Quandaries over real time in digital research

Recently I have been having a few quandaries over real time in digital research, and thinking about temporality generally, not least because I have a research colleague in Australia and thus our interactions are always proceeded by sorting out time differences across continents.


Whilst we as digital  researchers, marketers and digital enthusiasts talk about real time as in immediate, synchronous interactions, how many of our interactions are really in real time? Technology and how it interacts may be synchronous but  how it is actually used may not be. Someone can send me a WhatsApp message  but I may look at it five minutes later. An email can be sent, received but not read or responded to until after a cup of coffee is finished or a meeting held. On the other hand a Skype interview is synchronous and real time. Does it matter whether behaviour or responses  are synchronous, near  synchronous or asynchronous? Does  synchronous versus asynchronous data impact on the quantity or content of that collected data? The ability to track real time online shopping behaviour is highly valuable for online retailers and their brands and the real time manipulation of promotional campaigns is a triumph of technology. However, as researchers do we require such acceleration and ‘nowness’?


Authors who have discussed technology’s impact on time and ‘nowness’ include Manuel Castell’s The Rise of the Networked Society in which Castell outlines the concept of flows  rather than time where global interactions occur simultaneously and society becomes compressed by the speed of technologies transforming patterns of consumption, economic markets and societies.This technological determinism is argued against by  Judy Wajcman, amongst others, who in her recent text Pressed for Time which emphasises how technologies are supposed to be freeing us and that citizens should revisit their relationship with time.


As a digital researcher what is my relationship with time, what is my temporality?  Different research projects  require  data which may be real time or distant time. One of my doctoral students is considering complaint behaviour on social media concerning disappointing luxury experiences and grappling with whether she needs synchronous or asynchronous data.  Do you tweet at the point of disappointment or do you  email the brand  a few moments later or do you write a  poor review and post it on Tripadvisor days later? And furthermore what is impact of ‘nowness’ versus near now versus later on the research data generated?

Summer tasting of Decanter Award winners

The summer season has finally arrived in England, and so here are a few reflections on recently tasted  Decanter award winners. Christelle Guibert from Decanter gave  the Oxford Wine Club an overview of a selection of this year’s award winners as well as insight into her own entry into  the world of wine making.

vin santo

My current favourite chilled drink has to be  the Greek, Argyros Vin Santo 20 year barrel aged wine from  Santorini.  The  grapes which grow in rounded bushy  baskets on the ground owing to the high winds are hand  picked early in the morning and have  no irrigation to help them develop. They are then dried in the  sun for a couple of weeks. After 17 years in  French oak casks and 3 in bottle, it is nectar in a bottle. Some spice, delicious figginess and a touch of coffee on the nose. At  approx £54 a bottle it is not a cheap Vin Santo, but it is utterly delicious.

At the opposite end of the scale as an interesting but not successful experiment  is the Gusbourne 2014 Pinot Noir, from Boot Hill Vineyard here in England. Gusbourne is quite well known for its Blanc de Blanc  but this foray into Pinot needs some further work I think.  Despite the  South facing slope, the stainless steel and  then 10 months in old oak, this was rather insipid and lacked sufficient interest on the palate. Even by Pinot standards it was very pale in colour, barely darker than the label shown below.

guisbourne pinot

The club was also delighted to try  the  2014 Muscadet Guibert made by  Christelle, from a tiny 1 hectare parcel of land with 65yr old vines from which she has produced 2000 bottles of old style excellent muscadet. This new venture is hand produced, biodynamic, using natural yeast and a large concrete egg. The wine has a floral character, is at the fuller end of muscadet  and has a lovely clean finish.  I do hope that at some point it will become commercially available. Although this was not entered into the Decanter awards, for obvious reasons, in yearsr to come it should be!


A new digital story… thoughts on writing a text book

This post is the first in a series that will chart the progress of a new digital story…a new text book I am writing with  Prof Nina Reynolds for Sage on Understanding Digital Research. We have set ourselves the month of June to write most of the 80,000 word text, whilst my co-author is in the UK.

post its and laptop

Reflections based on the first day.

