An Ethnographic View of Monmouthpedia, World’s First Wikipedia Town

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Monmouth is a historical town in Wales, within 2 miles (3.2 KM) of the border with England. Last year, in August, I decided to visit the town to understand the deployment of QRcodes in buildings with Wikipedia articles. Since I was studying locative media and were looking for potential case studies, I thought that would be worth seeing. I was in Lisbon, Portugal, for one month. So I flew from there to the international airport of Bristol, in the evening of July 31 2012.  From Bristol, I got a train to Newport, Wales. I spent the night there and in the morning I took a bus to Monmouth. On the bus, I noticed two young people had headphones on and were using smartphones. One of them was using a Samsung phone. However,throughout the whole journey, I noticed then that the Chinese brand HTC is very well used in the United Kingdom.  It seems like iPhones over there are not so pervasive as here in the United States.

After one hour on the bus, I arrived in Monmouth. I was eager to see the QRcodes, but I walked through downtown and went to the hotel, where I had a reservation. As soon as I checked in the hotel I introduced myself to the receptionist, a young woman in her twenties. I told her why I went to Monmouth by explaining that I was doing research about Monmouthpedia. Politely enough, she paid attention to what I was saying, but she had no idea what I was talking about. She was not aware of the deployment of QRcodes to access Wikipedia articles in historical buildings and commercial stores in the town, including the hotel where she was working. Having felt a bit embarrassed, she explained that she was not a local and had moved to the town recently.

My second interaction was with a sales assistant, in a store, also a young lady. Unlike the receptionist, she had heard of “Monmouthpedia”, but she never had tried it, because she did not have a smartphone to scan the codes. It is worth noting that this store is located in the main road of the downtown, where there are Cafés, restaurants and all sort of stores. On this street, the majority of stores had blue stickers of small QRcodes on their show windows. However, many of them were not visible. I talked to two employees of a drug store with a blue sticker of QRcodes. While one had no idea about the codes, the other had tried it and could see a value on it.

Drawing on my one week of observations and informal conversations I had with residents and tourists in Monmouth, I concluded that many people did not have a smartphone there. Some locals did not have even a mobile phone. An older woman said to me: “the mobile phone is the most unsocial thing I have seen…” Another woman said she was not interested in QRcodes because she was a local and knew everything about local places.

On the other hand,  I also concluded that kids are more willing to use these codes. According to a sales assistant of a shoes store, usually kids scan more the codes than adults. She also saw a group of Japanese tourists using the codes to learn more about places.

Types of QR Codes in Monmouth

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I saw four types of manufactured QRcodes in Monmouth: 1) a glass sticker which is made of an adhesive blue plastic and is commonly stuck onto stores show windows, 2) a rectangular tile with a size of 12 cm X 22 cm, usually  stuck on historical/listed buildings, 3) a printed out on paper, used in the ShireHall, a listed building and also center of tourist information, and 4) QRcodes stuck on books, with additional information about the author.

Drawbacks

1) Access: Many people do not own smartphones being unable to scan the codes. Moreover, free WiFi is not available. It is not very likely that tourists will use the roaming service just to scan a QRcode.

2) Visibility: Some QRcodes are not easily visible. I had to look carefully for many of them.

3) Context: Some of the QRcodes available are not created to convey context. They function simply as key words, offering definitions that assume most people already know. For instance, a bookstore has a QRcode with the words: “Book”, “Literature”, “Biography”, and “Fiction”.  Another example is a drug store that has codes that link to “perfume”, “ prescription”,  “personal care”, “superdrug”.

4) What should be tagged? Only local places? I noticed that international restaurants (e.g: Chinese, Indian) are not tagged with QRcodes, excepting an Italian Restaurant in the main street of downtown, I mentioned before.

 

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What has been tagged

1) Historical/listed buildings, including schools, pubs, churches, libraries

2) Stores (e.g.: shoes, glasses, clothes, health food, real estate agent, butcher, bakeries)

3) Books at the municipal library

4) At Museums (piece of arts, small piece of papers).

5) Restaurants (e.g.: Italian cuisine, antipasto, pizza, pasta). Also the logic of keywords (Italian cuisine, welsh cuisine, seasonal food)

What Is a Smartphone to a Kid?

imagesWhat is a smartphone to a kid? What is the first thought that comes to a kids mind when he thinks of a smartphone? What role does “location” play in his thinking process? How can it be used for education?  Last Friday, June 14th, during the celebration of the new grant River City Youth Foundation (RCYF) received from the City of Austin’s government, I was struck by a 10 years-old Latino kid who gave me a genuine and spontaneous answer to the question: “Tell me three things you can do with a smartphone?” In Spanish, I had posed the question to the entire audience who were residents of DoveSprings, a low-income neighborhood in the southeast of Austin.

Oné Musel-Gilley, the PR of RCYF and founder of the program Techcomunidad, was asking the kids educational questions and presenting them with awards.  Many children were standing in front of me and could not wait to hear my question. Thus, the boy was pretty excited to answer the question in order to get the award. Moreover, he needed to be competitive; after all there were others kids standing besides him, all of them eager to earn a gift as well. After thinking for a few seconds, the kid said the answer at full blast: 1) Look for places, 2) Talk to friends, and 3) Take pictures. His response could not be more complete. He was happy as he was rewarded!

There were three observations that I made about his response. First, his response conveys the potential of the smartphone as a tool to enhance people’s sense of physical places, the development of location-based applications, and the potential of place-based storytelling. Second, it shows the social aspects of the applications. It is interesting to note that he used the verb “to talk” instead of “to call”, extending the meaning of a smartphone to digital social networks. And third, the “take pictures” response also illustrates the smartphone as a practical tool.

Another interpretation of his answer is the fact that smartphones are highly associated with navigation. I was wondering to which degree of familiarity the kid had with smartphones. I then noticed that his mother had a smartphone. In the beginning of the celebration, when just a few people were there, she was using it. After a while she put the phone down on the table. It is very likely that this kid’s family use the smartphone for navigation purposes.

The kid’s response was overall representative of how kids in this day and age perceive digital mobile devices around them. For example, findings from a technology survey by CDW-G highlight the difference in how teachers and kids perceive technology. While 75% of teachers say they regularly use technology in their classrooms, only 40% of students report use of technology in classrooms. This survey also shows that a “whopping 94 percent of students report that they use technology to do their homework, while less than half of all teachers (46 percent) incorporate technology into homework.” This technology is quite restricted to the use of smartphones, since kids have a heavy usage of mobile phones (see the recent Pew Internet Research 2013 report).

I wonder if the 10 years-old boy had the opportunity to use any digital mobile device in his school. I also wonder how his parents would respond to the same question. Certainly, there is an entire new world that is open to researchers who are interested in learning how the next generations will use digital mobile devices in the long term. During my fieldwork, I will observe some of these generation dynamics and I will share some of these thoughts on my research “journey”, here on this blog.