Cycling


The exhibition, as those who’ve seen the fliers will testify, is due to run for a week from, well, yesterday.  This meant that a lot of fun was had in the drizzle on Wednesday and the beautiful sun yesterday morning sloshing wallpaper paste around and generally causing a mess.  I had Colin, Callum and Lovely Pete helping out on Wednesday and it’s completely a coincidence that I’m supervising the MSci projects of two of these guys…

There are some nice photos here of the posters going up.  I need to say a huge thanks to Kevin Burkhill who was kind enough to print out miles of posters for me – lovely work which then got covered in wallpaper paste, one batch of which was made up using rainwater pouring from a downspout on the Arts Building.  On the Wednesday we were stopped by Security once and twice by building managers, but a magic email from Richard, who has been my handler in the Estates Department, waved away all the problems.

Last night and all day today, however, we’ve had driving rain which has obliterated many of the posters in unsheltered spots.  I was hoping to go and salvage some of them, but it seems like a lost cause.  Still the rain continues, but I’ll go out shortly and get some photos of the mashed posters.  Will try reposting some next week when, hopefully, the rain will have stopped.  But it’s a touch Biblical today… but these are the risks you take when trying to do something a little bit off the wall (literally, in the case of many of the posters).  In the meantime, the catalogue can be found here.

Good opportunity to say a big thanks to everyone who has helped out – Corrina our College Marketing & Comms manager, Paul & Richard in Estates, Angie in Security, Kev in the Drawing Office, Dom, Colin, Pete and Callum who all helped put the posters up and, of course, Dan Burwood for taking all the lovely portraits in the first place.  Last and most importantly, thanks to the participants, some of whom were briefly campus celebrities before being beaten down by the rain.  There’s probably a cycling metaphor there somewhere…

Just a quick post before I head up north to do some ethnomethodology (don’t ask) with a hydrologist friend who works at the University of Liverpool.

The cycling exhibition will launch on Thursday 30 September 2010. I’ve given the website a spring clean and you can see details of the exhibition and provisional locations on the new exhibition page.  There should even be some proper publicity, thanks to the kind help of the press office.

On the publications front, I’ve got the reviewers’ comments back for the cartoon.  Generally positive, although I couldn’t help but laugh at the slightly anguished ‘but what would Doreen Massey think’ that emerged from this.  Will get my drawing tablet back out and work on these shortly, so hopefully there should be a fun paper to see relatively soon (ACME, the journal in question, is open access).  We’ve also had a piece accepted for Applied Geography about the Digbeth project and I’ve just sent back the revised cycling-and-senses paper to Environment and Planning D – we’ll see what the reviewers make of it this time.

Of course all of this good progress will come to a grinding halt shortly as term begins again and chaos descends once more…

Just had a meeting with the lovely Paul from the University’s Estates Department.  He seemed pretty relaxed about letting me stick a bunch of poster-sized portraits and maps to the walls of campus.  So all I have to do now is identify the specific sites I’m going to use and get him to sign off on them.  This means not using the Aston Webb, or the complex around the Ashley Building, nor the (thoroughly beautiful) Metallurgy and Materials Building because they’re all listed.  Otherwise I’ve got a (fairly) free hand so long as I use wallpaper paste that can be scrubbed off brick relatively easily.

My task when back from holiday in a week or so will be to wander around, photographing locations that I want to use and work out a walking route between them that’s navigable around the various bits of campus which are currently dug up while the service tunnels are fixed. (Yes, we have service tunnels, but sadly no command and control bunker that I know of).  Target is to run all of this for the last week in September, which coincides with Freshers’ week, meaning that there’ll be lots of people on campus.  Dan will be in Syria, but I’m hoping to persuade him to write something for the exhibition catalogue.

