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…

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So the project is up to 25 participants now.  Still a few more lined up, but definitely moving towards the analysis phase now – not least because term starts in just over a week.  Will post some things as they get done, but for the time being, here’s an aggregate animation, taking the time of day people rode and creating an aggregate group cycle.  Higher heart rate reflected by the ‘hotter’ colours.

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…

Well, the exhibition launch was over a week ago now and I almost feel like I’ve recovered.  Astonishing how it all came together so nicely in the end.  All without having a gantt chart which, considering the hassle little Steph gave us over the summer about the need for a gantt chart, simply reinforces my anti-gantt chart prejudices. 

Oyvind was brilliant helping us set up at MADE.  He and Dan hung all the stuff in the front room where Dan’s portraits hung in artistic loveliness.  Myself and James did a bit more of a, ahem, ‘handwoven’ job in the back room with all of our research stuff.  Still it all looked pretty good.  Props also to Jane P for forcing us all to get organised and making sure everything ran like clockwork on the night.  And obviously much thanks to Julia for letting us do it.

We had about 70 people pass through over the evening – including a handful we kidnapped on their way to the opening of Fazeley Studios which was happening just down the road.  I’ve put some pictures up onto Facebook, which I’ve made open access.  They’re some of the worst photos I’ve taken since buying a camera with autofocus – no amount of photoshopping could redeem them, but you get the general idea.  I’d been out the previous weekend shooting a bunch of stuff on the helmetcam and wrapped it all up into a Google Earth file (available from the revamped Download page, as is, incidentally, the exhibition catalogue produced to go alongside Dan’s portraits).  It was quite fun sitting with people, getting them to play with Google Earth projected onto one of the walls.  I lost count of the number of people who said “it’s like the Blair Witch Project” while watching footage of my walk through the bushes next to the River Rea.

So huge thanks to everyone who turned up on Friday.

MADE asked us to take part in their Organic Eastside workshop, which was held at South Birmingham College last Tuesday.  Some really interesting stuff presented – George Fergusson, responsible for the redevelopment of the old Wills Tobacco factory in Bristol gave a really interesting paper.    I gave a brief outline of the RG project, but had to hurry off afterward.  Work has been insanely busy this week as all the stuff I hadn’t been doing in the previous fortnight getting ready for the exhibition finally started to catch up with me.  Plus I really have to send off the End of Award Report to the ESRC to justify the cash we spent.  Actually it’s been quite nice filling in the forms because a lot of the things most social science projects routinely fail to do – particularly regarding ‘end user engagement’ – has been really easy to sort out.  MADE, the gods of networking saw to that.

In a sense the exhibition brings the formal part of the Rescue Geography project to an end, but we’re still working on writing things up, doing more analysis and, of course, applying for more money to do Phase 2.  I think that RG has grown beyond the particular project that we originally applied to do in Digbeth/Eastside and both James and myself are pretty excited about where this goes next.

Oh and we’ve just had a piece accepted by an open access online journal.  It gives some details of different ways to do walking interviews and draws on RG as well as some students who I persuaded to do walking interviews for their dissertations.  I’ll post a link as soon as it’s online.

The exhibition (24 October) draws ever closer and a healthy dose of panic is setting in.  To be fair I’ve no real right to panic because most of the ‘University’ stuff is organised now and, let’s face it, it’s Jane P and Oyvind at MADE who are doing all the curatorial stuff and Dan is doing most of the artwork.  All we’ve got to do is turn up on Thursday and hang stuff on the walls then turn up on Friday and look glamorous for the adoring crowds.  Or, you know, hand out glasses of wine and make small talk, whatever seems more appropriate at the time.  But there has been a feature written about the exhibition on the BBC.

On the techie side one of the undergrads in my department at Birmingham has done an extra year in his degree doing computer science stuff.  He’s now back doing geography and I’ve persuaded (i.e. paid) him to write some software for us.  During one of the lunchtime meetings at MADE we showed off the proof-of-concept stuff we’d done using mediascapes to create Google Earth files of areas people like and don’t like.  One of the comments from a developer was how it would be really useful to be able to see what people are referring to when they register a preference.  We’ve got these, well posh mobile phones really, that have built in cameras as well as GPS so Matt was set to work creating a really simple user interface that allows people to take pictures, give them a rating (0-9) and record this against their GPS location.  Matt, being a genius, then got the program (which is 38k in size – a triumph of elegant simplicity) to automatically kick out a Google Earth KML file, with shaded dots depending on the user rating and direct links to the photographs.  This is a massive improvement on the proof-of-concept work which required a huge amount of behind the scenes data processing to get it to produce a KML.  So I’m getting another student to use this technology in a pilot project on ‘Studentification’ in Selly Oak.  It should be a really nice tool that we can use in a variety of contexts.

Some sad news to end on.  Myself and James were deeply shocked and upset to learn of the premature death of friend and fellow geographer Duncan Fuller from the University of Northumbria.  Duncan’s work was one of the inspirations behind the Rescue Geography project and he was always very supportive of what we were doing.  A natural subversive, fine scholar and all round good guy, he’ll be deeply missed.