Design Ethnography

As my inquiry began to focus on supporting projects to tell better stories, I was invited to join Jane, the Project Coordinator for Community Weed Alliance of the Dandenongs (CWAD), on a photo monitoring activity and at a steering committee meeting.

As well as observing, I was able to do informal interviews, look at reports, and document everything with photography. It also spurred thoughts about possibilities, which I was able to capture quickly as sketches on my smartphone.

Key Insights

1. Short term monitoring

The opportunity to attend the photo monitoring activity was rich in insights, as I was able to see first hand what Jane was doing. I found CWAD did something out of the usual (from my personal experience) - they were using monitoring over a short timeframe - about 3 months on average.

This is not how the majority of photo monitoring is undertaken in the past. Traditionally photography was expensive, and was used for long term projects to observe change once or twice a year, over a number of years. Instead, CWAD were using it as a low cost way of doing compliance for small amounts of grant funding, taking photos before, just after, and 3 months after restoration activities.

2. Opportunities for smartphones

The observation was interesting as Jane was using a compact digital camera, to capture good enough photos for presentation purposes. She mentioned smartphones generally didn’t capture the level detail, or dynamic contrast that was needed.

However, the curve of technology is bending towards very high quality cameras being embedded into mid-to-high end smartphones, which can be purchased second hand for as low as $200 - about the price of a low end compact digital camera.

Likewise, from this ethnographic work, I was able to spot a range of issues with the process, which could be helped with the tools and sensors embedded in a smartphone, such as:

  • No way to see previous photo taken at a location (unless printed out and brought with).

  • Difficult to retrospectively work out what photos are taken in what locations, especially if someone else has to take over (no markers were being used).

  • Have to record GPS locations manually, including where photographer was standing and direction of photo.

  • Have to record weather conditions manually.

  • Any additional annotations / notes for a site must be recorded manually.

  • Photos had to be downloaded and stored manually.

  • Presentations for funders would be created manually.

Using the location and direction derived from the smartphone’s sensors, combined with time & date information embedded in EXIF data of a photo, and weather information from a data service, much of this could be automated. Paired with a mobile app which allowed a categorisation/tagging of photos, and the ability to make reports, this would be a much less costly exercise.

3. Photos can reveal the unseen

The benefit of being able to record everything with photography has been that I am able to revisit the images repeatedly to check my observations. The snapshot in time that a photograph provides, is incredibly useful as it enables us to see things which we didn’t at the time for all manner of reasons, and likewise that sometimes we wouldn’t see with video due to the moving nature of the medium (going frame by frame through a 90 minute activity is a huge use of resource).

One example of this is a photo I took of Jane perched in thick undergrowth trying to get enough distance from the subject, to get a reasonable image. When I saw the photo when I returned home, I thought it was just of the path, until I saw a hint of red in the bushes. This reminded me of how difficult it would be for her to find this spot again, to take the same photo in 3 months time, to complete the set for a presentation. It was this reminder which surfaced thoughts about different low cost solutions for finding a location down to a square metre, a condition for effective photo monitoring.

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