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Data collection in a pandemic: Discovering what’s up with WhatsApp *or any other instant messaging service
Many of our students will be thinking about or preparing for, their dissertations. Ordinarily this is the fun part of a degree. The part where you have the freedom to research a topic of interest. Two or three years ago, none of us could have predicted we would be in the midst of a global pandemic which limits research opportunities, particularly for undergraduates who have practical and ethical limitations. One thing that I would encourage students – or indeed anyone doing research in the pandemic – to do, is to be innovative and think outside of the box when planning research. Here in the UK we are lucky enough that most of us have access to the internet. The way I communicate with friends, family and colleagues most frequently is using instant messaging services and so I incorporated this technology into my own research. In sharing my own experience of using instant messaging as a data collection tool, I hope to offer some hope that where there are obstacles, there are also ways to overcome them.
I conducted my most recent research prior to the pandemic, however I had other barriers to navigate. I was researching the victimisation of asylum seekers, and wanted to understand if, and how, they coped with these experiences. I was lucky enough to undertake two face to face interviews with most of the participants which helped me to gain an understanding of their life histories and the broader aspects of their experiences but I also wanted to understand the day to day stressors and how they coped with these events. I knew that a diary method would be an appropriate approach to elicit the data I required, however there were some limitations with using traditional written journals. All the asylum seekers who participated in my research spoke some English as a second language and some spoke the language but could not read or write proficiently. In addition to this, traditional journal entries can be time consuming and there were additional practical considerations to consider such as how I would retrieve the journals. To overcome these obstacles I decided to use digital technology to collect diary data, in part because electronic methods have been found to increase response rates, but also because most asylum seekers I have come across own a mobile phone. Mobile phones are essential to enable to contact their family in their country of origin as well as maintaining contact with their solicitor and other agencies working with them.
Once I had decided to use mobile technology, I sent weekly messages to each of the people I interviewed, asking them how they were that day and how their week had gone, what were some of the good and bad things that had happened. I did this for 12 weeks before conducting their follow up interviews. For the purpose of my doctoral thesis, the method provided data that would help me understand the day to day stress of being an asylum seeker, often resulting from structural harms perpetrated by the Home Office. This may be the mother feeling guilty after being late to pick her children up from school because she had to catch three buses to report to the Home Office and fulfil the conditions of her immigration bail; or the feeling of dread in the pit of her stomach when a brown envelope came through the door, fearful that this may be what feels like a death warrant from the Home Office ordering her deportation. Events such as these were often not mentioned during interview, when interviewees would often recall the major life events and forget the moments of everyday life. Using mobile technology meant that participants could write in their first language and either them or I could translate it. It also meant that they could quickly send a message in the moment, while a particular event was fresh in their minds.
Using mobile technology to collect data worked well for me as it helped me to stay in contact with participants and inform my follow up interviews as well as providing the information I required to answer the research questions. As anticipated the response rate was good – even those who could not afford credit were often able to access Wi-Fi and send a message from a public space. The use of mobile technology to collect diary entries overcame more barriers than it presented, and the method proved fit for purpose, gaining the data required to get a fuller picture of those I was researching. For students planning dissertations or other research projects that are to be undertaken soon, I urge you to think creatively about your research methods and modes of data collection. Although a large part of our teaching focuses on traditional methods, I encourage you to be independent thinkers and so solve the problem of doing research in a pandemic.
2020 was a year of many firsts for myself, and therefore in spite of the global pandemic (which brought with it the destruction of lives both figuratively and literally) it was actually quite an interesting personal year. I am exceptionally fortunate to be able to say I still have my health (physical, cannot claim with as much certainty about my mental health), a job, a roof over my head and have not suffered direct loss of loved ones due to COVID. Therefore, I feel a content warning is required: this blog does not look to boast or minimalize all the loss, hardship and destruction that was experienced in 2020. But taking a leaf out of my colleagues’ book, I would like to try and reflect upon 2020 positively where possible: and in all honesty I experienced some really beautiful firsts in 2020.
January 2020 saw the most magical ‘first’ I have experienced in my life: the first (and I am very hopeful my only) day as a bride! The day was filled with so much love, joy, food and laughter: where memories where created which cause me to smile on even my darkest days! And with this magical day came a wonderful honeymoon where my first experiences as a newly-wed were not too shabby at all! The Dominican Republic was beautiful in scenery, activities and people! Again, memories which fill me with warmth.
January also saw me graduate with my first masters, although I did not attend the graduation as was sunning it up with cocktails and novels in the DR!
During the first lockdown, my partner and I moved. This brought with it my first experience of living without a washing machine, along with my first experience of purchasing a washing machine (not that fun and quite expensive!). It was also my first experience of living in a house with my partner, with more than 3 rooms! Which, during a lockdown, proved to be essential in many ways: a luxury I know many could not afford.
