Thinking ahead: some tips on preparing for NVivo analysis

Liz Graveling

Recently, I’ve been working on an NVivo project that has been set up for a research group just beginning the analysis stage. The data consist of several hundred respondents from various communities in two different countries, some of which have been surveyed and/or interviewed three or four times and some only once. The two immediate objectives in using NVivo are to be able to draw together all the data from each individual, and to search (query) the data according to certain variables, such as location, gender and marital status.

Jumping into an NVivo project that has already been started for a research group entering its final stages has made me reflect on how important it is to understand right from the beginning the technical as well as conceptual elements of the analysis process, and to think through the implications of these for other methodological and organisational tools. The following are…

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Survey on Digital Map use


About the survey
Following my upgrade from MPhil to PhD earlier this year, I ran a short survey on Digital Map use (May to July 2013) – just to get a few opinions. I sent it out across  the internal e-mail system at the University of Sheffield ( and my dedicated SM research accounts:

Twitter – @ondigitalmaps
Facebook – OnDigitalMaps

Some survey respondents wanted to see findings, and duly I have drafted this post.

At a later date (nearer completion of the PhD – ETA 2019!) I will publish a more detailed analysis. For now, this is just a short indicator on a few areas, more for respondents than anyone else. Below, I cover the following in this post:

• The popularity of different digital map providers;
• The perceived reliability or trustworthiness of digital maps;
• The ways in which digital maps are used (how they fit within everyday life);
• The effect (if any) of digital map use on: choice of route travelled; site visited; or sense of place.

There is a short summary at the bottom of the page if you want to skip the main text.

if you want to discuss the project, findings, or any area it touches on, see about me for contact details.

A short note on method
This was a very basic survey, with a non-probability sample and a tiny population. The survey itself was short (approx. 15 questions for each respondent), gaining an initial return of 391 usable responses. The questions asked for basic demographic data, with a mixture of multiple choice, rank order scale, and open-ended questions. With page-logic and question-logic branching, alongside the option to skip questions – not all questions received a full 391 responses. For consistency, I have represented the findings as percentage in this post. All quoted text is verbatim, inclusive of any spelling/grammar errors.

To place the survey in context, it simply flags up suggestions for areas where further research might be appropriate. I am not seeking statistical significance within analysis of the data. Nor will survey data findings shape my analysis. In short, the survey was just a playful way of getting on handle on the way people might use digital maps. It flagged up some potential areas to look at and themes I might want to explore within interview questions – it was really just a bit of playful fun before jumping into the deep end of a messy, thick, data-rich, mostly qualitative research project.

The survey fits into a larger grounded theory research design spanning three contexts (or cases if you prefer): Homebuying; leisure-walking; and Everyday student life. I am going to hold semi-structured interviews and a focus group for each context, developing themes through inductive analysis of interviews. Later, these will be iteratively re-informed through participant discussion of the findings at focus groups. As a minor aspect, I will use survey responses (mostly free-text responses to the open-ended questions) as an aid to comparison across the three contexts. In discussing corroborative similarities and differences across the three contexts, and against an existing body of literature in critical cartography and practice theory, I aim to work towards a digital sociology cartography.

Choice of map used
The respondents brought up some predictable findings. For example, the dominance of Google Maps compared to others – 55% stated they had only ever used Google Maps, whilst not one single respondent left the box for Google Maps unchecked. That is – 100% had used Google Maps, either as the only map they had ever used, or alongside having used at least one other map type.

Although, it is easy to see why – Google hit an estimated 400 million unique activations in 2010 for Google Earth alone (Crampton, 2010: 27), which is staggering compared to the relatively small user-base of Microsoft’s Bing (the second most popular digital map in the survey). Whether this will change with Microsoft’s announcement earlier this year of a 165 Terrabyte update is debatable, and without a published set of statistics from each company, including a methodology open to public scrutiny, we may never know.

Other map providers follow well behind Google in the popularity stakes – 32.1% had used Microsoft’s Bing Maps, 27.4% had used OpenStreetMap, and 9.3% had used Yahoo maps. Conversely, only 6.1% had used Apple Maps (potentially owing to bad publicity), despite the strength of the Apple as a brand (iPhone is particularly relevant here).
Meanwhile, from the less popular digital maps used, there is wide range of choice available.

No. of respondents  Map used
1 Admiralty (National Archives)
1 Apontador
1 AutoRoute (Microsoft)
1 Baidu
1 Blackberry
1 British Geological Survey
1 Cloudmade
7 Edina products (e.g., )
4 ESRI Products (e.g. ArcGIS & ArcMap)
2 Garmap products (incl. Garmin)
2 Mapbox
1 Mapometer
6 Mapquest
2 Michelin
4 Nokia Maps (HERE)
5 Ordnance Survey
2 Stamen
2 Waze

This ranges from specialised software (tailored towards a specialist audience) such as Edina and ESRI products, through digital maps with a specific purpose e.g., RAC and Garmap – designed for traffic. Others are simply everyday digital maps with multiple purposes that simply lack popularity within the respondents to this survey.