So that’s all fun and exciting.  While I’m here I should also mention the ‘Rhetoric vs. reality in research: mapping theory and practice’ workshop that I went to back on 15 July at Queen Mary’s.  Really nice bunch of people, good mix of postgrads and more experienced staff. Interesting to hang out a bit at QMUL – a real buzz about the place, kinda get a sense of why it’s one of *the* geography departments in the UK.  Anyway, there was a great presentation by Erene Kaptani from the University of East London looking at theatrical performance as a means of engaging with hard to reach groups – lots of exciting overlaps with the ‘body geography’ approaches that I’m increasingly taking.  Another stand out for me was Ant Ince, who was just dotting Is and crossing Ts on his PhD looking at activist research engaging with militant groups (squatters etc).  Great stuff.  I presented the cycling material, all in a bit of a rush sad to say.  Always really interesting to present to a group who don’t engage in mapping or GIS at all – a totally different kind of response to that which I’d get from a group of cartographers, say.  You’ve got to love mixing up graphs with ethnographic data – it just messes with people’s heads.

Can’t believe the summer is so far advanced.  Sent off two RG-related papers so far and will resubmit two other ones once they’re revised – hopefully I’ll be getting the revisions done next week while I’m away at a cottage in a remote part of Scotland with only my laptop for company.  Ah, the writing retreat, it’s the only way to get things done, particularly when you’ve got no wifi or phone reception.  Still waiting to get referees’ comments back on the cartoon paper – apparently the comments exist, but the editor hasn’t yet found time to send them to me.  Hey ho, this is why everything takes such a long time to turn around in academic circles.

First things first, I hooked up with Dan last week to take delivery of the portraits he’s done of the participants in the cycling project.  He’s shot these on medium format, mostly 6×6 though the photo of Nick Crowson that appears on the flier was shot in 6×7.  For the portraits for the Eastside project Dan was using black and white, but he’s chosen to shoot these ones in colour and I have to say, they look pretty fantastic.  I’ll post these up on the main site once the exhibition is over…

…because we are planning to hold the exhibition in the relatively near future, date dependent on which spaces we can get permission to use and when.  Hoping to do this around campus, with 11 portraits by Dan and 11 maps / other visual media produced by me, based on the data produced by the participants.  I have to talk to the Marketing Department about this, apparently, so I’ll say more as soon as I know.  We’re suddenly rushing a bit because Dan is going to be out of the country for 12 months from August, so he’s trying to finish off lots of projects and now that I’m out of the bunker of exam marking, I’ve no excuse for not organising things.

That’s all exciting.  What else?  Back in, oh, April (blimey, where does the time go?) I presented some of the findings of the cycling work at the Association of American Geographers Annual Conference in Washington DC.  I was in a session about bridging the divide between people studying conventional transport geography and those who are working on the ‘mobilities paradigm’.  This makes it sound terribly pretentious, but it was a really interesting session, so thanks go to the lovely Jon Shaw and Jennie Middleton who work at Plymouth, for organising this and letting me ramble on about bikes.  (Jennie, you may remember, organised the Peripatetic Practices workshop that James and I went to a couple of years ago to talk about the Eastside project.)  My paper was based on something I’ve submitted to the journal Environment and Planning D: Society & Space, which has disappeared into the abyss of the reviewing process.  Will chase that up.  I’m also going to give suspiciously similar papers at a workshop on ‘new’ methods in July and at the Cycling and Society conference in Oxford sometime in September.  But that’s fine, because recycling is environmentally friendly…

So as a nice break from the chaos of second semester teaching I popped in to a meeting at Sustrans yesterday.  This invitation came about as a result of one of our students Mike ‘Fists of’ Furey who did a work placement with them over the summer.   Mike happened to mention the RG cycling stuff and I subsequently got a phone call and an invite to one of Sustrans’ technical fora.  It seems that the guy who invited me has since emigrated to Australia, which is a fairly extreme way to avoid sitting through a presentation by me, so respect to that.