The Criminology book club began in lockdown (not my first book club: sorry guys), but it was my first virtual book club which is something! Along with this came the delivery of workshops online, another first, and later in the year the delivery of lectures online, again another first! I also experienced my first online interview (panel, presentation the whole works) which was joyous. And received my first offer of full-time employment.
The holiday season brought with it the odd few firsts as well. It was the first holiday season my partner did not work in all the years I have known them (not through choice unfortunately), it was the first time we both drank on Christmas day (partner is usually driving or conscious of work on Boxing day). And it was the first time I did not feel the ‘lull’ in between Christmas and New Years, which was more scary than anything else.
2020 started out with such promise and hope, and threw some serious ‘end of the world’ vibes at us, and for some these were more than just vibes. It has been hard for all and catastrophic for many, but there have been glimmers throughout the year which have kept us going when it did not seem possible. For me 2020 will always be the year of destruction but also a year of firsts: some of which are currently up there as the best days, experiences and moments of my life 😊
The new year is here. At its last knockings, the previous year offered hope of some sort of return to normality. The second new vaccine was on its way, far easier to store and distribute, it offered hope. Unfortunately, the joy of the new year has been somewhat muted as we have witnessed Covid-19 cases rise to new heights. Talks of stricter measures have turned into our new reality, as one minute the government insisted on schools opening then the next a partial U-turn before a forced full-scale retreat. But as we watch all of this unfold, I am reminded of a comment I heard from a radio presenter on the lead up to Christmas. Her view was that there was much to be happy about, we know more about the virus now than we ever did and scientists have developed a vaccine, several vaccines, in record time. Over the Christmas and new year period I reflected on last year and tried to think about what we have learnt.
Brexit has just proved to be a complete farce. Promises of a good deal turn out to be not so good, ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ the politicians said. And then in desperation, realising that any deal was better than no deal and that the best deal was the one where we were in the European Union they settled on something and thanked the gods that there was far more pressing bad news to hide their incompetence. So, we are now a ‘sovereign’ nation but poorer to boot and whilst we think we have regained control over our borders, it is only limited to bureaucratic, time consuming form filling, as we beg people to come here to work in our care homes and on the farms for a pittance. Perhaps the refugees that we have reluctantly accepted might help us out here. Brexit has been delivered but at what cost? No wonder Stanley wants to take up his opportunity for a French passport.
We are all equal its just that some are far more equal than others. We saw the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and I have a feeling that I wouldn’t be able to do that discussion justice; I’ll leave that to others that are far more capable. It did have a profound impact on me though as a former serving police officer, I would like to think it had an impact on others both retired and serving, but I’m not so sure. I think that quite often the police are simply a reflection of our society and I’m not willing to bet much on that changing rapidly. I remember Michael Holding, a former West Indian cricketer, turned commentator, talking about ‘white privilege’ and he provided what I thought at the time was a good example. Now I’m not so sure, this so called ‘white privilege’, isn’t privilege at all, it’s rights. It’s the rights that white people avail themselves of everyday in a democratic society (well that’s what we are supposed to be in anyway) without a second thought. The problem isn’t that white people have those rights, it’s that Black and ethnic minority individuals don’t, or where they do, the rights are somehow conditional. I might be wrong in my thinking, but I know one thing, without some very clear leadership from government, institutions and general societal attitudes are unlikely to change sufficiently. Although footballers and staff take a knee before every match, I fear that the momentum is likely to be lost. By the way, I’m not holding out much hope on the leadership gambit.
Sticking to the we are all equal theme; the pandemic has shone a spotlight on poverty in this country. Yes, Mr high and mighty Reece-Mogg, there really are very poor people in this country and they do need a helping hand. The fact that food banks are even required is shameful. The fact that foodbanks rely on charity is an even more shameful indictment of our government. The fact that a senior politician can stand up in the house of commons and accuse a charity of political motives when distributing aid beggar’s belief. I find it extraordinary that pre pandemic, homeless people were left to their own devices on the streets, reliant on charity and handouts and yet as soon as we went into lockdown, the government found money from somewhere to house them. What changed? My worry is that when the pandemic is over, the government are going to be more concerned about balancing the books than they are about the pervasive poverty endemic in our nation.
Children returning to school has been a huge issue for government and they rely on evidence that suggests that the best place for children is at school. A headmaster reminded us in an interview on the radio that this ‘online learning’ phrase that trips off the tongue is far easier to talk about than to achieve. What hits home is the huge disparity in opportunity for children to avail themselves of online learning. Poorer families cannot provide the technology required. Poorer families are likely to live in cramped conditions making it impossible for children to concentrate on work as siblings run around trying to keep themselves amused. And let’s not forget the plight of the parents who are more likely to be in jobs that require them to be at work, not home. Then of course there are those children that are vulnerable where school is a safe haven from abuse, whether that’s physical or mental or simply because school is where they will be fed. So, in a sense for many, school is a better place than home, but we really ought to be asking why that is. What does that say about our society? If I were to hazard an educated guess, I’d say its broken. The return of children to school had wider implications. What about the teachers and staff? It seems to me that government have different standards of risk depending on what suits. I’ll come back to this in time but I think the closure of schools owes itself more to the action of teachers in their refusal to turn up to work in an unsafe environment than it does any sensible government strategy.
