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Archive for November 2012

Reassurance of Ethics


Friday, November 30, 2012 by

I wanted to follow up on a question that Luke asked during the talk given by Dean Sharpe on research ethics.  Luke asked whether or not the scope of the research ethics board included the researchers themselves, and Dean said basically "no" and that there were other offices that concerned themselves with the researchers and their welfare.

I understand in the bureaucratic sense why these areas would be kept distinct. It makes sense, particularly in light of the potential risks to participants and subjects of research studies to keep the focus so exclusively on them and let other offices focus on the researchers.

However, there were a couple of things that I have been mulling over since then in relation to my feelings about research methods that involve other people. First, I wonder if the line between the welfare of the participants and the researcher is so clear. Coming into this class, I had strong reservations about conducting research that involved other people as subjects. As the term progressed, I definitely have become more open to research methods involving work with others; however, there still remained this reservation about studying people. After listening to Dean's talk, I feel reassured by the rigor of the ethics vetting process. I guess even though it seems that the focus of the ethics is on the welfare of the participants, I feel that the ethics process is win-win for the researcher, as well.

This benefit to the researcher, got me thinking about the perhaps too cleanly drawn line, perhaps even artificial between the welfare of the researchers and the participants. We saw the blurriness of this line most clearly when we covered ethnography and participant observation. There was always the danger of the line just completely disappearing. I wonder, though, if even in other research methods the line between the two is not as distinct? We have discussed biases throughout the term, and how the perspective of the researcher shapes and influences the study. Maybe it could be argued that in some way the researcher is also a subject (definitely a participant!) in some way of the study.

This leads me to another point that Dean brought up about creating some kind of ownership or possession of the project for the participants. I really resonate with this idea of a research project designed more as a collaboration and community involvement where the researcher acts as a facilitator and less as an authoritarian presence. This would go a long way, I think, towards addressing the power imbalance between researcher and participants and would create a win win for everyone. I think it's the only way that I would feel truly comfortable with a research project that involved other people.

Ethnography of Tsunami Infrastructure


Monday, November 26, 2012 by

I decided to examine the infrastructure of tsunami warning system in Hawaii (Maui) from the view of Star’s analytical framework. Usually the user online interacts with the system only when a tsunami warning sounds to alert residents of the danger of a tsunami. However the networks and process of monitoring and communicating this warning exhibit many of the characteristics that Star attributes to infrastructure:

It is embedded inside other structures and technologies and it is relational (Star, 1999, p. 389)- the siren is prompted by organizations which monitor storm conditions such as the National weather service- Pacific Tsunami Warning centre (, retrived November 26, 2012.)

It has reach beyond a single event (Star, 1999)- as it set up to respond to multiple tsunami warnings.

It has links with conventions of practice (Star, 1999)- it promotes conventional behaviour in response to the warning and it is learned as part of membership.

The siren communicates a warning, but the correct response to this warning is unfamiliar to the non-member. When I went to Hawaii two years ago, Tsunami warnings went off, and while the meaning of the siren was apparent, the subsequent response was not. Through this experience, I had to learn about the various networks which provided information and the lack of centralized- specific information made it difficult to find clear directions to follow. Non-members become members when interactions with infrastructure becomes naturalized (Bowker & Star, 1999.)

Infrastructure becomes apparent when it breaks down (Star & Bowker, 1999.) An example of this was trying to ascertain who on the island needed to evacuate: a complicated map system and criterion based on distances/height from the water made it difficult to decide whether we personally needed to evacuate. When the system didn’t work, instead we relied on word of mouth from locals (or members) to make a decision about the appropriate response to the tsunami warning

Ethical Considerations



Confession: I had never even considered research ethics up until this week's readings. Well, I suppose from an abstract stance I'd thought about research ethics, especially in the sciences - I'm not completely ignorant of the horrors of Mengeleian ethics. But not coming from an extensive research background, and possessing a research question that seemingly passes the ethical sniff test, the topic has largely been neglected in my consciousness.

My research proposal involves teenagers and their texting habits, specifically whether frequent texting affects speech patterns, both in terms of phonetics and vocabulary. Data collection consists of two parts: texts and speech. While I haven't yet determined the method for speech data (I'm waffling between some sort of "natural" method that would be more linguistically sound or the more efficient, but possibly influencing method of direct interviews), the method for text collection is simple, involving the transcripts of text messages. I thought this was ethically sound, but I'm starting to have doubts.

