My mobile ethnography toolkit

I try to avoid driving between my field sites, though it is quite a long trip on the bus.

Fellow ethnographers, how do you use technology in the field? I have only had a smartphone for the past three months and a tablet for two weeks, but so far I have found both of them indispensable for collecting data in my field sites (two Chinese language schools in the Los Angeles area).

I am drawn to Tricia Wang’s idea of writing “live fieldnotes” but the way she uses technology in her work is not feasible for me because I work with minors. For privacy and other ethical reasons, I cannot and do not upload pictures of students or the school sites to the Internet, and I do not feel comfortable sharing accounts of what happened in the field so openly on the Internet.

Instead of documenting and sharing as widely as Wang does, I use technological tools to facilitate the types of data collection that ethnographers have been doing for decades.

The gadgets

1. A smartphone

Image by Siddhartha Thota.

I was too frugal to get a smartphone until I realized how valuable it could be for the type of work that I do. I use it to take “jottings” in the field, snap quick pictures of scenes to jog my memory, and record interviews. I have an iPhone 4S but a cheaper Android phone with a fast processor will do perfectly. A phone that is too slow will just bog you down, especially if you work in a fast-paced, constantly-changing environment like a school.

Using a smartphone in public is not always appropriate. For example, I wouldn’t use a smartphone if I were sleeping in a homeless encampment, but if I were researching youth culture in the San Gabriel Valley I’d be on Instagram all day.

My two field sites serve communities on opposite ends of the socioeconomic spectrum, and the appropriateness of typing away on a smartphone varies accordingly. In the middle-class site, pretty much everyone is on their smartphone (even some of the students) and I blend right into the background. In the working-class site, however, whipping out an iPhone in the middle of class makes me look both inattentive and conspicuously wealthy, so I try to use my phone as little as possible.

2. A tablet computer

I used to think that a tablet computer was a frivolous luxury, but since acquiring one I’ve found it to be indispensable for my life as a graduate student. Reading PDFs on the iPad 3 is a joy, and the limited multitasking abilities help me stay focused on the task at hand. In field situations where it does not stick out too much, it can also be extremely useful. Recently, I was at an administrative meeting at the middle class school site where I could sit down and take detailed notes with the iPad and a Bluetooth keyboard. The iPad and keyboard combination is much lighter than my laptop (which was under repair, in any case) and with wi-fi will sync to the cloud.

The apps

1. A cloud-based mobile backup solution

A cloud-based mobile backup solution is essential for everything I do, since I work on a number of different devices that I own as well as campus computers and borrowed laptops. Dropbox (free, with the option to pay for more space) helps keep everything in sync, and has been especially helpful this weekend when my computer was in the shop. I was able to borrow my sister’s laptop, scan some documents I collected in the field, upload them to Dropbox, and annotate them on my iPad.

2. A note-taking app

Some actual jottings of a conversation I overheard. I took these notes on an iPad but took this screenshot on an iPhone.

I use the pre-installed iOS Notes app for what Emerson et al. call “jottings,” or quick notes taken in the field to jog your memory when you write fieldnotes later. The Notes app has completely replaced the pocket notebooks I used to use. It syncs through iCloud to all iDevices and Macs running OS X Mountain Lion. At the meeting this weekend, I typed most of my notes on my iPad and some more on my iPhone when I stepped away from the table for a bit. When I came back to a space with wi-fi, I could see all of my notes on both devices. If I had my laptop with me, it would have been synced onto there as well.
Some people like Evernote (free, with the option to pay for more space and bandwidth) for organizing notes, but I find it to be slow and prone to crashes and have not been able to integrate it into my workflow very well.

3. An audio recording app

iTalk Premium Recorder.

I have not found an audio recording app for iOS that I could rave about. That said, iTalk Recorder Premium ($1.99) certainly beats lugging around my heavy laptop and running Audacity on it for recording interviews. You can choose between three recording qualities and smaller files will sync to Dropbox. For longer files, unfortunately, you need to use the slow companion app for Windows of Mac or iTunes file sharing. iTalk saves in the ancient, space-hogging AIFF format that takes forever to upload.

If anyone knows of an affordable, simple to use iOS app that syncs to Dropbox and saves in MP3, please let me know! There is also a voice recording app that comes with iOS, but I do not use it because I prefer to keep my field data away from iTunes (more on this later).

4. A camera app

This is not from my field site, but I often will take pictures of documents like this one that I cannot take home with me.

I use the iOS native camera app for taking quick snapshots of scenes from the field. Since I’m not concerned about photo quality or aesthetic value, and am constantly trying to be as discreet as possible when taking these kinds of photos, the native camera app is perfect.
5. A dictionary app


A dictionary is indispensable if you are working with populations that do not speak a language with which you are 100% comfortable. For Chinese, I like Pleco (free) with its comprehensive dictionary and paid optical character recognition add-on ($14.95 before the educational discount). I also like Qingwen ($4.99), which will pronounce things for me in Cantonese and is also searchable in the jyutping Cantonese transcription system.

Data management

I prefer to keep all of my field data separate from my personal data, both because I want to protect the privacy of my respondents and because I believe in a general separation of work and personal life. Unfortunately, Apple designs its products to automatically keep all of your data together. Thankfully, the workarounds I use are simple:

  • Photos – I try to keep the photos from going into iCloud’s Photo Stream, uploading them directly into Dropbox instead. If they go into the Photo Stream before I have a chance to do this, it’s a simple matter of deleting them from there.
  • Audio – iTalk does not sync to iTunes, which is wonderful for data management purposes. However, I still end up sending files through iTunes to convert them to MP3, which saves space in my Dropbox. After the conversion I delete the files off of iTunes.
  • Notes – I do not archive my jottings. I delete my jottings from the Notes app immediately after I write my field notes. Because of the “in the moment” nature of jottings, they don’t tend to make much sense later on, anyway.