The challenge and joy of coordinating a research project in 6 continents in the era of the internet
Vania Ceccato is a researcher at KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden. She is also a BSC International Ambassador.
This story is about the challenges and potentialities of doing collaborative work in Criminology using your own computer, with no funding, but supported by a ‘gaggle’ of a highly motivated researchers, ready to work. Back in early 2016 I was teaching undergraduates how to put together a graduation thesis and teaching them how to apply a survey to general population. I incentivized my students to explore their own mobile phones and digital devices to make the data collection. Through this I taught them how to carry out an online survey and later critically analyze the collected data. I had long wished to question Metro passengers about their safety perceptions; so I handed my students questions on sexual violence and sexual harassment in transit in particular.
That did not work very well. Students were, overall, reluctant to ask such questions and passengers were unwilling to answer them. However, I do not attribute this failure to the students or passengers. At that time, most of us did not feel comfortable talking openly about sexual harassment, at least when compared to recent years. Therefore, it was no surprise that my students were fairly reluctant to ask transit riders about their experiences of sexual harassment while using transit. Just a year later, the appearance of the #MeToo! Movement on the internet and outside cyberspace made it easier to get information about these problematic daily-life experiences. I decided then to have another go with the survey but this time asking my own students about sexual harassment.
Things went much better—the survey was answered by more than 1500 university students in the Stockholm region. Additionally, it later gained answers from 13,323 students worldwide, in 18 cities (as shown in map below)!
What prompted this sudden change? This project originally began with the suggestion from a colleague in USA. She thought we should extend the original survey, apply it in our respective universities, and write a comparative paper. So we did. In the process, I mentioned our ideas with colleagues in a global user-list and suddenly, we were 14 universities engaged in this global project: researchers wanted to take part and apply the survey in their own universities, from Lagos- Nigeria to Vancouver-Canada, from Tokyo-Japan to Bogota-Colombia, 3 others came along during the process. It was amazing to see so many people, determined to see this project succeed. We did not have any funding to offer and I thought it would be a big of waste of everybody’s time if people would give up along the process … but it was worth it the risk.
I was lucky in having my colleague and mentor Prof Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris at UCLA coordinating this research enterprise with me. She was equally engaged and very interested in getting an overall picture on sexual violence/harassment in transit environments. Apart from the time difference (when she was waking up in Los Angeles, I was ready to go home from work!), it was lovely to have Anastasia to discuss ideas, worries, share instructions and support anyone in the group.
Of course, in a project of such global scope, there will always be incongruences and challenges when collecting and analyzing the data. This study was no exception, we faced a number of challenges: particularly when communicating over email and using various online sharing-platforms. Interestingly enough, most of the challenges we faced had nothing to do with technology or limited funding.
One of the earliest problems was the need to obtain approval from the university and/or from a special Ethical Review Board before approaching the students with the questionnaire. This process turned out to be longer than we expected and varied from country to country (taking around one to four months). I thought some of my colleagues would give up along the way, but thankfully they persevered!
Then came translation. In order to make comparisons with other cities possible, questions were later translated into seven languages (English, Portuguese, Spanish, French, Italian, Japanese and Chinese) using Google Docs. This sharing platform ended up working very well and greatly simplified the process.
More complicated, were the differences in local and cultural norms. It was impossible to standardize all questions. In some cities the ‘race’ question in the USA (‘ethnic background’ in Sweden) was substituted with “country of birth/origin question”. In certain cases, the race/ethnicity question had to be omitted because in cities, the law does not allow asking questions on race, ethnicity or religious beliefs. Similarly in some cities, it is not considered appropriate to ask about someone’s sexual orientation in surveys, and our colleagues had to omit such questions.
We exchanged information mostly by email, and during the process of data collection and analysis, we split ourselves into smaller groups. Many of our meetings were performed over Skype or the similar communication platforms. Remote meetings did not always work but ultimately, we were able to put together a schedule of tasks to accommodate time differences between Manila, Stockholm and Los Angeles.