Informed consent is tricky. I have no doubt that the demographic I'm looking at is able to consent, and because there's no involvement of institutions (the problems of which were expounded in Sue Heath's article), it seems fairly straightforward. Moreover, the actual analysis isn't concerned with the content of the messages themselves, but rather the linguistic forms that support the content, so privacy is less of an issue because personal content will never be published. What I hadn't considered was that texting is a two-way process; in order to obtain the record of the other texter, I will also require additional consent, and given the amount of data I'd like, this could get extensive pretty fast. Of course, I could omit the other side altogether, since I'm only analyzing one side of the conversation, but that would devoid the analysis of context, a slippery slope to go down.

This isn't insurmountable, it will simply involve more preparation prior to data collection and analysis. However, this is something I honestly had not considered before, and could potentially through a wrench into the consistency of my data if not properly dealt with.

Mini ethnography of BIXI



I thought that since it's a relatively new infrastructure BIXI would be an interesting case study.

Briefly, for those of you that might not know: BIXI is a company that has bike renal locations around Toronto and other large Canadian cities ( They use a self-serve method of rental where you pick up a bike from one location and return it to any of their other locations when you are done with it.

Embeddedness: BIXI is embedded within a number of other structures and arrangements. For example, the attitudes towards bike travel in the city impact the number of people who use the system. Also, the road and bike lane system both impact the ability of people to utilize the service. .

Transparency: The system is designed to be transparent and easy to use. You purchase a membership so that you don’t have to pay every time and station locations are advertised throughout the city as well as online. The mechanics of how the process of payment works becomes secondary to the use of the system.

Reach or Scope: BIXI has both spatial and temporal scope. The network extends throughout most of the downtown core, and users are able (and encouraged) to make use of the service on multiple occasions.

Learned as part of membership: One of the reasons that I have personally never used the service is my unfamiliarity with the locations of all the rental locations. It seems that once you have learned the structure of the infrastructure you would be much better able to estimate things like whether it would be appropriate for a particular trip, the length and price of a particular rental, etc.

Embodiment of Standards: BIXI uses other infrastructures such as Facebook and Twitter to share news, Google maps to display online location information,  and credit card information for payments.  

Built on an installed base: BIXI uses the road system in Toronto, and many of its locations correspond to existing transportation hubs such as TTC stops.

Becomes visible upon breakdown: The payment options allowing you to borrow a bike that are normally invisible would upon breakdown become visible. If you could not pay for your rental, the bikes would remain locked and you would not be able to use BIXI for your trip.

TTC: Embeddedness and Membership


Sunday, November 25, 2012 by

To continue the conversation about the TTC, I am particularly interested in Star’s assertion that “one person’s infrastructure is another’s topic, or difficulty” (p. 380). I have recently witnessed a friend who just moved here attempt to navigate the TTC’s complex grid of buses, streetcars, and subway trains. Getting places efficiently and on time can be a real source of anxiety for them, and a successful trip to the Beaches warrants many congratulations. At this point, the transit system poses great difficulty to my friend, and every bit of information offered by the TTC is important to their use of and knowledge about it.

When one is first learning to navigate the city by public transit, many aspects of the infrastructure are visible. One will consult bus schedules by phone and online, will rely on route maps to tell them which way is north or south, and will ask about fare prices or obtaining transfers. On the other hand, for those who are well-acquainted with the system, it has become “embedded”.  For Star, “infrastructure is sunk into and inside of other structures, social arrangements, and technologies. People do not necessarily distinguish the several coordinated aspects” (p. 381). Committed Torontonians automatically incorporate travel time into their daily activities, so that the various elements of the TTC disappear into work schedules, leisure time (i.e. reading the paper), and other social structures.

The difficulties that new TTC users face also relate to Star’s notion that infrastructure is “learned as part of membership” (p. 381). As previously mentioned, while seasoned users may take route information, signage, and travel times for granted, outsiders require knowledge of each of these elements in order to understand how the system works. There is a sense that being well-acquainted with the TTC and feeling like a true citizen of Toronto are inextricably linked. One may start by paying by the trip or purchasing tokens, but once one decides that they will save money and travel easier by purchasing a monthly pass, it's as if they have truly mastered the system. This is just one example, but it serves to show how infrastructure contributes to one’s appropriation of a particular information structure.  

