Dr. Strangelove: How I stopped worrying about my research data and learned to love open-source content management software
I spent years conducting fieldwork for my dissertation in the former Yugoslavia, mapping grassroots activism to account for war crimes and human rights violations across the region. Seamlessly, my post-doctoral research took shape based on my previous involvement in the Balkans. Rather than continuing my ethnographic study using participant observation to examine established human rights organizations in different countries, such as Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia, I decided to focus on a rising actor in the field: youth advocates who engage in “performance activism.” Put differently, these young activists use performance art to promote human rights causes. My decision was mainly driven by two practical reasons. First, I previously interviewed a substantial number of key youth leaders for my dissertation and could therefore tap into this network to expand my research. Second, I noticed that these new players were active members of different online social networks. Due to the limited research funds directly after receiving my Ph.D., I seized the opportunity to continue my research on the web. Shortly after, I started excavating data on youth activists in a virtual space, which offered an abundance of Facebook feeds and Twitter posts.
In addition, at one of the last junior scholar workshops organized by the Woodrow Wilson Center in the summer of 2013, senior scholars urged rising academics to expand their research area beyond the Balkans as Congress-sponsored funding for Eastern European Studies was drying up. Thanks to my extensive network of international colleagues, I decided to venture into unchartered waters and take my project on Balkan youth activists across the Mediterranean Basin and compare youth activists’ work in a number of countries, such as Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt. In a matter of weeks, I found myself immersed in a wealth of research materials that needed to be organized systematically. As a result, the idea—or rather the necessity— was born to create an online database, capable of sharing a plethora of data with scholars, activists and other interested parties.
After I spent years of ethnographic fieldwork in Southeast Europe, the goal did not consist of establishing a data pool conducive for complex statistical quantitative analysis, such as multivariate regressions. Instead, the new project needed to capture dynamic relationships between the various actors. The database project became finally much clearer after hours of deliberation with colleagues and friends. The idea was to create an online platform that could serve as a globally accessible archive, a network resource to reach out to contacts available in the field across different regions, and a virtual space that would connect a variety of researchers and students, fostering collaboration and joint projects. With this initial idea in mind, the next challenging step was to implement these different theoretical notions of interconnectedness into practice.
I did not have much programming experience with the exception of some basic coding skills that I picked up during a 5-month project in South India several years ago. Working for the United Nations, I was sent near the former French colonial city Pondicherry in the state of Tamil Nadu to an experimental village. They wanted me to assist local community leaders, who were trying to create a virtual space connecting the village’s research facilities that dispersed over a remote area in the middle of an evergreen tropical rain forest. This is when I first learned about the open-source content management software (CMS) Drupal — a fancy version of the blogging software WordPress — which has been used more recently by the White House and other prestigious organizations to run their data-heavy websites.
The intense exposure to creating a highly customized web portal for multiple users and an array of different services and requirements—often times, affiliated users would express particular needs with regards to accessing the stored data and wanted a space that was tailored to their sometimes eccentric ideas—turned out to be a great asset for my post-doctoral research. Initially, my research centered on the former Yugoslavia. Examining post-conflict youth activism from a cross-regional perspective developed into a promising research agenda due to recent trends of youth movements in the Arab Spring. I wanted to reflect the panoply of data and research resources in a web application that could adequately capture this picture. My earlier Drupal experience was a welcome source of inspiration. Without much hesitation, I decided to give it a try. I created a subdomain on my server and installed the application. Within minutes my future cross-regional database was taking shape as I was adding and removing different modules to the initial installation. Hence I was able to adjust my Drupal installation to my specific needs and design a customized structure for my data server.
Drupal is a very straightforward CMS. Some web users nonetheless say that it has a steep learning curve before one can fully take advantage of the different modules to transform a very basic data-management system into a powerful and user-friendly online platform. This Drupal critique, however, is unnecessarily harsh. Anyone trying to find a plug & play software à la Squarespace or Zoho creator will be deservingly frustrated. Indeed, Drupal is far from being a drag-and-drop application. That being said, the latest version (Drupal 7.x) is very similar to the backend structure used by WordPress. The structure and commands are very intuitive and after a few tutorials and reading the introductory documentation, even newbies are able to wrap their head around the application confidently and with relative ease. Moreover, the independently created modules come with detailed pages of online support across various online forums and in extensive user guides for those willing to take their time to read it.
In less than a weekend, the first prototype of the database structure was ready to go. A small team of researchers at the Woodrow Wilson Center served as a focus group to test the initial scope and capacity of the portal. While a login box protects the site from unsolicited users, registered members contribute to the project by entering information about individuals, collective action and other relevant background data of a growing number of cases across different countries and continents. Despite the relative recent launch of the online database, the project received positive reviews due to research talks as well as social media campaigns that helped disseminate information about the site.
Each day the Internet moves toward becoming the main reference for online information in social science research, especially when we examine social actors whose activities rely on social media (such as Twitter and Facebook). Therefore, an easy-to-use and intuitive website that gathers important data is crucial. CMS, like Drupal, is an important step to build a flexible and reliable platform to collect large amounts of data with the possibility of sharing it for further analysis and interpretation using web technology. While some researchers might be skeptical as to whether they have the needed skills to launch and monitor such a project, I would simply like to add that once the initial technological and coding fears are overcome and the project leader has gained a basic grasp of Drupal’s powerful tools, “collaboration” and “division of labor” will become buzzwords to sustain and expand the original project. Last but not least, utilizing a CMS, like Drupal, is a great opportunity for scholars in theatre and performance studies to archive and map trends and evolutions in their field by relying on cutting-edge technology. They are able to maintain their online/offline workflow in a fast-changing environment, while embracing the new zeitgeist that is characterized by social media and an incessant connectedness to the web and to big data.
Center for Global Studies
George Mason University
Image: Screenshot from postconflictyouth.net, with permission.
The views, perspectives, and opinions expressed here and by those providing comments are those of the author(s) and commentator(s) alone, and do not reflect the opinions of Dissertation Reviews, its members, editors, or advisory board members.