Mobile Apps for Ethnographic Research – #RoR2018

Mobile Apps for Ethnographic Research – #RoR2018

Ethnographic research is difficult. It’s a challenge to find the right assistants, get access, recruit the right people, keep a schedule, make time for note-writing and transcription, and be self-motivated through it all. In Dakar, I depend on a number of mobile apps to help me keep the project together. Some of these apps may or may not be available on your phone or where you do research, but as I have done with these apps, I recommend finding something and just testing it out. I’m using an iPhone 6S and an iPad Pro 9.7″. (And FYI, none of the following links are sponsored.)

ToDoist (iOS/Android/Windows): ToDoist is my lifeblood. It helps me keep track of everything I have to do today, tomorrow, eventually. You can organize your tasks into projects, add notes, and bring on collaborators. ToDoist syncs across all devices, and there is even a browser version. The best part, I think, is that ToDoist syncs with Google Calendar, and in both directions: if I add things to Calendar with a certain tag, it adds to ToDoist and vice versa. That way, I can add a meeting to Calendar, and then ToDoist will remind me. Optionally, ToDoist can send you an email every morning with your day’s tasks. ToDoist is basically what keeps my life together.

Social media apps (iOS/Android/Windows): Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are my go-to social media apps. They help me talk to my colleagues back home who might have experience with this kind of research or in Senegal. They facilitate my live-fieldnotes ecosystem so that I can share what I’m learning in real-time.

WhatsApp (iOS/Android/Windows): Like the social media apps, WhatsApp keeps me in contact with colleagues back home, but since WhatsApp is very popular here in Dakar, it also keeps me in contact with my research assistants and peers.

GoogleMaps (iOS/Android/Windows): Until recently, the satellite photos of Dakar were a splotchy, pixelated mess, but in the last year they’ve cleared up and become a little more detailed. Some neighborhoods even have street view. So, when I’m learning a new bus route or taking a cab ride, I can follow the little blue dot (me) on my phone and tie specific landmarks that I see out the window to where I am in the city. It helps to add stars on major landmarks – homes or restaurants I’ve visited – so that I have a clearer orientation of where I am. This is a big help in a densely populated city like Dakar, where a lot of things look the same to the uninitiated.

Box (iOS/Android): Box is my cloud-service of choice. It’s encrypted, secure, and the only cloud-service approved for use in research by my institutional review board. I have a free membership through my university, but it would be well worth the price, too.

Microsoft OneNote (iOS/Android/Windows) or Notability (iOS): For the iPad, I currently use OneNote for my interviews, though I used to use Notability until it suddenly stopped working right when I needed it. (I should say that Notability has probably had the bugs worked out, so you should give it a shot, but I haven’t looked back since moving to OneNote.) Both apps sync with many cloud-based data storage systems, including Box. After converting my interview instruments to PDF, I load them into OneNote, and that allows me to take notes right on the PDF during the interview. Because OneNote automatically syncs with the cloud, I can access these files instantly on my laptop or iPhone. I’ve even inserted a photo from my phone into a file and then watched it appear on my iPad.

Notes (iOS): Notes is an app that comes with iOS. I use it to jot down thoughts, quotes, events, and notes throughout the day.

MagicPlan (iOS/Android): Part of my research is about the gendering of space. What kinds of spaces are allowable to which genders, and under what circumstances are genders segregated? To help me map gendered space in large extended family households, I use MagicPlan. MagicPlan is an interior design app used for mapping a home. It uses augmented reality by placing the user in the middle of a room, lining up arrows with corners, and then more-or-less taking a picture. Turn, next corner, snap. Turn, doorway, snap. Finish a room, attach it to the last room, and before you know it, you’ve got a house. Then I export to PDF, take it into Adobe Illustrator CC, and add some color coding. I’ve been using it for five years, and it’s only gotten faster and easier to use. The app is free to use, but exporting PDFs of the plans comes at a premium.

ScannerPro (iOS): If you’re doing research with funding from a major organization (e.g. Wenner-Gren, National Science Foundation, Fulbright-Hays), receipts are everything. If you’re dealing with a foreign bureaucracy like an ethical review board or ministry, you need to make copies of everything. If you have hand-written notes, interview instruments, or hand-drawn maps, you’ll want copies of those too. I use ScannerPro, an app that takes photos of documents, converts them to plain black-and-white, and uploads them to Box.

What do you use? Do you have any recommendations?

3 Replies to “Mobile Apps for Ethnographic Research – #RoR2018”

  1. Thank you for this ethngografically amazing post. Don’t you think you should have added “for a plugged and connected ethnography” in the title?

  2. Thanks for this great list and summary of the apps you use for fieldwork. I’m always interested in what digital tools that others find useful, and it’s sometimes difficult to find ethnographic-specific forums where people want to talk about this stuff. I am also huge fan of OneNote, though I wish the mobile app were a little more robust. I shared a couple of posts related to OneNote and other apps for research and writing in case they might be of interest to others: and