  • Lots of planning with highlighters and clear responsibilities have  now  been allocated – this has helped us to feel more comfortable with the major task ahead and the minor staging posts identified.
  • Agreement not to get hung up on detail at this stage, editing to be done later but to keep to chapter outlines previously agreed.
  • Quite a bit of discussion over words and terms  – we now feel a little more at  ease with each others’ terms of references and how we, as different types of researchers, use certain words.
  • Using one single master template document and dating  the file whenever worked on  is working – so far…
  • Actually getting writing  in the same room was productive, we feel as though we have started something finally after months of Skype chats.
  • Having pre-read and annotated relevant competitor and complementary texts with sticky notes is helping to make better use of our time.
  • Having a neutral office space is helpful, neither mine nor hers  so no one owns the space.
  • We will need to self limit our caffeine intake and  offer  regular words of encouragement to each other.

No doubt there will be issues and disagreements but for now  we are in the honeymoon phase of co-authorship.

New Wave South African wine making?

Oxford Wine Club played host last week to Richard Kelley MW putting the case for innovation in  new wave South African wine making. This was an unusual tasting, featuring some wines available through The Wine Society (requiring membership but well worth it) and  some via Richard’s own company TheLiberatorwine.com.

s africa wine map

Of the 9 wines we tasted my own favourites were:

1. Botanica Pinot Noir 2013.   Made by a female wine maker, Ginny Povall, who is self taught. Light in colour, even for a Pinot Noir, well rounded and really enjoyable. Would suit game, chicken dishes also. Approx £20 a bottle  from Liberator.

2. The Liberator- Episode Five- Old Breton 2013, Cabernet Franc. Produced in Franschhoek (dark purple area on map above) Bright appearance, slightly composty on the nose, lots of layers on the palate. Actually quite reminiscent of a Loire wine, not surprising as ‘Breton’ is  vernacular for Cabernet Franc in the Loire.  Would go well with light goulash, lamb casserole etc. Approx £17 from Liberator.

3. Nuy – Red  Muscadel. This was a delicious sweet wine, made from red muscat grapes in the Worcester region, along the Breede River Valley (sage green large area on map) which if chilled right down could be a summer aperitif. My notes state ‘liquid marmalade’ but has a clean, not sticky finish in the mouth. Approx £13 for a full bottle size (not sold in halves) from The Wine Society.

Based on the tasting last week, South African wines are becoming more delicate, more sophisticated  and less rough and raw – and I think this is a promising direction.

Thoughts on Crowdsourced Research data

Here are my reflections from a  short talk on  crowdsourced research data given to PhD students and supervisors last week at Oxford Brookes.

Collecting relevant data for unfunded research projects is getting harder and yet is a requirement for most PhD studies. Getting participants to engage in research projects generally is hard – when I ask my students how many requests they get  to  complete surveys via  apps or online every week  the answer is always ‘hundreds’ followed by but I only do them if they are really interesting or they pay well.

Without resources, both research students and academics  face challenges in getting response data and so some are turning  to online participant platforms to  assist in recruitment and completion rates for their studies, and this might not be a bad thing.

During my talk (available here via slideshare) I outlined some of the ethical challenges posed by platforms such as Amazon’s Mechanical Turk and its  previous heavy use by well established Social Science professors, particularly Americans,  as an approach to gather fast, relatively cheap, and ‘adequate’ quality data.


Academics publically acknowledging their use of MTurk including Uptal Dholakia – an internationally recognised Consumer Psychology professor who wrote an insightful blog (see here) on his experience as a ‘turker’ (a person who completes online research tasks for a payment) as opposed to one commissioning the task.  Becoming a ‘turker’ changed his views of how he would use Mturk in any future study. Dholakia’s honest blog highlighted  how little ‘turkers’ earn, how long some studies take to complete, how poorly designed some of the studies are which result in poor quality data – including biased questions, and how Mturk is unfairly weighted against those completing tasks.

Whilst Dholakia’s observations are not new and an increasing number of universities internationally and  Marketing journal editors are also questioning the value and ethics of Mturk generated data,  I was impressed by his attempt to venture to the other side as a researcher  and to go public with what he had found.

Shaping ethical research practice in social media research

As social media is becoming integral to so many people’s lives, how we conduct ethical research within social media is becoming a hot topic for social science researchers. Digital technologies including  social media are  increasingly being used in academic and commercial research and various interdisciplinary social science groups are grappling with the ethical implications of the opportunities and challenges these technologies present.  Indeed 5 general guiding ethics principles  for social science researchers from  the Academy of Social Sciences  were outlined in summer 2015 and those of us involved in social media research are now trying to suggest how  our type of research should incorporate those principles which are;

  1. Social science is fundamental to a democratic society and should be inclusive of different interests, values, funders, methods and perspectives.
  2. All social science should respect the privacy, autonomy, diversity, values, and dignity of individuals, groups and communities.
  3. All social science should be conducted with integrity throughout, employing the most appropriate methods for the research purpose.
  4. All social scientists should act with regard to their social responsibilities in conducting and disseminating their research.
  5.  All social science should aim to maximise benefit and minimise harm.

