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July 30, 2003

research, not documentation

At several meetings that I have attended recently, I've heard about young people or poor people who have "documented" some asset, problem, or activity. It occurs to me that academics and other professional researchers "document" things only as a first stage in research (if they do it at all). Their real interests are comparing, assessing, and explaining phenomena, not merely listing or portraying them. I understand why disdavantaged people stick to documentation; it requires fewer skills and resources. But much more power comes with assessment and explanation. I'm starting to think that the rich do research while the poor get "documentation." The solution is to try to involve young people, poor people, and other disadvantaged folks in real research, whenever possible.

In this connection: a colleague of mine has Palm Pilots with database software installed. We're going to lend them to high school kids, whom we'll train to walk around the neighborhood conducting surveys of physical assets. The data they collect can then be used to generate maps, which we will post for public use on the Prince Georges Information Commons site. Later, we'll help the kids use the data they collect for genuine research.

The topic that we're planning to study is "healthy living," which includes:

1. exercise and "walkability"
2. security from crime, and
3. nutrition

All of these factors can be placed on the same maps, so that it's possible to see, for example, where there are sources of healthy food that are also safe and walkable.

We're going to start with walkability and crime. Walkability is relatively easy because there is a standard survey instrument that kids can easily use to determine whether each street segment is walkable. It's very straightforward for the kids to create a map with the walkable streets colored in and the unwalkable ones left white (or something like that). They just walk down a street and fill out a checklist on a Palm Pilot.

We can simultaneously work on crime. One idea would be to try to get actual crime statistics from the police and add them to the map. Apparently, police departments do not like to release these data—although maybe we could overcome that problem. Another option would look like this: The kids would take digital photos of places that they consider very dangerous, and very safe. They would compare and discuss their pictures. They would then show their collected pictures of safe and unsafe places to experts, such as police officers and criminologists, who would offer their opinions. Once the kids had reflected on their choices, they would declare certain areas to be relatively safe and unsafe, and mark the map accordingly.

July 30, 2003 3:30 PM | category: a high school civics class | Comments


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