Finally, as much as the infrastructure becomes embedded to frequent TTC users, it does also become visible upon breakdown. When one budgets just enough time to get somewhere and then long delays occur, for instance, it can be a great source of frustration and even throw off their entire day. While Torontonians are well-adapted to the TTC, there is no shortage of people who claim that it is a terrible system, especially since it breaks down a lot. That being said, I think Jesse wanted to talk more about this so I’ll leave it at that. 

The TTC and the Presto Card



For this week’s posts, my group and I are collaborating on our group member, Christopher Yasin’s post, on the ethnography of infrastructure, specifically that of the TTC.  Therefore, in using the TTC as a case study we are choosing Option 2 of the mini assignment.

Christopher makes some interesting points.  He states for example that “issues of interoperability between older delivery systems and newer information processing units could result in an information system that may not work”.  I want to expand on this statement by discussing the addition of the Presto Card to the TTC subway system.  The Presto Card is an electronic, reloadable fare card with an RFID chip.  PRESTO is supposed to make it easier to pay your fare while travelling within and between different transit agencies by the simple tap of a card; it is essentially intended to integrate fares across the GTA, Ottawa and Hamilton transit systems.  The system calculates the fare for your trip and deducts it from the balance stored on your card – all in less than a second.

The Presto Card is more effective when applied to the GO Transit and some bus lines (depending on the region) but when integrated into the TTC it has proven to be quite a challenge for some commuters.  For one thing, Presto devices are available at all Go stations but not at all TTC subway stations; this includes the readers, customer service outlets and self service kiosks.  The Presto Card has proved problematic in that commuters have reported that it has deducted the wrong fare amount when tapped, has many troubleshooting issues, and there are different guidelines on how to use it depending on which transit system you are using, where you are going, and if your card has been set on a default trip – it is not as simple as just tapping your card on and off your trip.  Moreover, it is taking too long to roll out as it is expected to be fully integrated into the TTC by 2015.  The long roll out is apparently due to political issues, i.e. the TTC Union.

I think the Presto Card is a great example of a new information processing unit that is combined with an older delivery system; one where not only technology but social, political, and organizational factors impact its interoperability.  For some commuters, the Presto Card is a failed process.  Maybe by putting more consideration into the social, political and organizational factors that affect the Presto Card, it could become more effective for subway riders.


Goodreads Ethnography


Saturday, November 24, 2012 by

Goodreads is an online social cataloguing tool that enables users to register books and create individualized shelves to intellectually organize their collections. Shelves are fully customizable so that users can delineate function (e.g. read, currently reading, to-read), chronology (e.g. read in 2011, read in 2012, read for undergraduate), genre (e.g. science fiction, romance, non-fiction), or any other personalized organizational system that is appropriate for and appealing to the specific user. Additionally, users are able to rate and review books, create reading goals, vote on book lists, and enable a recommendation mechanism that suggests reading material based on the user’s existing preferences and ratings. Goodreads is a highly social environment, enabling “friending” similar to Facebook so that feed activity is present on the user’s dashboard; forums, groups, internal messaging, and wall commenting are likewise part of the website.
As such, Goodreads is potentially tailored to a diverse user base. The cataloguing function is not dependent on the social aspect, and as a result some users will completely neglect friending, commenting, reviewing, and otherwise communicating, instead utilizing the site solely for organizational purposes. In this respect, the emotive component is minimized for a certain number of users, since relations between users are not necessarily the primary focus of this group.
However, my own anecdotal experience with Goodreads indicates that much of the site’s community is very active. Because the site’s catalogue is comprehensive, it is not tailored to any specific subset of the reading community (e.g. academics, purveyors of “serious” literature, science fiction enthusiasts, Twihards, etc.); rather, the only demographic that Goodreads is limited to is that of those who enjoy reading, however voraciously or infrequently. Consequently, the emotions related to the communication occurring on Goodreads are diverse, but generally dialectic in nature. Debates arise over reviews, usually those that are polarizing, and the commenting functionality can spawn long conversations about the merits and pitfalls of particular novels. My own experience has proven very positive; while debate and disagreement is frequent, trolling is minimal. Emotive relations can be characterized as occasionally charged and opinionated, but usually inoffensive and respectful, and ultimately the website encourages topical conversations relating to the user’s area of reading interest, whatever it may be. The user is able to engage with only selected material and chosen fellow users, perhaps accounting for the low levels of trolling and the communal atmosphere.
In terms of relating to the study, the underlying purpose of Goodreads, regardless of the handy cataloguing functionality and social networking, is nonetheless commercial. Books are linked to Amazon, and thus any positive reviews or conversation literally enable users to impulsively purchase the material immediately. The emotive relations involving dialectic discussion allow for easy purchasing, a commercialized theme that seems somewhat antithetical to the library-esque cataloguing of the site’s structure. In studying this further, the private nature of Goodreads accounts would pose problems for methodology; like Facebook, profiles, communication, and reviews can be made private, barring outsiders from access. While many reviews, and conversations stemming from those reviews, are public, this feature would still limit researchers, and perhaps would encourage a highly ethnographic, participative approach.