Anyway, these technical fora appear to do exactly what they say on the tin – I walked in midway through a very detailed discussion over who precisely has responsibility for tree maintenance along different sustrans cycle routes.  I guess my role was to be the random conversation generator at the end of the day.  Anyway, lots of interesting feedback after the presentation, particularly on the details of the method and how it might be more widely used.  I think there was a bit of horror at the idea that going from an audio recording to a fully coded up transcript takes about a day.  Obviously this is the Rolls Royce way of doing things.  It’s a bit like saying, I can put questionnaire data into Excel in a few hours, but if you want any kind of analysis beyond making a few graphs then it’ll take me a little while – multiple linear regression takes a bit of time and energy.   Similarly, I can get a half hour audio recording into GIS / on a Google Map within two hours, but if you want proper qualitative analysis (rather than just pulling out some interesting quotes) then that does take a while.

Still, lots of food for thought, particularly about opportunities for doing word art projects alongside cycle routes and ways to examine specific issues with infrastructure.

So, to start with the bad news.  Neither James or I were particularly surprised to hear this week that the ESRC turned down our application for Rescue Geography 2, working on the live redevelopment process in Kidderminster (see the ReWyre site for details of the work the council are up to).  Two of the five referees loved it, two thought it was good with a couple of issues which needed resolving and one refereee absolutely hated it, though their objections seemed pretty irrelevant/missing the point.  Ho hum, this is the way things go in academia, particularly with grant funding being slashed at the moment.  It’s a real pity, because we’d have really liked to work with Ken and his team on what’s going to be a really exciting regeneration project.  So it goes.

On the cycling side of things, everything seems to be progressing smoothly.  I hooked up with Dan last week and we agreed the details of the exhibition we’re going to do.  It’s kinda exciting to feel like you’re commissioning art – perhaps I ought to get myself some kind of salon and have gatherings of the bright and the beautiful for the drinking of absinthe and exchange of ideas.  We agreed that this should take place in May, partly to give us time to organise everything and partly so that the weather’s a bit better, which is pretty crucial for something which is primarily going to be held outdoors.  So I’ve given Dan the contact details of all the participants who ticked the box saying they’d be happy to take part in a photography project and I guess we’ll see what happens.

I’m giving this talk on Monday, just an in-house seminar thing, but it’s forced me to really have a good look through the data and see what’s what.  The main thing has been that it’s really forced me to get to grips with some of the higher functions in NVivo, such as being able to analyse stuff by participant characteristics (e.g. gender).  As a result I’ve managed to produced an awful lot of graphs (after an awful lot of swearing trying to work out how to tell NVivo what I wanted it to do).  Just a quick sample of the kind of thing:

A graph showing themes discussed against the gender of the speaker

To produce this I rescaled the actual number of times a theme was mentioned to correct for the fact that there wasn’t a 50-50 split of men and women in the sample, so the numbers on the left hand side are indicative rather than real – otherwise the fact that there were 17 men and 11 women in the sample would have made it harder to identify themes were women commented particularly strongly.  For this graph I’ve picked out specific themes that showed a significant skew towards women.  You can then drill back down into the quotes to see what’s going on, say for example on cycle infrastructure, participant 10 talking about how difficult it is for her to lift the bike up the stairs off the canal at University Station.

I’ve also produced this map

An example of how GPS can be used in a slightly dodgy way

which gives a good example of the ethical issues raised when using GPS with participants.  Clearly I can identify people’s houses from the GPS track (although I exclude these from the maps on the website).  This means that I can map participants homes against, in this example, the Index of Multiple Deprivation and use this as a proxy for social class.  Now at no point did any of the participants sign up for the GPS data to be used in this way so it would be incredibly unethical to take participant’s home’s IMD score and use this as one of the modes of analysis within NVivo.  This particular example isn’t so problematic on this project as most participants live close (i.e. cycling distance) to the Uni and most of the areas around the Uni are pretty uniformally non-deprived, but on a different kind of project it could be a pretty dodgy way to make certain kinds of assumptions about participants.  Obviously with the scale used on this map and the anonymity it’s just illustrating a point rather than bending any ethical rules, but these are the kinds of things you have to think about when engaging in these kinds of technological projects.

