Rachel Shadoan Muses

What Ethnographers Do: Data Management

One of the greatest challenges for ethnographers is what to do with all of the data we collect. In addition to the physical notebooks full of scratch notes, we also have lots of digital data–from audio recordings of interviews to photographs taken during observations to the field notes we write up after an interaction with participants. Organizing and securely storing the data is a difficult proposition; how can we arrange things so that we can find them, but so that they will still be safe? These are the solutions we’ve implemented for this project.

Moving Data Into the Cloud

Nothing makes me more nervous than only having one copy of a document. I am a big fan of frequent backups, or, even better, letting someone else worry about the persistence of my documents. Enter Google Documents. If you’re not familiar with Google Documents, it’s definitely worth a look. For simple (read: not flashy) office processing tasks, Google Documents provides a solid set of free tools, and allows you to store your documents on Google’s servers. This has numerous advantages.

Safety: Protect your files from hard drive failure

Hard drives are vulnerable, and laptop harddrives are particularly so. Drop them one too many times, get them a little too close to a refrigerator magnet, spill some soda on them, and in a blink, your precious data is gone. I much prefer to store my data on someone else’s servers. Google’s servers are the lifeblood of their business–if those servers fail catastrophically, Google loses catastrophic amounts of money. So they hire loads of people to look after the health and wellbeing of Google’s servers to ensure that no such thing happens. Because Google and my interests as far as server reliability are in line, I feel very comfortable storing my documents there.

Security: No need to transfer via insecure physical media

Storing documents there also means that you can access them from any computer with an internet connection, removing the need for potentially insecure physical storage devices. Flash drives (aka pen or thumb or jump drives) are very handy, it’s true, but not only are they easy to misplace–a data security nightmare–but they are also notorious for transmitting viruses from one computer to another.

Sharing: Easily share documents with other researchers across the world

In an increasingly global society, researchers often end up collaborating remotely. Instead of emailing back and forth different versions of a document, Google Documents allows you to share a single document and edit it simultaneously and collaboratively.

For this project, we are storing all of our field notes on password-protected Google Documents. However, Google Documents is not the only cloud service we are using; we are also using the WordPress servers to facilitate our data management. Our audio, video, and image files are stored privately on our WordPress project blog, which offers the same advantages I described above. For this project we are not using Flickr, but it is also a fantastic cloud service that will help you protect your pictures for posterity.

File Naming for Fun and Profit

When you have many, many files that have to be organized, it’s important to be methodical in their naming. The convention we are using for this project is as follows:


(Researcher’s intials are only required if only one researcher is involved in the creation of the file, as in the second example below in which I recorded audio).

Since that’s a little opaque, here’s a couple of examples:

Field Note File: LucasBowser_15Jun2010_RTW_Dundee
Audio File: LucasBowserAudio_15Jun2010_RTW_Dundee_RS

Note that we never use a participant’s real name in the naming of a file–it is always the participant’s psuedonym.

Speaking of psuedonyms, let’s talk about how we keep track of all of the folks we talk to.

Participant Psuedonyms and Tracking Database

Alicia and I are using a particularly fun mechanism for arriving at participant psuedonyms for this project. Each participant gets one name from a video game character. Their other name is something evocative for us. We spend a little bit of time discussing the names we choose so that we both understand the thought process behind the name selection, and then the name becomes a memory tool for us, encapsulating more information.

For instance, if I were to develop a psuedonym for Alicia, I might come up with something like, “Lara Chopin”.

Lara comes from Lara Croft, an image of whom is currently Alicia’s computer’s desktop wallpaper. I’ve also seen Alicia dress up as Lara Croft from time to time (for Halloween or other fancy dress occasions). Further, Lara is similar to Laurey, the name of the heroine from the musical Oklahoma, which is a nod to Alicia’s birthplace.

Chopin was an intensely creative Polish pianist and composer, which pays homage to Alicia’s creativity but also to her heritage.

So, as the researcher, I would read “Lara Chopin” on a file name, and immediately remember that this is the Polish-American participant from Oklahoma who is very creative, and kind of a badass. It’s a helpful memory device.

However, this all needs to be recorded somewhere. So we have created a participant tracking database (as a spreadsheet on Google Docs, naturally) that maps the participant’s name to their psuedonym, and indicates whether they are all squared away on ethical and field note fronts.

Participant Tracking Database

One comment on “What Ethnographers Do: Data Management

  1. Bob Williams
    December 15, 2010

    I’m not sure Google provides sufficient safeguards to protect subjects from harm, as I’ve noted their services are not encrypted. University-supplied blackberry mobiles in conjunction with encrypted PC’s is likely to provide a higher level of data protection.

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