Mini-Ethnography of TTC


Friday, November 23, 2012 by

This blog is the continuity of the last week’s blog from my team member titled “Readings week 11”.  He talked about TTC system as an information system. Here I use Star’s framework to analyze the ethnographic aspects of TTC as an infrastructure.
Embeddedness. The TTC is a transit system serving city of Toronto. The system is tucked into the structure of the city of Toronto. The TTC buses have to run on the roads and streets, which are part of the city.
Transparency. For TTC users, they take buses or trains to travel in the city. The routes and schedule are publicly advised on the website or on the post. The users only need to know where to get off and where to make transfers. They do not have to know the how the schedule is made. For TTC workers, especially for those who make schedules, the system appears more transparent.
Reach or scope. The TTC users not only need to access to the physical TTC maps or paper based schedules, but also have access to those information online. The users can also subscribe the SMS service to access to the most current information about bus arrivals and departures.
Learned as part of membership. The new employees will get training to become familiar with TTC system. Such as the information technology they used, policies and procedure, etc. The employees are trying to overcome the strangeness in the workplace.
Links with conventions of practice. TTC system shapes and is shaped by its conventions. In TTC system, you only need to pay once and you can get on a few buses by showing your transfers. It is convention for TTC, which is hard to change. If the customers were asked to pay every time they got on the bus, it would have caused huge objection from the community it serves.
Embodiment of standards.  TTC system has built on certain standards. There are standards for the bus, drivers and working conditions.
Built on an installed base.  TTC system is built upon city civic system. It was not as big as what it is today.  It grows every year with the increasing demand.
Becomes visible upon breakdown. When TTC is running smoothly, people did not realize the works behind the system. When TTC was on trike some years ago, people started to realize how important TTC was and TTC started to be listed as essential services for the city.
Is fixed in modular increments, not all at once or globally. The city of Toronto is a large city and TTC system is one of the biggest transit systems. We are not able to upgrade system all at once. For example, the city needs to make 5-year plan to upgrade the buses, trains and subway facilities gradually.
Overall, TTC is a perfect infrastructure for ethnographic studies.

Ethnograpy of the Internet


Tuesday, November 20, 2012 by

In Hine’s article “How can qualitative Internet researchers define the boundaries of their project?”,  he brought up the debate about ethnography  in research design though the Internet. Instead of assuming that the Internet is a place and can be considered a field site for ethnographers, he agrees that the Internet can be seen as tool, place and way of being that offers different methodological choices. Ethnography is important in establishing the cultural context on the Internet which is considered as part of everyday life.  Beaulieu argues that there is much continuity between virtual ethnographies and more conventional and fundamental ethnographic principles. Virtual ethnographers tend to conduct multi-sited research. According to Hine, ethnography of the Internet is about mobility between contexts of production and use, and between online and offline, and the deployment of forms of engagement to observe the how these sites are socially constructed. He concerns the studies that illuminate the social dynamics at the centre of the technology. “The key to this insight is immersion, not necessarily through being a particular field site, but by engaging in relevant practices wherever they might be found.”

Defining Boundaries


Monday, November 19, 2012 by

As I read through the Hine article on defining technological and internet boundaries of ethnographic research I found myself skeptical of the broad boundary scope: offline/online, between sites, institutions, web developers etc. The boundaries are so wide that it seems to be getting beyond the point of any meaningful analysis. However in the conclusion Hine acknowledges many of the limitations of widening boundaries- it should be practical and allow for depth and engagement. I left the article slightly less skeptical as a result the explanation on TouchGraph Google Browser- a visualization tool which shows how site networks. As well, the article on twitter gathered a huge amount of data on different users that I would not have thought possible. Basically these references to online data collections and tools made me aware of my lack of knowledge of what types of data and how much can be collected from the internet. 