Okay, so term has started now and it seemed an appropriate place to stop data collection, with some 28 people having kindly taken part – thanks to all. Since then I’ve been busy starting work on the analysis. On the Digbeth project I left a lot of this to Cosmic, but this time round I’ve been the one who has grappled with NVivo. For those who don’t know, NVivo is a piece of software which allows you to identify patterns, topics of conversation and themes within interview transcripts. Well, actually it does a whole lot more than this, but that’s what I’ve been doing with it.

I’ve not used NVivo since I took a training course back in, heck, early 2001. Back then I kinda saw the point, but didn’t really have an application for it. I got the latest version onto my shiny new computer and put all the interview transcripts in to start work. Almost instantly I was a complete convert – it’s an amazing piece of kit. Unfortunately it does require that you spend a lot of time sitting working through your transcripts. This is mostly pretty tedious – you start to decide a bunch of different categories, highlight text and ‘code’ it into that category. Categories might be, say ‘traffic’ or ‘senses’. Then you refine these, breaking them down into subcategories. So for ‘traffic’ I talked about things like pedestrians, other cyclists, danger and so on. By the time you’ve gone through all your transcripts you’ve got a bunch of different themes identified and you go back through making sure that the first few you did are coded against the themes you’ve identified by the end.

Like I said, pretty tedious.

What you get at the end, however, is a really interesting breakdown of what people were talking about and the common themes that keep emerging. This is particularly interesting on a project like this one where I didn’t give the participants any guidance about what to talk about aside from “what’s going through your head as you ride”. It’s a good way of starting to find out what kinds of things are really important when cycling. Or when commuter cycling at least. You can also analyse these things against the characteristics of your participants. This allows you to answer questions such as whether women and older people talk about ‘danger’ more than young men.

I haven’t done this bit yet and it may not turn out to show anything particularly interesting. One of the things about having this kind of software is that you do tend to play around a bit, looking at a whole bunch of different things because you can do quickly what once might have taken a couple of days so you might not have bothered. I have, however, finished the initial coding, a mere week and a half after I started on it (amazing how much you can get done if you close your door and turn your email off). Here’s a snapshot of the particularly interesting themes which came out strongly from the 28 participants:

Theme Number of participants commenting Number of comments
Comparison to other transport modes 17 27
Cycle infrastructure 24 116
Road surface 20 59
Animals 17 56
Weather 28 98
Hills 25 68
Accidents 7 10
Speed 22 48
Pleasure 23 49
Smells 9 17
Traffic danger 21 61
Junctions 24 76
Other cyclists 23 45
Pedestrians 26 81

Now there’s no getting around the fact that reducing complex, dense participant narratives down to a series of themes runs the risk of oversimplifying and concealing major parts of the story. Clearly one has to return to the quotes to get at the real depth of the material, but it’s useful to be able to zoom out – to use a mapping metaphor – and get a sense of the broader patterns at work.

On the subject of maps, I’ve reworked the cycling maps page on the site. All the transcripts have moved to a separate page and the top maps page is playing host to the analysis. So far there’s only three things there to look at: places where people rang their bike bells; places where people talked about different animals; and comments people made about pavements (mostly about riding on them). I particularly like the animals map downloaded into Google Earth, seeing the names of different animals floating across the landscape. As always with the ‘public geographies’ approach I’m posting up the analysis as I do it.

Got to get a shimmy on with the analysis too, as I’m presenting preliminary findings at a departmental lunchtime seminar on 26 October. This seems like a ways away, but you’d be amazed how many utterly pointless meetings I have to sit in between now and then which get in the way of analysing/thinking/writing. Ah, the joys of a real job…

Prolonged silence.  Yes, I know, I’m a bad person.  Well, part of the reason was that we’d had a “no” back from the Leverhulme Trust about the application to fund Dan to come and work at the Uni for the next year as an artist in residence.  Dan was on holiday in Bogata at the time, which I didn’t want to spoil with bad news and I didn’t want him to hear about it second hand from a blog post.  Not, I’m sure, that Dan obsessively checks the RG blog, but you know how it is.

Good news is that my boss is allowing me to shuffle some cash from something else to commission Dan to do portraits for the cycling project which is excellent.  So we’ll have to have a sit down and chat about an on campus exhibition once the data collection is finished.