In all but two cases, the researchers were able to gather the minimum requested sample size of 300 students (some got more than 1000 students). To do so, they often had to follow different strategies such as adding an additional university, having a raffle with small rewards of “lucky money”. The questionnaire was distributed in different ways. For the large majority of cases, the survey was distributed electronically, either using a web platform, (for example, WordPress, Google Docs, etc.) email lists, or university pages with links to social media and to external electronic questionnaires. In a few cases, researchers distributed hard copies combined with an electronic version while in two cases, the link to the survey was posted on social media. 18 cities in 6 continents resulted in 13,323 students worldwide.
With data in hand, we provided instructions to all researchers to follow a particular set of research questions. Out of 18 case studies, 10 researchers presented their preliminary results in the Conference Crime and Fear in Public Places in Stockholm in October 2018, when a proposal for an edited book was suggested (the book proposal was later approved in early 2019). In order to homogenize the analysis and presentation processes, we created a framework of analysis and shared this via email with our colleagues. They were later invited to write essays of 2,500 words discussing their findings and contextual facts about their city. Using Skype or other communication platforms, they also worked in groups in four chapters putting together data, forming statistical analysis together and then writing.
However, our broad analysis brought with it some problems. For example, why did city A have 35% while city B had 78% in a particular question? Did they understand the instructions of analysis? This process was not always straightforward. It took months until we could agree upon a minimum set of questions and answers that were the same for everyone. Together with my co-coordinator in the USA, we combined statistics, compared results, checked and double-checked numbers and references. During that time we sent hundreds of emails, back and forth, before finally writing the final chapters, often with help from my colleagues. By August 2019, the edited volume was nearly complete. Yet, it took more than a month or so for us to get all permissions and high resolution pictures into one place before we finally submitted the book. There were many complications but eventually we did it!
So what can we take away from this research? The survey showed, without any doubt, that sexual violence/harassment in transit environments is unfortunately a common occurrence globally. However, the extent of harassment, ranges considerably from one city to the other. Additionally, the omnipresence of the potential for harassment in transit settings, leads to the adoption of certain behaviors on the transit riders behalf. Avoidance strategies prompt transit riders to avoid particular times, travel routes, and settings that are deemed as, particularly risky, or even avoid using transit completely, opting for other transportation options. This, of course, demands changes in the way transit systems are built, but also long term changes in society’s values and attitudes towards mobility and safety—both being highly gendered. We finalized this research by critically drawing from the results of the empirical work and proposing recommendations on how to respond to sexual harassment and sexual assault in transit environments.
So what can be learnt from the experience of doing research over emails and communication platforms?
We live in a world where we can communicate with someone across the oceans with a single click! This opens a door to a new world of possibilities, whether it be contacting a family member, friend, or doing research with colleagues. It was a long and bumpy journey, but a worthwhile one. Our experience shows that it is possible to carry out a Global study like this one. If you want to try to do something similar in the future, make sure you have three things before you start:
- Clear aim and objectives and some pretty good ideas how to achieve them
- A computer, internet and some ‘basic internet knowledge’
- (Most importantly) A great motivated group of researchers you can rely on to ensure that things are done on time, ethically, and with good care for the research process and quality of data. You might want to share the research coordination with someone senior, more experienced researcher in the area.
A book summarizes this joint efforts (Transit Crime and Sexual Violence in Cities: International Evidence and Prevention) and is coming out soon from Routledge. Country reports might be available on request. A special issue of International Journal of Comparative and Applied Criminal Justice will be available in March 2020. On behalf of my colleague Prof Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris at UCLA, USA, I would like to thank everybody that took part in this project, and in particular, a friend from the UK who directly contributed to the original survey applied in Stockholm in 2016. Thanks!
Vania Ceccato, KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Sweden
Images: courtesy of the author