Sticking to the education theme, the pandemic shone a rather harsh spotlight on higher education too. What became increasingly obvious was that the return of students to campus was purely financially driven. At least one vice chancellor put his head above the parapet and stated as much. His university would fail if he did not fill the halls of residence. So here we had a situation where scientific advisors were stating it was folly to open universities and yet universities did so with the backing of government. The reason, we can’t put education on hold and yet how many students take a gap year, before going to university? Putting education on hold doesn’t appear to be that damaging to the individual, but it is very damaging to a morally corrupt educational business model that needs halls of residence to be filled to prop up the system. To make matters worse, students flocked to university only to find that face to face teaching was patchy, the university experience was not what they were promised or envisaged it would be, and more time was spent in isolation and lock down than was healthy. If education was supposed to be good for their mental health, it had the opposite effect for many. I don’t think it required a rocket scientist to work out that online teaching was really going to be a default position, so either management and government were very naïve and reckless, or they were somewhat economical with the truth. Time to revisit higher education, I think.
Talking about government advisors, what’s the point in having them? Everything I read suggests that government advisors say one thing and government does something else or dillies and dallies its way into a dead end where it finally admits the advisors are in some way right, hence another eleventh hour lock down. The advisor’s said universities should not go back, they did and is it coincidence it coincided with a rise in Covid-19 cases? Advisors were saying schools shouldn’t go back but the government insisted they should and many did for just one day. There is a saying about tactics and strategy. Strategy is unlikely to be achieved without tactics but tactics without a strategy are useless. I have yet to understand what the government strategy is, there is however a plethora of disparate (or is that desperate?) tactics . The result though, anguish and suffering to more than is necessary. Some of the tactics seem to be based on decision regarding who is most at risk. We hear that term an awful lot. I watched the prime minister at lunch time, the man who promised us a fantastic Brexit deal, as he explained how important it was that children went back to school. Children are at very little risk going to school he said and then added, and teachers are not at very much risk or at least at no more risk than they would be normally. He bumbled and blustered over the latter part; I wonder why? A few hours later he told us schools would be closed until at least the 15th February. What happened to ‘no risk’? When we talk about risk, there are a number of ways of viewing it. There is the risk of death, easily understood and most definitely to be avoided, but what seems to be neglected is the risk of serious illness or the risk of ‘long Covid’. By ordering schools to be opened or that universities resume face to face teaching, the policy seems to have been that as long as you are not at a high risk of death then it is an acceptable risk. Time for a bit of honesty here. Does the government and do managers in these organisations really think that a group of people in a room for a number of hours with inadequate ventilation is not a serious risk to the spreading of the disease? Maybe some of the managers could reassure us by doing most of the face to face teaching when we prematurely come out of lock down again.
It seems to me that much is being made, on the news in particular, about the effect a lock down has on mental health, especially children. And I do understand the mental health issues, I can’t help but think though that whilst this is a very valid argument there is the elephant in the room that is either ignored or conveniently understated. The elephant; the fear engendered by the virus, the fear and anguish of those that have had to face the loss of a loved one. Just to put that in perspective that’s over 70,000 people whose families and friends have had to go through firstly the fear and anxiety of a loved one being ill and then the additional fear and anxiety of having lost them. Add to this the fear and anxiety of those that have caught the virus and ended up in hospital coupled with the fear and anxiety of their loved ones. Now add to this the fear and anxiety of those who have to work in conditions where they are at serious risk of catching Covid and the fear and anxiety of their loved ones. And then of course there is the fear and anxiety caused to the general population as the virus spins out of control. Somehow I think a little perspective on mental health during lock down might be needed. Is it any wonder teachers decided that what they were being asked to do was unsafe and unnecessary?
And then I think about all of those parties and gatherings despite restrictions. The shopping trips from tier 4 areas into tier two areas to snap up bargains in the sales. The Christmas and New years eve parties that defy any logic other than pure self-indulgence. Just as we see all of those selfless people that work in organisations that care for others or keep the country running in some capacity, we see a significant number of selfish people who really don’t care about the harm they are causing and seem to be driven by hedonism and a lack of social values. Unfortunately, that accusation can also be aimed at some of the very people that should be setting an example, politicians.