Whilst very few would argue with the general principles above, certain aspects such as privacy can create challenges for us as researchers. So this week I’ll be presenting some ideas around  re-focusing the blurred lines between researchers and participants in social media research at an interdisciplinary conference in London as part of the NSMNSS network with the aim of  suggesting good practice in order to move the ethical research debate forward.

blurring glasses

Along with my co-author, Nina Reynolds, I will be outlining ideas such as asking for incremental, ongoing consent rather than one-off informed consent and giving constructive suggestions on the recent IPSOS MORI  DEMOS report  on social media research ethics. I ‘ll let you know the outcomes of our discussions in the next blog.

‘Mirror mirror on the wall’- the quantified self

The recent upsurge in interest in self-tracking digital technologies, including apps has got me thinking about the quantified self and I am not alone in this. Deborah Lupton has a new book coming out in April 16 entitled The Quantified Self: a sociology of self-tracking cultures  which I look forward to reading.

What drives us to constantly monitor our health related activities, our blood pressure, the steps walked or our sleeping patterns. Why are so many people collecting and then sharing data on their goal setting , their achievements and their mental well being (or lack of it)? Whether it be via an app on our mobiles or a wearable device from the likes of Jawbone, Fitbit, Nike’s Fuel Band or the Chinese Xiaomi  personal data, like never before, is now being collected, stored and shared. Apparently if this data is called personal and not health data it gets round many legal issues across several countries, though of course it is health data. Have we become more narcissistic or is it just that the digital technologies make it so much easier for us to monitor ourselves in the quest to become the optimal human being (what ever that might be)? Shouldn’t  we  pause and reflect on this   datafication of  ourselves.

self tracking imageJohn Naughton  in The Observer recently highlighted the example of  a Christian focused American University in Tulsa, Oklahoma, now requiring new students to wear Fitbits apparently to monitor their fitness levels. Corporate encouragement of employees to wear self-tracking products is also in the increase, indeed my own university  has entered into this arena by holding an annual team competition for all staff using wearables. Incentivising the wearing and thus monitoring of those wearing these devices is also creeping in across sectors, executives are ‘given’ devices and HR functions may then  receive reports on activity or  stress levels.

Surely we should consider, before we download the app, or strap the device to our bodies, what data is being collected?, have I really given permission for the data to be collected?, how will the data be treated once collected? who owns the data?  and with whom might it be shared? Ownership of the data  is frequently blurred between the individual,  the brand owner of the tracking product, the analytical platform used  and also other third parties including government agencies, depending on which country you live in.


A very interesting study has just been completed in Canada, led by the University of Toronto, which investigated fitness tracker data privacy (https://openeffect.ca/reports/Every_Step_You_Fake.pdf). The study  found that certain leading brands of  fitness wearables did leak data. Many of the devices emitted a bluetooth unique identifier which  could be tracked by beacons. The study also found that data could be intercepted and tampered with, something the health insurance companies which use fitness wearables to offer lower premiums should recognise.

So mirror mirror on the wall – who is the fittest/fairest/smartest of them all? Oh wait you already know……

Isolating experiences in an age of sharing?

Crowded public transport during commuter time can be an isolating experience in an age of sharing. Airport departure lounges and all is hushed – where has the sound of people’s voices gone?

In an age of sharing life’s activities though digital and frequently social media, the art of talking not texting appears to be disappearing.  Our mobile devices allow us to plug in, tune in and isolate ourselves from those we sit next to, those we travel with and those in our physical communities.  We are still irritated by someone wearing a cheap set of headphones which allows their music to infiltrate our own bubble and  we are curious to know the outcome of an over loud conversation held by a suited  business man with an invisible participant regarding a currency exchange deal, but overall, there is little by way of conversation  between people in public places anymore.

So  whilst we are sharing aspects of our lives with those known and unknown to us across the  various digital platforms,those we pass everyday in the street are frequently  ignored. Our sharing behaviour is also isolating us. Our actual experience of sharing is an isolated one, we tweet,  like, post, stream etc whilst on the move but we do it as individuals, if we get a response – hurrah.

socil media sign stsockholm

The sign (left) used in Stockholm’s busy streets sums this up well. Figures with bowed heads focused on their screens. The figures are not looking up or at each other – they are looking down and inwardly directed in their activities.There is no looking up, no outward gaze, no sense of being part of the immediate physical environment or a sense of being connected to each other.