Also, if anyone is interested in exploring multi-sited ethnographies, a methodology I always liked was called: "follow the thing." The basic concept is to follow commodities and see what meanings people attach to these objects. 

Embeddedness and Culture



Star's The Ethnography of Infrastructure is a difficult text for me. This feels like my fiftieth read through; after applying it to a project last year, I thought I had a handle on it, but I revisit it again for this class, and am just as confused.

I understand her concepts in theory, but once I try to apply them to something, to an actual infrastructure, it all starts getting a little fuzzy. I'm not completely sure why this is, but I have an inkling that it may have something to do with her idea about embeddedness. According to Star, infrastructure is embedded; it's hidden, invisible, underlying the system. Thus, for the initiated at least, it's the taken-for-granted, the assumed. I find it hard to critique something that I subscribe to, at least tacitly; my perspective is limited, I only have a part of the picture because I can't get past the embeddedness.

Following her notion that infrastructure becomes visible (and thus not so embedded) upon breakdown, up until that breakdown I feel somewhat in the dark. Facebook is an excellent, if over used, example. Prior to the changes in the timeline feature, or any of the previous site redesigns for that matter, I would be hard-pressed to dissect it's assumptions, limitations, and embedded infrastructure. But now, having experienced the infrastructure overhaul with the introduction of timeline, I can better analyze the previous design and it's core assumptions; I can use it as a comparison, at the very least. Moreover, when timeline was first introduced, I was abuzz with criticism, concern, and critiques (issues of privacy, security, chronology, representation, ad nauseum), but's again in the background, thoroughly embedded in the routine of my mundane, online existence.

Star only touches upon the cultural ramifications of this, but I think it's a significant contributing factor to the embeddedness. Once infrastructure becomes culturally embedded, the culture reinforces the embeddedness; it's cyclical and self-reliant; I don't question Facebook's infrastructure because Facebook is omnipresent in my social life. For us out here, whose research interests exist far away from the realm of technological infrastructure, how do we get outside of the embeddedness? How do we gain the perspective to see past it?

Twitter: Spammers vs. Users



Information infrastructure involves, among other things, the people that support the creation, use, and dissemination of information in a given system. That being said, it also involves the people who would destroy that information, or tear down/subvert the system, and the tools, processes, etc., that allow them to do so.

After reading the article on "Detecting spam in a Twitter network", I became very interested in the ways in which spammers adapt to various information networks and infrastructures. The aspects of Twitter that make it so appealing to users - the aggregation of "trending" topics, the simple dissemination of links, and the ability to "follow" people without permission - are the same aspects that allow spammers to infiltrate it. As the study shows, there is not much difference between a user account and a spam account on Twitter, though there may be small ways to detect hazardous accounts.

The network analysis method employed by the authors seems to have been quite effective at separating out these small differences. It is interesting to see the implications that this type of analysis can have for better informed system design. When we know about the ways in which a network or system is abused by users, can't we adjust the design in order to thwart their attempts? On the one hand, there is the sense that spammers will always find a way to persist; they are invariably part of the infrastructure. On the other, this type of research can help a network or system to evolve, and to set up provisions.

My technical knowledge is limited, but in the case of Twitter, it seems as though bad link detection or "automatic follow" detection could be employed. This is along the lines of the means used by the authors to detect spammers. I'm not completely sure if I know what I'm talking about. I also realize that it is difficult to adjust the system or infrastructure too much, because you run the risk of discouraging real users as well. 



Sunday, November 18, 2012 by

The study of infrastructure appears complex, and my understanding of it is only slightly clearer after reading Star’s article.  Star explains infrastructure as ‘invisible, part of the background for other kinds of work’ (p. 4).  She also states that infrastructure is a relational concept and that one person’s infrastructure is another’s topic, or difficulty (p. 4).  This can be mystifying, how do you know, for instance, if you are dealing with an infrastructure within your study?  To clarify this, Star further defines infrastructure as having specific properties including embeddedness, transparency and links with conventions of practice, to name just a few (p. 4-6).  She also offers some tricks of the trade based on her own experiences in studying infrastructures (p. 8-11).

I definitely see the importance of studying infrastructures, in that it provides a complete picture to whatever you are investigating, but I am still confused on how it should be studied.  After reading another one of my classmate’s post, outside of my blog group, one of their questions really resonated with me; that is how do you study technological infrastructure when you have a limited knowledge of technology yourself?  This is certainly my problem, I’m just not tech-savvy!

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