What I’ve learned about big data, creativity and effective research

Body mapping at the York Policy Review event

From crunching the numbers to creative use of felt tips, Angela Collins explains why two events inspired her

I attended two events in as many weeks aimed at researchers sharing their knowledge and learning from each other. They were very different, but sparked a few observations that I felt were worth sharing.

Revolving Doors

The Revolving Doors research network event in London had a particular interest in those with multiple and complex needs. I attended a session on health data.

It highlighted the complexity of gathering and completing research which used big data.

Can you envisage having all the (anonymised) data from people accessing health care in 150 general practitioner surgeries? Imagine the ethical requirements, the hoops you would need to jump through, the time it would take, the logistics and resources tied up in such an exercise.

Well Dr Andrea Williamson has done this. She he jumped through the hoops, held her nerve and has got the data!

Now, cut me in half and you would see qualitative activity, some felt tip pens and Post-its. I am well and truly a quallie at heart. I love listening to people who are different (and sometimes not so different) to me and consistently being surprised at what I find out.

However, Dr Williamson’s data even got me a bit excited! Imagine having access to all this information and having experts that can pull it apart, make it meaningful and tell you something really important about people.

Information about what they do and why they do it, en masse.

Complex lives

Her work aims to understand if and how missed appointments can be determinants for social vulnerability.

She hopes to shed light on why some people miss multiple health appointments. The hypothesis is that this is not a sign of laziness or general disregard for the NHS, but an indicator of people who lead complex lives, with issues and concerns that the NHS should be involved with.

For someone who is not thinking beyond the next 24 hours, the importance of a cervical screening test is not on their radar. These are the people who need the most help.

Less Talk More (Inter) Action

The second of my events was for early career academic researchers. Set up by York Policy Review, it was called Less Talk More (Inter) Action.

I presented and facilitated a session at this event. I am absolutely an advocate of fully adjusting your methods to meet your participants’ needs, rather than forcing your static method onto a range of participants.

Creating a body map

You can gather your data and reach your research objectives using an approach that participants – and yourself for that matter – enjoy doing. Activities that make people think about themselves, and how they fit into the wider world.

I presented Body Mapping. Although seemingly simple, it is a very effective technique for finding the information you need in a fun and creative way.

After explaining the concept I set the 40 or so participants in the workshop off on a task to ‘draw’ what a good researcher looked like. Reassuringly, these professionals came up with very similar drawings, although differing in artistic quality!

Innovation vs mainstream

Prof Bryman gave the keynote speech on the application of ‘methodological innovations’. I was especially interested in his reflective view of their prevalence in the social sciences.

Just as academic publications were including more references to innovation in methods, we at Qa were at our peak of experimenting and applying visual approaches to data collection.

Now, innovation is no longer innovative when it becomes mainstream. For example in the early 2000s anything online was innovative – now most projects include an online element.

But I think creative and participatory methods which, at their most basic premise, use pens and paper to draw feelings and experiences have not become mainstream. This is not only because they require a specific skill set but also a trust in people and their ability to get engaged and contribute.

Learn and share

At both sessions people were there to learn and share, with the ultimate aim of making their own research or knowledge more effective.

These two sessions reminded me why I love research so much, and especially the research I do. The kind that brings people together (either physically or metaphorically) in a bid to make something better; that changes things for people who are not able to change it for themselves – for whatever reason.

In my nearing 13 years as a researcher I love that I can still be surprised by what people tell me. I also love that I’m not alone in this.