Reliability/trustworthiness of digital maps
The dominance of Google Maps seems (in part at least) to be reinforced by respondents linking map reliability to the company or brand, or a belief that large companies provide a better digital map. For example, when asked what it is that makes a digital map reliable or trustworthy, a range of respondents noted that:

“Loads of people use them, if there was something inaccurate then it would have been noticed and altered”

“Regular updates and provides by a large known company eg google”

“maps on sites like google are usually up to date
The brand name of Google makes it trustworthy

google maps has street view so you can litrally see the street.”

“In the case of Google – huge amounts of data behind them, reputation for online mapping over the last 10 years”

“Google maps seems to cover a large area with its photos etc and is always exact re time to destination etc when using for directions etc.”

“just trust the provider, google, are easy to read and always have worked well”
“Well, they are products for companies who depend upon reliability + accuracy for repeat users. Decline in numbers if cannot be trusted (Apple Maps for example).”

“Only when provided by a reliable source like Google. Its the strong brand image of the company and effectiveness that I have experienced personally.”

“experience, and conservatism on the part of google.”

“Though google’s search results are often cluttered and noisy, I have not found this to be the case with map results. The recommended results seem to be reliably what I am looking for.”

“Being compiled by a large organisation.”

Meanwhile, other respondents noted that digital map reliability rested on a prosumer base (and function), and potential for Volunteered Geographical Information (VGI) which increased the frequency with which digital maps could be updated. In addition, some respondents noted that a larger user-base led to faster feedback and rectification of errors:

“trusted sources for maps which also enable crowd sourcing that can be verified by the user base helps make services such as google maps trustworthy. Solutions offered by unknown third parties however would be treated with caution”

“Loads of people use them, if there was something inaccurate then it would have been noticed and altered”

“So many people use them that problems are quickly detected. They are more reliable than paper maps because they are more up to date”
“If stuff is wrong on them then people say so in reviews and forums.”
“Millions people will use google maps everyday so inaccuracies would be reported and rectified”

“The frequency with which they get updated; the fact that error correction is crowdsourced (and often brought to the attention of the map provider very quickly by people with local/direct knowledge of the area/feature being mapped)”

“Large user-base, currency, crowdsourcing. But quality also depends heavily on where you live.”

Interestingly, when asked if they had ever added towards, edited, or amended map content. The 76.9% who had not added, edited, or amended content preferred a large map provider, remained largely in favour of large map providers for reliability (see above). Meanwhile, the 20.8% who stated they had added, edited, or amended content did not necessarily correlate with those stating that VGI maps were more reliable.

Whilst these findings can only be tentatively indicative at best, there is certainly room for research, especially on: a) the relationship between ‘brand awareness’ in terms of company size or reputation and actual consumption of digital products; b) the reconfiguring of brand loyalty and perceived reliability of digital map content with crowd-sourcing (VGI); and c) the perceived reliability (or trust placed within a map) in relation to openness of the map.

How are digital maps used
Having looked at which digital maps are used, I also wanted to look at how they are used, beginning with frequency. Compared to digital map chosen, the way digital maps are used seems to be fairly diverse (among the survey participants). A majority claim to use digital maps at least once a week (45%) or once a month (25.9%), whilst a sizable portion claim to use digital maps at least once per day.

The data here might be indicative of a dataset skewed by the dissemination method (and less than sound sampling strategy!) than anything more significant – with a high number of those using a digital map more than once a day at work holding job titles such as: postdoctoral researcher, cartographer, GIS specialist, Instructor of Geography, or QA lead at a mapping software company (to name a few). However, the range of occupations across other use frequencies is less map-specific (retail manager, student, teacher etc.), suggesting that most digital map users fall somewhere between using a digital map once a month or more than once a week – an aspect I aim to teeth out through interviews in my research – this may differ according to context.

Location of use
Beyond specialised use, the majority of respondents (across various employment types) seem to use maps at home, or during leisure-time away from home.

Frequency of Digital Map use At Home At work Leisure time Other
More than once a day 41.20% 44.10% 14.70% 0.00%
Daily 52.80% 41.70% 5.60% 0.00%
Very often (once a week or more) 56.80% 11.20% 24.00% 8.80%
Often (once a month or more) 65.80% 6.80% 23.30% 4.10%
Occasionally (once a year or more) 54.50% 9.10% 27.30% 9.10%

As I mentioned above, the dataset is skewed, with those using digital maps at work on a daily basis tending to do so in specialised jobs requiring more extensive use of digital maps.