We should of course be happy and full of hope. We have a new vaccine (that’s providing it still works on the mutated virus) and normality is around the corner, give or take a few months and a half decent vaccination strategy (that’s us done for). A vaccine that was found in an extraordinary time period. I wonder why a vaccine for Ebola wasn’t found so quickly? I agree with my colleague @paulaabowles when she says we all must do better but more importantly I think its about time we held government to account, they really must do better. After the second world war this country saw the birth of the NHS and the welfare state. What we need now is a return to the fundamental values that prompted the birth of those provisions. There are so many pressing needs and we really mustn’t allow them to be forgotten. A strategy to tackle poverty might just ameliorate a raft of other ills in our society and the cost of tackling it might easily be mitigated by a reduction in demand in the NHS and many other public services. I can but dream, but my reality envisages a nightmare world driven by finance, political imperatives and a lack of strategy.
As someone that lives in the privilege of not actually had to experience Coronavirus (to my knowledge), I have spent a good portion of last year on the sidelines. Losing my auntie during my undergrad in January 2017, and then my cousin Steve at the start of 2020 (some of you may know him as the owner of Kettering Road’s Driver), I think many would agree with me when I say ‘grief makes you humble.’ In typical Caribbean fashion, Steve’s wake made me remember the importance of community and togetherness. He ran Drivers Menswear in Northampton and if you blinked you wouldn’t know it was there, a shop that had been there since the 1980s. With its closure in 2020, that marked the end of an era, and I will now have to find somewhere else to buy jeans!
Growing up here, many of the people I know in the community and work with have actually known me for years. And in some cases, have known me for all my life (basically), very much including staples of the West Indian community like at Inspiration FM
Some time after Steve’s funeral, we were thrust into Lockdown 1.0 by the Government and it was in those months between March and June that I saw that power of community again. Albeit a symbolic gesture, clapping for the National Health Service on Thursdays in some cases was the one thing keeping some people going. It was a recurrence that kept their mind at bay in the chaos of the pandemic. I ran events online too, and people were grateful. In that same breath, it is evident to see the number of people grassing up their neighbours for flouting the rules, or attacking people for criticising the police’s £10,000 fines for those that break the rules. Last year, I also watched a number of films, including a rewatch of Goodfellas. Even in a health crisis where people have broken the rules, Robert DeNiro’s voice as Jimmy Conway is in my head telling me “to never rat on your friends and always keep your mouth shut.” When in doubt, listen to Scorsese!
These people may be rule-breakers but I know if it comes to the wire, these are also the same people (not government) that would put people ahead of profit. Fellow blogger @drkukustr8talk wrote a Facebook post saying “If anything, Corona taught us____” and I commented “There is more of a community than I thought there was”, to which he replied “NOW, dear Tre, THAT is a LOT coming from you.” Yes, I’m sure @paulaabowles and @manosdaskalou will attest to that too, seeing from our number of conversations since meeting them in September 2019. Cynicism and realism are two sides of the same coin and I grew up in The Commmunity. However, not like I have seen this past year. My work as an educator engaging with people inside and outside Northamptonshire’s borders tied, with the Murder of George Floyd/the protests and the pandemic, it’s left me thinking that when I gave humanity chance, locally, humanity actually delivered.
November came and I was awarded ‘Northampton’s Male Role Model of the Year.’ That was humbling. It wasn’t the award that really got to me. It’s the love and respect of your neighbours, and that’s not something one can articulate in words. I thought about this feeling again when I found myself watching the 1970 adaptation of The Railway Children. Albert Perks has always been my favourite character, very much a man of his generation. Not taking charity but also respects his community. You do right to others, they do right to you. That sort of mentality. This is a character I came across at twelve years old and I have not been the same since. The award is second to the number of people that voted for me, and I will take that to my grave.
December came, and I bought Christmas presents. I am as surprised as you. For years, I have famously been a humbug inside and outside of my family. Forever anti-Christmas on the basis it was “a super-spreader of consumerism” (Ventour, 2010). My mother makes jokes about it, recalling to when I was kid walking around Abington Street in a hat with bah humbug on the side. The pandemic tied with BLM and meeting all the wonderful people at Amplified NN allowed me to break my “life rules.” Grief makes you humble. With the addition of Coronavirus, you could say it has made me soft (not that I was an awful person before). If the COVID pandemic and lockdowns have taught us anything, it’s that so many of us were living life on incompatible frequencies and were trying to make the parts fit. We also saw how kindness was a shock to the system, since in the words Tennessee Williams so few have ever “depended on the kindness of strangers.”
I bought presents for the first time in ten years; I have the love and respect of my neighbours and I started a Masters in September. I don’t spend my days waving at ‘kind old gentlemen’ on the trains going by, but I think in fifty years that there may be three children that may think of me as that old gentleman (but not that old of course), or by the time I’m forty-one… I’m not too different to Albert Perks and there is power in that.