On data collection: notes from a transport survey gone rouge

Haunting interviews with transport drivers and commuters are found from direct contact. Are digital datasets going divorce some analysts from the particular nature of respondents?

I’m reading through some notes and reflecting on a study I did in 2015. It’s at very final stages starting from a 70 page report to now, hopefully a 25 page study (who is counting?). There are a few haunting experiences that the numbers won’t tell. Especially the facial expressions of being interviewed, eyes with glimmers of comfort and fear. At the same time I remember the helping hands, long talkers and rude characters in the hot sun. There’s just something about that experience that keeps floating back: faces.

The 31 year old lady who looked for work by bus 4 days a week

Approaching respondents is not easy. Choosing is not much of an option when doing a survey. My approach is to focus on faces and eye contact. People become more legible and in most cases honest enough to participate or negate the opportunity. She was traveling to Magogoe from Mahikeng’s Mega City Bus Terminal when there was some shelter for commuters. Her face was calm and concerned. Somewhere between anxiety and responsibility. Our conversation started with why she was out of work, and how could a town this small grow. Her primary concerns were the seemingly challenging net of retrenchment and related costs of getting back on ones feet. I remember the hope I’m her voice, but it was probably in her bag for a rainy day.

The mature man who said more than he knew

Two assistants were on the ground with me that day. We practiced interviewing, they were okay for both the technical parts and the discussions. One thing I noticed was a man walking toward the bus stop in a black ‘dops’, lunch box at hand. He was probably in his late forties. Skin tight from the harsh sun, eyes were brown and red from years of dust. Deep tones followed every word he chose meticulously. There was a lot to read from his face. Bus services were not pleasant in his view, but that was all there was. All he could afford on a monthly basis. I’d say the discussion was emotionally charged. At some point he kept asking why we were doing this research thing. My answers had to describe the intimate relationships universities should have with communities and global debates.

Why it’s important to do some interviews yourself in transport

Yes, mobile applications and intelligent transport systems store large datasets that enable simple and complex analytics. An interesting example that mixes behavioural issues with certain propensities is when Keith Chen presented a TED Talk about how saving patterns vary by how the structure certain languages in a region treat time (past , present and future tenses).

This theme reverberates Noam Chomsky’s linguistic thesis which postulated that language is the kernel in behavioural and cognitive processes through which expressions are processed and articulated (this is how I remember it). His approach was to listen to speak patterns, as is in linguistic research. Keith’s approach used a large dataset. Both approaches provide interesting and valuable responses. However, the nature of the relationship between the unit value of the project and the participants are genuinely different. Large, digital datasets are exciting, robust and provide avenues to expand the depth and detail of the research we do (i.e. audio based analytical techniques). I acknowledge that these processes are valuable. It’s just that in some cases, it may be appropriate to have a more tactile, direct and connected surveying approach — especially at pilot study level.

As an analyst it is important to have a deep reflective period through other mediums in order to rearrange the cognitive relationship between the project, problems, the analyst, objectivity and other particulars. These small emotive elements provide the make up and tone related to locality, value and meaning. Somewhere between the analyst, respondents and readers, sentient textures should be sustained and reflected.

Manifestations of sentience are found in the epistemology of how respondents, policy and theoretical positions are translated in the material.

Sometimes, conferences, and journals do not facilitate the complete projection of themes. Which in turn may induce analysts to formulate projects, represent themes and articulate findings in a manner that is palatable on a two dimensional form. I’m obviously leaning toward questioning the physical dimensions of research in general. For this piece, however I’m concerned with the conceptual multidimensionality which may be easy to reject in a positivist arena.

How I ponder over this contact between analysts and reality.

Why is this not the norm in transportation research generally?

Not sure, but one thing I am sure about is that status-pressures to publish-or-perish in intellectual culture seem to be [a] facilitating the mushrooming of predatory academic platforms, [b] misconduct through rushing and [c] strange practices. Greater fabrication and even more asymmetrical convictions will emerge in as post-truth tactics are treated as if different from demagoguery.

It is important to have some decent contact with respondents in a research project, that way — at least for me — I have the room to reflect in a tactile and practical way. Intermediate data collection has the benefits of scale, but should be supported by a good framework for piloting transport research — or something in between.

…illustration or illusion of the interceptive nature of data collection in transport although there are so many issues to capture.

We are either going to illustrate the reality representatively or we’re going to reflect illusions without the fun of abstraction.

There are certainly more options in the data collection space. My interest is in how Being Average Humans <BAH> we attempt to theorize an interpretation through models, philosophies and other sources of representation. Sources stem from literature, or observation — which informs an heuristic literature along with intuition. Volumes of literature are developed from learning other human beings doing performing average or non-average tasks. Data collection is in my view that little snippet, even if we collect continuously — were catching a glimpse of the art of life. It is an exciting time now to have greater access to data, large datasets with all kinds of information. At the same time, I’m concerned that we may loose some degree of important contact to inform our philosophies.

Perhaps I’m wondering if we may find ourselves dancing to intellectual tunes composed by algorithms or those orchestrated through people and place rhythms found in sentient contact<not sure how reasonable this is grammatically>. In retrospect, it’s rather satisfying to reflect on the surveying experience, long for the contact, while translating it to the status quo.

Thank you so much for getting up to this point. Hope you enjoyed the piece. If you’re keen touch base on twitter on @hlulanioh ❤️; leave a comment; applaud or be appalled!

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