An optional question in the survey aimed at temporal use of digital maps e.g., to locate when in the process of an activity that a map is used. From 104 responses, there was an even split between using a map before an activity (49.0%), and those using a digital map in situ, or whilst on the move (50.0%). Only one respondent (1.0%) used a digital map after an activity. Which may be down to preference, or the mode of access (home PC/laptop at home vs. Mobile/smart phone).

Accessing digital maps
In term of accessing digital maps, 52.2% of the survey respondents go direct to a map vendor website, Google remaining the most popular with 95.0% of the respondents, and Bing (the second favourite option) receiving only 3.0%. The other 2.0% use Mapbox, OpenStreetMap and interestingly, for two respondents – the map function on the University of Sheffield website. The latter, is comprised of Google Maps embedded into the webpage content. Here, it is interesting that Google’s Map has become so pervasive and banal, that some people no longer recognise using it.

Meanwhile, the 4.0% using a computer app to access digital maps largely preferred Google Maps (45.6%), with 27.2% unsure of their map vendor, and 27.2% using a specialist map app e.g., Edina or Esri products.

The 41.2% using a mobile/smart phone app tended to use more than one app, with 77.7% using Google’s app (49% had only ever using Google). Surprisingly Bing did not appear in the list, despite the readily available of Bing’s map app. Again, this is probably more to do with the sample than anything more significant. The second most popular app was Apple’s, with 11.2%. The remaining 11.1% used a diverse range of maps, from Samsung to Nokia. However, 3.4% (the third largest group) were unsure which map they used (which mobile app), with statements such as:

“I don’t know the name of it sorry.”


“I’m not sure, It is just called maps. Probably google maps”

Overall, the survey suggests people prefer to visit a website or use a mobile/smart phone app to access digital maps, and prefer to use a wide range of map apps. The popularity of Google consistent remained throughout, with some respondents unaware or unsure if they were using a Google Map. However, the rationale for choosing a specific map is a theme that could warrant further exploration.

Digital map use within everyday life
The main purpose of the survey was to explore the ways in which digital map use might fit within, or affect other everyday practices. To do that, I decided to look at three areas based on what I felt were three functional uses of maps: for navigating (getting from A to B); for locating (finding something); and for getting a feel or sense of place (‘seeing’ what a place might be like).

Digital map use and choice of route
When asked if a digital map had ever had an effect on their choice of route, 86.8% of the respondents said it had, whilst 9.4% said it had not. Those stating that using a digital map had effected their choice route stated:

“ability to choose between motorway and A roads or avoiding city centres”

“I use maps to plan cycle routes”

“Google map provides a more reliable ‘quick route’ than my head does so sometimes I’ll look up what it suggests as the best way to get somewhere.”
“I always use googlemaps directions to find the quickest way of getting somewhere e.g. from University to friend’s house in Walkley by foot”
“I drove through the Hope valley and Stockport to get to Manchester airport rather than via the Snake Pass having looked on Google maps. This was to reduce my time spent on the M60.”

“Good Running Guide’s mapmyrun feature – helps me decide where to run and the distance”

“Yes, tourist places always have specific routes (leaflets) to follow, However, digital maps can provide alternative options to visit at the same place.”

“I have often used the google maps app on my mobile phone instead of sat nav, particularly when I am walking and new to a city.”

“Can see the whole route – whilst driving to Portugal we chose to follow google maps on my phone rather than the sat nav as that meant we could drive alongside the sea :)”
“Among other things, they help me find walkable routes away from main streets.”

“accessing travel-itinerary using google maps, I determined when the next bus would come, and decided to take the bus”

In retrospect, the survey question may have been poorly phrased – with several respondents just providing examples of how and when they had used a digital map, rather than examples of where a digital map had specifically affected their choice. However, the cases where a digital map had most effect, seemed to be for pedestrians and drivers, both using them as an alternative to Sat-Nav for a faster or shorter journey. Meanwhile, others preferred the level of detail provided in digital maps – from public transport timescales to real-time route calculation. This flags up a key area to research, in exploring how digital map use fits within everyday corporeal mobility.

Digital map use and choice of site
When asked if digital map use had ever affected the choice of site/place visited, a large portion were unsure, whilst 53.2% said it had not. From the 36.5% who stated it had, there were several responses. However, most referred to examples of a digital map being used as locative media for cosumerism – to locate a site for eating, drinking, or shopping, whilst some base their choice of holiday destination on digital map content. As the below examples indicate, more in-depth research on how digital maps are used could be useful for leisure and tourism industries, alongside shops, bars, restaurants.

