Empyrean Research, working in the collaboration with the Sustainable Livelihoods Foundation (SLF) in South Africa and the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) in the UK on a project funded by Making All Voices Count (a joint initiative funded by DFID, USAID & SIDA), recently completed a study examining how the use of technology impacts citizen participation in research and political processes. The final report, Translating Complex Realities Through Technologies, was published in July by IDS.
From the beginning of the project, I and my coauthors--Joanna Wheeler, Gill Black, Andrew Hartnack and Mariam Waltz—were particularly interested in how technology could enhance the voices of citizens to make them more readily heard by government. At SLF, my colleagues had been incorporating a variety of technologies into their research processes since the organization’s founding in 2010. They were quite familiar with the perceived value-added of incorporating technology into their research; the tech dimension appealed to many policy-makers, who felt the incorporation of tech inherently qualified research as ‘cutting-edge’.
While there was identified value on the policy side of the equation, that technology frequently grabbed the attention of government officials, at least initially, what had been less analyzed, however, was how technology affected the everyday citizens who participated in the research process and whether the technology actually helped them to more effectively achieve their goals when pressing the government and other stakeholders for change. Specifically, the research asked the following questions:
In order to better understand these intersecting issues empirically, we examined a variety of research processes carried out by SLF over the past several years. We looked retrospectively at three streams of work which SLF had already implemented. These included:
To add further specificity and breadth to the study, we also carried out two new projects expressly for this research:
All of the cases included in the analysis were within the South African context, within Cape Town and its townships.
Within these five cases a variety of technologically-enabled research methods were utilized, including:
The paper provides further description of each method and how it was woven into the research methodologies of the different case studies. Annexes at the end of the document provide extensive explanation of the informal economies work, the process with the bossie doktors, as well as the research with the community health committees.
Key findings of the cross-cutting analysis related to participatory methodologies and technology include:
The inclusion of technologically-enabled research methods in participatory research processes can open new possibilities for how participatory data can be created and how it can be disseminated. However, technology is not a shortcut, nor does it change the nature of participatory work. Relationships, trust and clarity of purpose remain the cornerstones of effective participatory practice. Technology can amplify what is produced but it can cannot be a substitute for these prerequisite conditions.
Part 2 of this piece will focus on the findings of this research which relate to government accountability.
Felix is the founder and director of Empyrean Research. Based in Tennessee, he travels widely with his work for Empyrean.
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