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)

Doing Research in Austin, Texas

Dovesprings is located in the southeast of Austin
Dovesprings is located in the southeast of Austin, Texas

My research combines three different fields: locative media, citizen journalism, and memory studies. Building on the principles of these areas of research, I am proposing a new concept called “locative citizen journalism”, which briefly means the creation of place-based stories by local residents about their locality with a very strong historical, life stories, and memory aspects.

I am currently conducting fieldwork in Austin, Texas. For the purpose of my dissertation, I am taking the approach of “Ethnographic Action Research” (EAR). It merges methods of ethnography with action research, which aims at engaging different stakeholders in the research development.

Following this premise, my professor Dr. Joseph Straubhaar and I have partnered so far with two organizations, in Austin, where I will run workshops with local residents about the creation of local content and upload this content to a website and mobile application called HistoryPin (see more information below). During the process, I will observe, take field notes, interview participants and participate with them in the creation of their stories. To ensure the integrity of participants, I have received approval by the Institutional Review Board (IRB) of The University of Texas at Austin.

Our two partners are River City Youth Foundation (RCYF) and Latinitas. The first is a non-profit organization located at Dove Springs, a very low-income area in the southeast of the city. This neighborhood is Austin’s largest populated youth community, where one of every two households does not have technology access, and the residents are mainly Latinos and African-Americans. Since many of the residents are Spanish speakers only, the organization has a bilingual workforce. In order to bridge this digital gap, Oné Musel-Gilley – the public relations of RCYF – founded the program/event TechComunidad, which is focused on the technology training of parents/adults to capacitate them to guide theirs kid’s education. Sponsored by Dell, TechComunidad granted many families with a Dell tablet in 2012.  Those parents will be the participants of the workshops I will run about mobile/locative media.

Our second partner, Latinitas, is also a non-profit organization founded in 2002, with the aim of teaching young latinas girls media and technology. The organization publishes a magazine and also hosts media enrichment programs.Latinitas will hold summer camps in June and July. My workshop will be integrated in the session “Media is Power” (June 24-28).

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The overall goal of these workshops is to help local residents understand their local environment in a holistic way, increase their sense of place (mainly about their neighborhood) in order to raise awareness of their reality in the city as whole. However, it is important to highlight that the workshops will function as focus groups. Therefore, rather than only teaching, my goal is also to learn from the community what matters to be reported, to be remembered in order to change the present and make their present more meaningful. I also plan to observe how they react towards location-based technology in general.

HistoryPin

HistoryPin is a great tool for this study, because it is a social mapping website and also a mobile application – available for ISO and Android operating systems – that allows users to pin images, video, and audio clips to Google Maps. Users can include a story about each image and other meta data. It also enables the user to create a channel, where you can manage and customize your content and page. The versatility of HistoryPin facilitates the work and uploading of contents, either on the fly or working at desktop computer. With the mobile app, users can overlay images with Google street view, take walking tours, and see collections. Users are also able to see on the map stories that are near to them, through location disclosure.

Before choosing HistoryPin for this study, I looked at several other applications, such as crowdmap/Ushahidi, local wiki, and Broadcaster. I also talked to the journalism professors Amy Weiss Schmitz – at San Diego University- and Cindy Royal, – then at Texas State University – who have tried some of these apps with their students. After doing the research, I concluded that HistoryPin would be the easiest platform for participants. It has a user-friendly interface, a very little learning curve for pinning.

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Some researchers consider the low awareness of HistoryPin a drawback. However, for the purpose of this study, this is a matter of fact. Many past quantitative studies about location-based services have showed that users do not see a benefit in disclosing location and that those services are not reaching the tipping point. Building on that, I also aim to observe how early adopters understand the value of those apps.

HistoryPin is designed by non-profit “We are what we do” in partnership with Google. According to Kevin C. Miller (2013), the platform has about 232, 293 items pinned and about 400,000 visitors per month. It has also 45,000 contributors and 1, 100 institutions.