… which isn’t too far off now.  Today is a  pretty momentous day in that I’ve finally got past 20 cycling participants listed on the website.  As it happens it was #22 that popped up first (still waiting for some people to approve transcripts – will have to hassle them).  Should be able to get north of 25 before term starts – those being my target and my deadline for completion.  So I’m kinda excited, thinking about all the lovely things I can do with the transcripts both in terms of academic analysis and some pretty maps/visuals for the exhibition with Dan.

There’ve been some really great stories come out of it.  To my relief, the early flurry of people talking about the places where they’d got serious injuries from being knocked off their bikes seems to have diminished.  Recruitment has perhaps swayed a little too far to the academics, rather than the non-academic staff here, but even still, there’s a pretty good spread.  Will compare my sample against what came up in the main transport survey the uni did last year.  After the initial email to the BUBUG circulation list I then snowballed to friends/colleagues and, last week, got one of my PhD students to attach fliers to bikes around campus.   This is a good way to irritate people, unfortunately, but has generated a few extra random contacts.  I’ve been turning down PhD students who wanted to volunteer to do it because I’ve tried to keep it to employees only, though this has generated an annoyed response from at least one person.  Ho hum, can’t please everyone.

Other news.  Cos & I were at the Royal Geographical Society conference in Manchester a couple of weeks ago.  We did two papers, both on the Digbeth project.  The first basically presented a load of the results from the analysis which we presented in Kye Askins’ and Mags Adams’ session on ‘sensewalking’.  Lots of intriguing papers – it was nice to chat with Clare Risbeth from the Walking Voices project and there were a bunch of other randomly great papers, one from Kirsi Makinen from Helsinki looking at walks in forested suburbs and another from a crazy Frenchman, Julien Delas from CRESSON, who blindfolds people and leads them around.  Victoria Henshaw from Uni of Salford has also been doing very cool walks investigating smell in Doncaster.  Fantastic stuff.

Cos & I also gave a paper in Hattie Hawkins’ Art & Geographical Knowledge sessions where we talked about working with Dan and I used a bunch of the cartoons in the PowerPoint.  Good silly fun.

Anyway, will probably update again once I’ve done some of the analysis.  Big thanks to everyone who’s helped out with cycling over the summer.

So in response to a message I sent around on the Birmingham University Bicycle Users Group, I’ve had a bunch of people get in touch as willing volunteers.  Thanks to all.  So my diary is full for the next couple of weeks with people who’ve agreed to talk and ride their way home while wearing bits of kit.

Actually, the University’s ethical review committee has yet to formally approve this, so it’s all very much under the radar.  They did get back to me and ask for clarification on some really minor points, so I guess it’s all okay.  If not, huge apologies to the three people who’ve already taken part – you’re clearly not properly ethical and for this I can only hang my head.

Anyway, yes, so there’s a couple of new maps up on the website and, just checking my email, the third participant has sent back a corrected transcript, so I’ll get that online when I’m back in the office tomorrow. 

I made a bit of a cock up of the first two in truth as the mic wasn’t properly plugged in, so we were recording off the built in mics on the recorder itself.  These are pretty good when you’re sat in a room, or even if you’re just walking, but swinging around as you cycle the recordings weren’t of great quality.  Then again it was a bit odd having got everything wired up properly for the one that was done last night.  This is because during most of the recording all you hear is vigorous breathing.  Partly, I’m sure, it’s because yesterday’s participant was working particularly hard (a 45 min cycle with heart rate peaking at 172bpm, which is properly hardcore), but even on a lesser ride I suspect it’ll still be a bit disturbing.  Usually you get participants hating the transcripts because they don’t realise how many ums and ers they put into their ordinary speech, but in this case I’m going to try to make sure they never hear the actual recordings because the panting makes for… ‘uncomfortable’ listening.

