I am the Data or: How I Went from Gathering Data to Being a Data Point

I just spent four days at University of Oxford sharing, vetting, analyzing and figuring out how to liberate more data on development finance. I was attending the Aid Transparency and Development Finance conference where I presented a paper on the links between aid transparency and corruption. More importantly, I learned a ton about aid allocation, aid effectiveness, and how John Henry Defeated the Steam Engine. But while we were sharing our research on foreign aid, several people in the audience were also doing research... on us.

Indeed, just after the opening session I was surveyed by a researcher from Development Finance International. She was doing research for a report of the UN Secretary General for the 2010 UN Development Cooperation Forum which seeks to understand what different aid transparency initiatives are actually doing to promote transparency. I expect they will be surveying folks from TR-Aid, aidinfo, and African Monitor too, since these initiatives also gather and/or disseminate information on foreign aid. This survey research strategy seemed "normal" to me since I also conduct surveys in my own research.

But while survey research is a common method used in political science, participant observation is not. Participant observation has become the province of anthropologists and ethnographers. There are not a lot of ethnographers hanging out at the conferences that I normally attend.

Separately, a bunch of us went to a great pub at the end of the first day of the conference. On the way, I met a Danish anthropologist named Brit. We talked about the papers, the AidData platform, the history of the PLAID project (the predecessor to AidData) and other stuff. After about 20 minutes of this I asked how long she had been studying foreign aid. She said, "Oh, I don't study foreign aid. I study the people who study foreign aid and I try to understand how information technology shapes the way researchers do their work." I was baffled, but intrigued. I always thought anthropologists did field research in exotic places, hacked their way through jungles, and talked/lived with half naked people who ate frogs as both religious and dietary supplements. After the anthropologist eats a sufficient number of holy frogs or observes lots of cock fights, then he or she understands the culture and interprets it for the rest of us.

Anyway, after answering lots of really good questions from Brit (some of which I had not really thought about before), I had some questions for her regarding her research methods. (What else do you talk about when you are in a bar with a beautiful Danish anthropologist!?)

It turns out that anthropologists have long abandoned the "fly on the wall" form of observation. They engage their subjects on their own terrain, watch them interact with other people and with "objects" in their environment, take lots of notes (but not in bars), and even tell their subjects about the nature of their research. Brit was self-consciously unconcerned that our knowledge of her research design would influence the way we behaved for the rest of the conference or, presumably, the rest of our careers.

It was both weird and fun to be a data point, rather than the person studying data points. I must admit that I did prefer the beer talk method to the survey method, which is causing me to re-think the way I am organizing my research in the Teaching, Research and International Policy (TRIP) project where I periodically survey both the public and international relations scholars.

I continue to reflect upon the questions I was asked by both researchers and wonder whether the experience of being studied will change some of our practices. I'm guessing yes.
Tags: behind the curtainresearch


I was amused and delighted to read Michael Tierney's reflections on becoming a data point. On my part, I have to say that I have never carried out ethnographic research among informants, who knew so many anthropological classics as Mike and his colleagues. <br /><br />Why be transparent about one's research methods? One important reason for not adopting an undercover/fly on the wall approach is that being open about one's methods is more likely to generate interesting data. As an ethnographer of information infrastructures and partnerships in development aid (http://www1.itu.dk/sw41996.asp#516_75490), it is my experience that engaging with one’s subjects and objects of study is both effective and generates data of a higher quality. Increasingly, I am thinking of the ethnographer as a traveler, who brings versions of different practices into contact with each other. A knowledge nomad of a kind. Transparency is a sine qua non for being able to compare and contrast different versions of the worlds. <br /><br />Perhaps being transparent about one’s research methods with the purpose of generating better data is not unlike striving for transparency in the AidData projects. Listening to the presentations at the AidData conference, in particular the presentation by Owen Barter, but also others, made me think that one very important purpose of the AidData platform, is to mutually engage development aid researchers, policy makers, NGO representatives and recipients of aid with the purpose of being able to track development finance in a more effective way. <br /><br />I am curious to learn more about how this is being done in practice. Thank you for a great conference.