So whilst  the digital era may be the ‘sharing’ or even ‘over-sharing’ era it is also the  era of isolation – the use of digital to shield us from having to  interact with other people – at a human level that isn’t necessarily a good thing. I am going to try to look up and out a little more as a walk down the streets of Oxford, I might even to speak to a stranger.

Digital Citizenship research: the realities of default to digital

My trusty research colleagues and I are are approaching the end of a fascinating research project, Digital Citizenship and the realities of default to digital by the government.

The transformational impact of digital technologies across society is viewed as a strategic research priority by the UK Research Council (www.rcuk.ac.uk) and the UK government has a general strategy to ‘channel shift’ the provision of services to digital. Likewise, local government bodies are appraising the digital technologies through which to engage their communities as an approach to delivering resource efficient services. Yet, little is understood about  how citizens are using  digital technologies to interact with their  local councils, which segments councils should be engaging with and how, and what the priorities for engagement should be. Our pilot study currently being completed has worked with two local government authorities, Oxford City and West Oxfordshire District Council to elicit data and form a longer term research relationship. Both councils are in the process of re-evaluating their digital provision to citizens and this project aligns with the wider government strategy to ‘channel shift’ services.

digital citizenship

The initial stage of the project involved interviews with key council managers responsible for the implementation of the channel shift ‘default to digital’ initiative. The interview questions were derived from both academic and public sector specific literature, and the interview data were coded into NVivo analytical software. The second stage comprised the design and dissemination of a 20 question questionnaire, in both online and paper formats to the  citizens of Oxfordshire, the results of which are currently being analysed. Early stage findings include; a mismatch between a top-down approach to digital communication and service provision by the councils and the actual engagement and usage levels by citizens,  in addition to citizens prioritising ‘problem solving’  as a key online preference. The full findings will be complete and available by December 2015.

 We are keen to determine if citizens and councils in other UK regions are facing similar digital challenges and hope to extend this pilot study nationally once further funding is secured  – so the hunt for funding is on!

 We hope that this project will create economic and social impact and possibly even lead to policy changes at local level  in Oxfordshire. By  collaborating with the public in this research it is intended  that the results are more meaningful to local communities  and that they feel  empowered within their neighbourhoods and ‘listened to’.  Our research has the potential to improve the social welfare of citizens through gaining a better understanding of  citizen engagement with digital technologies and what is and is not valuable to them. In addition, the local authorities could become more effective in their interactions with the public  through more  efficient  deployment of digitalised resources as a result of our research project.

Technology on holiday and travelling robots

Getting away from it all takes on a new meaning with this hotel concept in Japan. Whilst we are all used to various forms of technology on holiday, this new venture is really fascinating. A hotel staffed (almost entirely) with robots near  Nagasaki. From the front desk check-in manned by a collection of speaking robots including a dinosaur, to the distribution of luggage to rooms by small slow moving carriers, down to individual room concierges comprising table top doll-like robots acting as alarm clocks and weather informants., this is a very different hotel experience.


A face scanner recognition system is used for room entry and a selection of the usual Japanese vending machines  are the options available for food.

The longer term  plan, according to the entrepreneurial owner, Hideo Sawada, is to have a chain of these hotels with humanoid robots offering customer service and increasingly sophisticated person-robot interactions. At approx £48 a night I would definitely seek it out on a trip to Japan – it’s now officially on my technology  bucket list.

On a rather more downcast note, though still robot connected, I was sad to read today of the demise of hitchBOT. HitchBOT was a wonderful experiment to test the kindness of strangers through designing a robot which relied on people giving it rides to destinations as it tried to make its way across America. HitchBOT successfully travelled across Canada where he originated from,  in 2014.  Largely powered by solar panels HitchbBOT took regular photos on his travels and posted them to social media platforms and earned  62,000 followers on Twitter for his efforts. @hitchBOT if you are interested.  People could track his progress via GPS. He was fairly distinct in real life  – made from a modified bucket, and had an LED-powered smiling face. The hitchhiking device was easily identifiable with its blue arms and legs, offset by yellow wellington boots and gloves.  He was a fairly quiet travelling companion although he did have some basic language skills.


Sadly it appears that he was attacked and de-capitated recently in Philadelphia, and his surviving parts have been returned to his creators at Ryerson University Toronto. Let’s hope he resumes his brave journey soon.