The maps produced are already kinda interesting.  It’s definitely a bit tricky to cycle and talk, so there’s not a huge amount of text in the first three – I don’t know if other participants will be a bit more loquacious.  Still, so far (aside from my not plugging the mic in properly) all the equipment has worked beautifully, even in yesterday’s torrential rain.  If only we’d gone into RG1 (Digbeth) knowing what we know now, we probably would have got better data for all that public money.  Still, the whole point of the project was learning how to do it, I guess, so that makes me feel less guilty.

On the subject of RG1, I’ve started thinking of the cycling thing as RG1.5 because James & I have put in another bid to the ESRC for what we’re calling RG2.  If we get the money (profoundly unlikely in the current economic climate) then we’ll get to develop and apply the RG techniques to a live regen project over in Kidderminster.  It’d be a three year project, which would allow us to key into the regen as it goes along, assuming we finally pull out of the current financial difficulties over the next couple of years.  Still we’ll see.

Currently doing a (badly drawn) comic book history of RG1 as part of an idea I’ve had for ages about telling the stories behind the research – i.e. how academic knowledge is really produced, rather than the half-truths we tell in research papers and grant applications.  The original intention of this had been to mock out a storyboard for what would be a photo essay, but everyone I’ve shown it to so far has really liked the (childish simplicity of) my stick figure drawings, so I guess we’ll try it as a comic book.  I bought myself a cheap drawing tablet to do this and I can honestly say that the terribleness of the drawings is entirely to do with my lack of artistic ability and not the limitations of the technology.  I may get around to posting up an extract of this at some point.

I may also post a picture of me wearing the RG1.5 equipment so that cycling  participants have a proper idea of what they’re getting themselves into.  Not sure about this though, as it might involve a shot of me topless wearing the heart rate monitor.  [shudder]  There are some frontiers that ‘public’ geography probably shouldn’t cross…

So a long silence on the Rescue Geography blog.  Without money to pay someone to do the work for us, we have to find the time to do things ourselves.  James and I have not been entirely inactive since the last posting, but it’s amazing how much of a distraction teaching can be sometimes.  A couple of grant applications have gone in to fund other RG work (maybe James will post something about this), but in the meantime I needed a project to tide me over for the long summer of getting things done.  As such, I’ve decided to combine a couple of things that interest me and am working on commuter cycling.

A few years ago I wrote a crazy cultural geography paper about cycling and have wanted to come back to thinking about cycling for a while.  Meantime the University of Birmingham has undertaken a survey of staff as part of drawing up a sustainable transport plan.  So it made sense to me to apply the RG techniques to cyclists commuting to work at the University and to see whether we can get behind the rather dry stats produced by the survey to look at the experience of cycling in Birmingham.

I visit the Netherlands quite often but it’s only recently that I’ve actually cycled there.  Blimey, it’s a whole different thing.  Everything is laid out in an entirely logical and helpful way for cyclists, even in Rotterdam, supposedly the most car-centric Dutch city.  Cycling in Birmingham, which has always seemed like an insane thing to do, seems even crazier in comparison to the Dutch experience.  My morning commute to work leaves me feeling as if I have vanquished some merciless foe.

But other people respond differently to these things and that’s what the new RG cycling project is all about, getting at the experience of supposedly ‘sustainable’ transport.  If you cycle to work at the University and want to get involved, drop me a line.

The project may or may not tie up with a ethnographic photography project that Dan and I want to do.  We’re waiting to hear from the Leverhulme Trust about whether we get the money for this or not.  I’ll say more if we get the cash.

Couple of bits of housekeeping.  First, I’ve refreshed the Rescue Geography website to reflect the move onto a new project.  By ‘refreshed’ I mean ‘changed the colours around and altered some of the links’ – don’t worry, all the Digbeth/Eastside stuff is still there with a link from the homepage.  Secondly, in the last blog post, all those months ago, I promised a link to the article I’ve written on walking interviews as a research technique.  This is now online and in an open access journal for anyone to read (unlike the cycling one mentioned above… feel free to drop me a line if you don’t have a subscription to that journal).

At some point I may even remember to put in a link to access the End of Award Report written for the guys who gave us the money for the original Eastside project…