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

20120804_112448

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

IMG_20120802_114008

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.

 

IMG_20120805_105621

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)

Liquid Research Proposal

gps_museumThe development of a consistent research proposal is key for the success of any PhD thesis. That is the process of choosing a topic, doing an exhaustive literature review, identifying gaps in the field, raising research questions, and finally selecting the right method to answer these questions. Anne Galloway – in the introduction of her dissertation entitled “A Brief History of Locative Media and Urban Computing” (2008) – says that a research proposal is a “warm-up stage”.

Based on my experience, I would say that it is through this process that a student becomes knowledgeable and confident about the chosen research topic. Thus, it is advisable to extend this warm-up stage for a good length of time. It is important to have feedback from different professors and colleagues from different universities, not only from supervisors, and to take courses in different fields in order to have a solid and extensive background.

Within eight months, I had to design three different research proposals, all in the scope of locative media. It happened because the first one was refuted by one of my advisors, the second was disrupted because one of the case studies – the hyperlocal service EveryBlock – was shut down, and finally the third was the one, which was presented to and accepted by the research committee. Rather than describing those proposals, I want to highlight what I learned from them and from the experience of the feeling of failure.

First of all, my experience illustrates the difficulties of doing research in the field of digital media, a world where everything is very liquid and transitory. On the one hand, this is positive because it facilitates one to be innovative. On the other hand, one needs to juggle with uncertainty. That is why there is a turn to the construction of prototypes and experiments in social sciences. It seems that there is a call to think in more suitable research methods to study digital media. By doing the literature review, I learned that the research in locative media, for example, is quite interdisciplinary, nevertheless, the empirical research is often undertaken by designers, architects, computer scientists or interdisciplinary groups.

Unlike those researchers, media scholars undertake qualitative studies such as cases studies, interviews, and ethnography. Therefore, the question is: Given that these digital services have a short lifespan, how can one come up with a good case study that keeps its relevance over time? In one of the conversations I had with a professor and expert in the scholarship of locative media, she posed me the following concern: “You have to think that your dissertation has to have an impact int the academic community when you finish it in two years. What if “Foursquare” (a potential case study for me) fades into inexistence in two years?” That was also the concern of my professor who refuted my first proposal. I had proposed to study two cases: the growing Monmouthpedia and the inexistent Manor. Both of them were cities, in which buildings had QRcodes with articles about their places where they were stuck, a phenomenon named “physical geotagging” (see my blog post “Geotagging of Physical Places“). The core of my proposal was to understand why many of locative media projects fails and why they are not reaching the tipping point.

By discussing this concern with a friend of mine, who is a professor in the engineering school, I learned with him that one possible response for this question is to invest in “fundamental research”, without any direct practical application or use in view. After all, there are blasts of new fields of research, that are absorbed by distinct other areas, which demands understanding from the start. For example, locative media ranges from new media arts to journalism.

Over time, I concluded that the three proposals were the bedrock of my dissertation, since they altogether were the source from where my current project germinated. Only now I recognize that, but I have to confess that for a long time I felt sorry for myself for having my first proposal refuted. It is obvious that was not an easy process, neither emotionally nor intellectually. However, I grew mature and stronger to come up with better ideas.

 Tips for people who are working on a research proposal:

1) In the beginning, you do not even know the terminologies of your field of research. Type all combinations of words and terms that come to your mind in the library databases search.

2) Once you have read many papers and books, and identified the experts in your field, try to reach them out. The best strategy is to attend conferences focused in your area of research, even if you do not have a paper to present. The experts will be there and you will be able to talk to them over lunch or coffee breaks. Don’t be shy!

3) Make a list of research questions and keep it in your purse or pocket. I know that sounds nerdy, but that is a good way to develop them into better ideas.

Geotagging of physical places

QRcode stuck on a bridge in the town of Monmouth
QRcode stuck on a bridge in the town of Monmouth

“Geotagging” or “mobile annotation” can be understood as the practice of attaching information to physical places, through new technologies of location (e.g.: QRcodes, NFC, RFID). Geotagging is just one of the categories of locative media, which has been used for arts, transparency government, mobile shopping, historical legacy and digital graffiti purposes. I will illustrate the possibility of digital layering the physical world with a real short story and then I will also present some cases of what has been developed in this field:

The physical world is ripe with information. In order to better understand this premise, one should imagine this scene: Michelle was an exchange student at The University of Texas at Austin, in the south of the United States. She used to live in the popular housing area for university students, West Campus, within walking distance of the university. Every day while commuting to campus she would wonder who lived in the big houses in this neighborhood. The houses seemed different to her, in the sense that they were big enough to house a big family, with beautiful and large gardens. For her, they looked as huge as White House. However, she never saw any family around any of them. Michelle kept this curiosity to herself for a couple of months. One day, in a conversation with a local Austin resident, who was a good friend of hers, she raised the subject about those buildings. Michelle asked her,  “What are those houses around my building? They are huge but I never seen any family around them”.  Her friend asked her if the houses had Greek letters – an icon of sororities and fraternities – on the facade. She did not even notice the pattern of Greek letters and she did not know how to respond.  After some exchanging of impressions, Michelle’s friend told her then that those buildings were fraternities and sororities, which are fraternal social organizations/residences for undergraduate students, something that didn’t exist in Michelle’s country culture and with which she was not familiar at all. She had no clue about them. Michelle’s story illustrates many aspects of the importance of physical geotagging as well as how people relate to their surroundings, including:

1) She was ignorant about the environment where she was living, as many people are.

2) The only way to access this kind information would be through social interaction (asking someone as she did)

3) This kind of information reflects the power of local knowledge.

If some of these houses were geotagged, we could imagine different results:

1) She could have learned about her surroundings, because her curiosity would drive her to look for the information on the spot, which could have enhanced her sense of place.

2) If this geotag was connected to social media, she could have read stories about people’s experiences about what means to live in a sorority or fraternity.

3) She would have an available channel to access local knowledge, as was never possible before.

One might say that this kind of information does not matter, because everyone knows what a sorority or fraternity is. The main point, however, of attaching information to places is about taking the story embodied in a building for passers-by who are curious to know more about their environment, while on the move.

This possibility, recognized as geotagging, along with other emerging tools within locative media field (tracing, tracking, mapping, barcoding), have triggered a number of questions regarding people’s sense of place and space, augmentation of the physical world and a refreshment of the concepts of “locality” and “proximity.”

Current Examples: A number of projects of physical geotagging have been emerging lately. Below are some of them:

1.  Manor City Hall (outside the greater Austin metropolitan area) deployed a project to tag information, through QRcodes, to landmarks and also physical objects, such as police cars, in order to provide local citizens with real-time information. The project was one of the pioneers in the US. The QRcodes were up until 2011, when one of the creators of the project left the city government and the codes were taken down.

2. Monmouthpedia: Monmouth, a town located in southeast of Wales, became the first location-based “Wikipedia town” to tag all notable places, people, and flora through the technology of QRcodes. Locals and tourists with smartphones are now able to scan barcodes at points of interest (the picture of this post) and have information about the landmark sent to their mobiles phones. Monmoutpedia enables the user to choose the information they want while standing in front of a location (e.g: a school, a church, a tree).

3.  The city of Klagenfurt, Austria, created a public library embedded in the physical real world. Stickers for NFC (Near Field Communication) and QRcodes were located all over the city and individuals can download the works that are in the public domain. The novelty of this project is the exploration of geotagging, after all the stickers have been placed in strategic locations that link to volumes that are related to the spot in which they can be found. For example, near the police station, readers can find the sticker for the killer, by Arthur Schnitzler.

4. Florida: Tampa Bay residents and visitors also can experience downtown Tampa’s unique architecture through a self-guided walking tour using QR codes. The tour was launched as part of the Tampa Bay Chapter of the American Institute of Architects‘ Archifest in October 2011. Twelve new sites were added in August this year, bringing the total to 23. The tour is free and both phone and tablet-friendly, making it attractive to people visiting downtown. Participants can start the tour by visiting Tour Tampa Bay Architecture, where they will find maps of the sites and pictures showing where the QR codes can be found. Some codes are obscure, whereas others stand out on windows and can be found while passing by. The website also includes historic sites in Ybor City and Hyde Park. Future plans include site enhancements such as professional videos to provide more information about the buildings.

5. New York: The City Council unanimously passed a bill Monday that requires every city agency that has inspection, permit, license or registration information online to post a QR code linking to it. Council Speaker Christine Quinn said the bill was created to complement open data laws requiring all city agencies to have that information online by 2016. Anyone with a smartphone would be able to scan the permit’s tag and instantly be taken to the agency’s website, which would display the data.

6. New York (Central Park): Agency Magma and NYC Parks and Recreation developed a campaign that made innovative use of QR Codes, allowing this Iconic location to present itself in today’s marketplace. The campaign involved turning the park into an interactive board game.

7. Australia: Tourists using the quick response codes will be guided through 37 of The Rocks’ historic sites. Sydney’s oldest district, The Rocks, receives a significant amount of tourism every year, and the government of New South Wales supported the development of the interactive tours to help to enhance the experience and make it more informative than any physical plaques or signage would allow. The Rocks now feature a QR code at each of the 37 locations.