Research at the Art Hackathon

Earlier this year I got involved with a project that some friends were running in London to promote creative partnerships between artists and technologists.  The Art Hackathon team wanted some help conducting research on their initiative, particularly on the experiential side of how participants thought about their participation in the event.  We wanted to get a sense of what motivated people to get involved, how team-building and collaboration would work among teams with diverse skill sets, and whether it would be possible to get the ‘techies’ and the ‘artists’ to work together effectively.

As a person with anthropological training, the primary qualitative research tool in my kit is ethnographic research.  Basically this involves observing interactions between a group of people and to varying degrees taking part in what they are doing in order to gain a deeper understanding of the processes and power dynamics of the group.  Unfortunately it turned out that I wasn’t going to be in London during the Art Hackathon weekend, so we had to think creatively about other research methods available to us.

In the end we settled on a variety of remote-collection methods.  There was already a plan to create a video about the event, and we decided to do a survey following the event.  It’s also easier than ever now to collect the thoughts of event participants themselves by keeping an eye on social media and encouraging people to send in photos, short videos, blogs, etc. all tagged with a particular hashtag.  That makes it very easy to gather related publicly-expressed thoughts.

In addition to those, I wanted the ability to collect data privately.  To really get a feel for people’s experiences it is important to gain access to thoughts that people may not be eager to share in a public arena like Twitter or on a blog.  With that in mind, we created the idea of a diaries project where participants would respond to a writing prompt at semi-random intervals to give an update about what was happening.  It was important to me that the prompts be during the event rather than retrospective like the survey, because I wanted to collect their spontaneous impressions rather than the more narrative and reflexive style that happens when people are interviewed about past events.  By that point they’ve already processed and formulated their impressions into a meaningful story of ‘what happened’ and their impressions take on a sense of narrative flow and significance that may not have been obvious while the events were in progress.  Ideally with something like this you would try to gather data both during and after the event to note the change in what was important at the time and what only stood out as important after the fact, but as with all research projects there are limitations to what you can accomplish, and in this case the major limitation was my availability for designing and carrying out the project.  So we stuck to what we could do.

An unexpected blessing late in the game was finding another anthropologist who actually could be there on the day collecting live data.  This was a very exciting development and expanded the range of what we were able to do enormously.  Comparing the data between the two methods was really interesting and gave us a much more holistic picture of what participants were thinking, feeling and doing than just one method would have given us.

There were two findings that made the biggest impression on me; first the way that group dynamics in a semi-structured environment do tend to take on the pattern observed by Bruce Tuckman in the 1960s which is commonly articulated as ‘Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing’.  While there have been scholarly challenges to that framework, within a time-bound experience like the Art Hackathon where the groups self-organize and there isn’t a lot of interchange between groups, it seems to ring true.  Second, participants expressed a frustration between wanting to experiment and learn new things, and feeling trapped in their existing skill sets because doing what they know is the fastest and most effective way to support getting the project finished in time.  While we weren’t able to research this, we wondered whether people who got exposed to new technologies or methods at events like this one would take longer-term steps to alter their workflow and gain new skills by trying to learn these new technologies outside of the hackathon arena.  In other words, even if they didn’t end up getting to spend as much time learning at the hackathon as they wanted, was it an inspiration for them to carry on their interest in that area?

My full write up of our research outcomes is available on the Art Hackathon website, with detailed sections for the diaries analysis and participant-observation.  I would love to hear from people on similar projects they’ve conducted or future research in this area, because I think there is a lot left to explore here.