How to piss off the subjects of your research study

Everyone who had the opportunity to do so pointed out that we were just a few blocks from one of Beirut’s Hezbollah-controlled neighborhoods. But we were also just a couple blocks from a Starbucks, snuggled comfortably in a new shopping center with more security guards than window shoppers. Over the next couple weeks such juxtapositions would form the basis of how I viewed most aspects of Beirut. On the second floor of the Hazmieh Rotana Hotel – catering to foreigners, the wealthy, and anyone who enjoys snail-paced internet connections – Razan Ghazzawi was getting a little worked up. Ghazzawi, a highly respected and sometimes hot-tempered Syrian blogger, was criticizing the Berkman Center for Internet and Society for a study they published in July of 2009, a “mapping of the Arabic blogosphere.”

It soon became clear that Ghazzawi’s frustration and downright anger about the study stemmed less from its findings (which were, by all accounts, rather self-evident for anyone who has paid much attention to blogs from the region over the years), but rather from how they conducted the study and the labels they used to categorize networks of bloggers from throughout the region:

This whole labeling issue is first very simplistic and second it does not really help anyone to understand the Arab blogsphere as it is self-representing itself. Bloggers are not anti-homosexuality merely because they’re Muslims, and Islam is certainly not the reason why they’re anti-homosexuality. Moreover, if these bloggers were representing themselves as “Muslims against homosexuality,” doesn’t that mean that they, too, are reformists? Who is a reformist? And who decides so?

No one likes to be placed into a narrow box, especially when that categorization comes from a group of outsiders, and even more so when that group of outsiders comes from an elite research center at the wealthiest university in the world’s most powerful country. To truly understand the Arab blogosphere one would need to facilitate a conversation among both Arab bloggers and outsiders who have been observing the space for years. But most researchers don’t seek to facilitate conversation so much as produce seemingly authoritative papers that are widely cited at academic conferences. The co-authors of the Arab blogosphere research study would have been well served to have paid a visit to fellow Harvard researcher, Howard Gardner of the GoodWork Project. Part of his research looks at ways to overcome the inevitable problem of individuals who hoard expertise. He distinguishes between social and antisocial expertise, noting that antisocial expertise often benefits the individual while social expertise benefits the entire institution, and even entire networks of individuals and institutions:

Antisocial expertise has a more complicated side. There is an inherent inequality of knowledge and skill between expert and nonexpert. Antisocial expertise emphasizes the sheer fact of invidious comparison. One obvious consequence of emphasizing inequality is the humiliation and resentment this expert can arouse in others; a more subtle consequence is to make the expert himself or herself feel embattled.

I am sure that all four co-authors of the study felt embattled after reading Ghazzawi’s harsh critique, just as Ghazzawi felt resentment at their antisocial expertise and at the extensive resources at their hands to conduct this research. Still, it must be pointed out that the Berkman Center is light years ahead of most research centers when it comes to sharing information. Their study of the Arab blogosphere after all was written for a pretty specific audience: the United States Department of State. In 2007 the Berkman Center was given a $1.5 million grant by the State Department to “examine how the Internet influences democratic norms and modes, including its impact on civil society, citizen media, government transparency, and the rule of law, with a focus on the Middle East.” Hence the politically charged labels applied to Arab bloggers.

This type of highly paid, commissioned research is commonplace. The State Department needed to better understand Middle Eastern cyberspace in order to meet their diplomatic objectives and so they commissioned the Berkman Center to do the research for them. The Berkman Center should be applauded for publishing the resulting research publicly and disseminating it via blog posts, Twitter, and conference presentations. (Though they could have been more transparent about who was funding the study.) But it is time to open up the research process even further and encourage the expertise of individuals across the network. Had they done so, ideally Razan Ghazzawi would have shared her extensive knowledge of the Arab blogosphere with the researchers. And if she didn’t, well, then she wouldn’t have a right to complain about the final study and its conclusions.

A New Model of Media Research

At Global Voices we were recently commissioned by Open Society Institute’s Information Program and the Omidyar Network to help them gain a better understanding of the current state of online technology projects that increase transparency, government accountability, and civic engagement in Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, South Asia, China, and Central & Eastern Europe. They could have gone about this the traditional way and contracted two or three well established academics to sit in their offices, poring over dozens of websites, conducting a few interviews, and eventually publishing a lengthy white paper to be distributed at academic conferences and stuffed away in ivory tower filing cabinets.

Instead we built a network of regional researchers – experts in their field and region – and a platform that enables collaborative participation from anyone with an interest in better understanding the impact, effectiveness, and sustainability of technology projects that aim to improve governance. I don’t pretend to know all the best metrics to measure the impact and success of these projects, but I do feel confident that by opening up this research to the larger public we will be able to come up with better parameters to think about the projects’ impact online, in government, and in civil society.

I couldn’t be happier with our team of researchers, advisors, and with the amazing Drupal-based platform built by Dan Braghis and Gleb Kanunnikau. So far we have published eight case studies – all complete with audio or video podcasts (you can subscribe to the podcast via iTunes here). Over the next ten weeks we will publish thirty more case studies and a number of blog posts looking at the intersection of transparency and technology.

Promoting Research Collaboration and Cross-Platform Data

Back in October of last year, after attending the Salzburg Global Seminar on “Strengthening Independent Media”, I stressed the importance of promoting more collaboration between media funders, media researchers, and media development workers. All three groups want to gain a better understanding of media’s role in a country’s governance and development, and yet all three groups tend to seek that understanding in isolation.

Last month, in the hope of encouraging better coordinated research on media development, Open Society Institute hosted a meeting of major donors, researchers and project implementers to discuss some of the challenges facing media research. Anne Nelson, an advisor for the Technology for Transparency Network, was at the meeting and documented it on MediaShift. There seemed to be consensus around the obvious – that we need more in-country research about the impact of media, especially digital media – but few ideas about next steps forward. CIMA has built up an impressive dumping ground of PDFs, but it’s a clunky way to understand the role and impact of media anywhere. IREX’s Media Sustainability Index is a more user-friendly overview of the world, but it still leaves much to be desired. Global Integrity, Audience Scapes (still not launched), and the Mo Ibrahim Foundation are all trying to build more interactive and comprehensive frameworks for thinking about the media’s impact on governance and transparency, but what we lack is integration of that research in ways that inform funders and project implementers where they should focus their time and money.

Fortunately that conversation is starting to take place. There is understanding that we need to have an inclusive conversation about the metrics used to evaluate media projects and their impact on government and society. Also, most researchers seem to now believe that their research should be published in an open space that is publicly available rather than in exclusive and costly academic journals. In the future we need to focus on sharing content and data across platforms. For example, on the Technology for Transparency Network’s website when you click on a country in the map I’d like to see more than just a list of technology projects that we’ve evaluated; I also want some basic contextual information from Wikipedia, Global Integrity, and Audience Scapes.

Similarly, I’d like to see Global Integrity’s country reports not just show analysis and indicators, but also list the projects that we’ve reviewed so that readers have a sense of what is being done to address corruption and where they can lend their support. Their country report for Kenya, for example, should include a section on Kenya-based projects reviewed by the Technology for Transparency Network. We will all need to develop API’s for our platforms before such data sharing becomes the norm, but my hope is that soon enough it will in fact become the norm.