FEATURE29 October 2012

Making mobile research more transparent

Features Mobile

Siamack Salari, founder and director of EthOS and Everyday Lives, explains how mobile respondents and researchers could benefit by giving participants more ownership and control of their data.


Respondents taking part in mobile ethnography projects risk forgetting to self-censor and conceal what they’d prefer to keep private. But Siamack Salari is trying to change this with his EthOS app by allowing users to take charge of their own data and monitor how it is subsequently used.

Project owners can toggle on a permission during a study, or after it, to let respondents view what data they have submitted and who it is being shared with. We spoke to Salari to find out more.

Research: What was the inspiration behind this approach to data control?
Siamack Salari:
Lengthy, complicated consent forms or release forms don’t offer any transparency and leave the respondent none the wiser over where their content will be stored and how it will be used. What we were looking for was a clear, transparent and simple way for participants to take ownership of their own content and make sure that they don’t have any reason to feel uncomfortable. With mobile ethnography, it’s possible that the user might accidentally send footage that they’d prefer to reman private. Our solution means that participants can see not only who has downloaded their content, but for what reason and for which audience. They can also ask the downloader more questions if they wish.

“The real question is whether clients want to offer this empowerment right now – I’ve no doubt that users want to know how their data is being used”

How aware are consumers of the ways their data can be used?
I don’t think consumers have enough understanding of what is involved with data transmission, especially from mobile devices. A lot of the time they see it as an activity that will earn them a cash incentive in exchange for some home footage, such as filming the contents of their fridge or asking them about their feelings.

In theory, this data is only useful at the time it is taken and its value diminishes afterwards because it has become a commodity. But what consumers don’t understand is that this is only partially true. Their footage might not be touched ever again, but at the same time, the technicalities on a release form might mean that the footage can be used for any other purpose without any permission. This is what we term “mission creep”.

And that’s what you’re trying to avoid?
Yes, essentially we’re looking at ways of increasing transparency over time – for instance, after the footage has been used for the original research study it was intended for and where anything else might qualify as mission creep. Currently participants receive alerts and quarterly download digests with explanations and contacts for those downloading their information, but once beta-testing is over, a feature that will also allow partipants to refuse downloads. The onus will be on the downloader to comply with the user’s request.

Do you think consumers want to be empowered in this way?
I think that mobile users are already empowered. They want to take part in these studies and enjoy using the technology but they aren’t fully aware of where the data ends up after they upload it. As responsible researchers, I believe we owe it to participants to offer them full transparency. With this scheme, we are helping respondents be their own data keepers. I think the real question is whether clients want to offer this empowerment right now – I’ve no doubt that users want to know how their data is being used and how they can prevent anything they might consider a misuse of their data.

How much education is required, both from a consumer and a client perspective?
We are currently in the process of showing the functionality to clients and trying to persuade them to test its potential. There have been a few trying it out and it is of interest to them. I think the real barrier for them, though, is whether this route is right for them logistically speaking, or if a consent form is easier from a legal perspective. This will be an ongoing debate.

But I believe that the days of large organisations exerting complete control over participant data is disappearing. Participants are more knowledgeable about their rights and far less accepting of inflexible release forms which – although legally sound – are ethically unsound, forcing them to be the gagged partner in what should be a two-way conversation between them and their researchers.

1 Comment

9 years ago

Good approach, Mr. Salari! Just let the user (in our case: customers) see, what data you want and collect and what the whole thing is for. I think it's just fair and transparent this way. (If you want, you can check our tool on: http://feedbackstr.com) - would be kind, if we get feed back from you!-)).

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