research methods in community informatics.