“abroad holidays, can see the birds eye view of nearest beach or town”

“Finding the nearest store/petrol station etc.”
“Being able to see attractions and facilities on a map has helped choose holiday destinations”

“When looking for a restaurant, if google maps says there is one nearby and I’m hungry then I will go there instead”

“finding the closest place to buy some stuff”

“Searching for a shop, pub, restaurant or cafe ect. I will usually go for the nearest one my iPhone finds.”

“For entertainment and restaurants, I use Google maps to see what is close if I am walking.”

“Chosing somewhere to wild camp. The digital map shows satellite images of the area so you can see what its actually like. Is there somewhere you can park. Are there houses nearby.”

“Wild Camping – found an area with a trees and a stream”

“After an accident we had to find the closest place to get the car repaired.”

“Ability to discover types of features (e.g. a waterfall/a walk) or to discover new attractions (POIs etc)”

“Often in a strange city, I’ve sought out an interesting neighborhood. I will avoid areas that appear less dense on the map, as they probably have fewer restaurants, cafes, services”

“Using Google or Trip Advisor to choose a nearby place to eat.”

“For example the closest restaurant or movie theater”

“Choosing a vacation resort/hotel.”

“- selecting restaurants on a digital map, if they are not on the map i’d probably simply not got there or know about the place”

“searching for coffeeshop showed higher-quality coffeeshops were nearby, and I selected one.”

“Finding out if there is a cheap pub (e.g. Wetherspoons) in the vicinity and then getting there.”

Digital map and sense of place
On a less functional note than that choice of site or route, one of my survey questions asked if using a digital map had ever had an affect the feel, or sense the respondent had of a place. Whilst 15.7% were unsure, and 28.0% stated it had not – a majority of 56.3% stated using a digital map had affected their sense of a place. Several noted that digital maps used prior to visiting place had made them feel more secure, comfortable and familiar with a place before getting there, especially in urban environments.

“Having asperges and having difficulty with new places digital maps providing street level views help with familiarisation of new places”

“More familiar as a result of Google Street View”

“Makes it more familiar especially if the place is new”

“E.g. gave me a sense of how safe/nice a neighbourhood was”

“Feel more secure as I know I will find where I am trying to reach”

“Easy to find directions by using street view, so I feel safer when travelling”

“Have used it to establish location in context of bigger city”

“Helped me realise that two places within a city, for example, were much closer than I thought.”

“B4 visiting a place I usually visit maps to look for attractions in there.. Sometimes feels that it didn’t worth visiting it, because there is nothing to do”

“Felt more comfortable when I had to find a train station quickly somewhere I’d never been before”

“Made the place seem more familiar and easier to remember on the next visit.”

“Felt more familiar by using Google street view. Knew how the place looked like before going there physically.”

“more confident knowing where i am going”

“More comfortable in knowing where i am”

“Looking to buy a house… If the street doesn’t look nice on street view then I automatically rule it out”

“google street view can give you an idea of what the city looks like, therefore creating an opinion without ever having been there”

“Before to go a new place, I always take at look google maps, in specific street view, So when I finally arrive to this new place, I’m familiar with it. That makes me feel comfortable.”

“Could determine my walking distance or which types of transportation I should use. And I feel more confident going to a place I didn’t know before because I know my way.”

“Created greater connection through additional content. Historical information through a pop-up or old imagery, locations of out of the way shops, immersion through augmented reality map”

Overall, the survey was useful (and playful) for flagging up areas to explore in interviews (and focus groups). However, as noted above, the survey is not based on a strong sampling strategy and as such the findings are speculative at best. Having said that, there were some interesting points to note in the responses and some areas where some further research is clearly needed.

Google is the preferred map vendor across all platforms (whether it is accessed direct via a website, computer app, or Mobile/Smart phone app), and all locations (at home, at work, or during leisure-time away from home). Although, going directly through a website or using a mobile/smart phone app seem to be the most popular choices for accessing digital maps.

The perceived reliability/trustworthiness of a map is split between two positions. Some link reliability to the large size or popularity of a company (brand awareness), whilst others feel that prosumer potential and Volunteered Geographic Information (VGI) mean that a map can be updated more quickly, and is thus more reliable. Notably, those preferring a large company/map provider felt that that customer feedback and a large user-base led to a more reliable digital map, and had often not added, edited or amended map content. Meanwhile who found maps with VGI data more reliable were evenly split amongst those who had, and those who had not added, edited or updated content,

In terms of how maps fit within everyday life practices, what clearly showed through the responses were that digital map use can affect the route people take when travelling, increasing mobility and the decreasing travel time. Use can also affect the choice shop, or restaurant visited, through to the choice of holiday destination. More interestingly, the implications of digital map use on sense of place not only affect feelings of security, but can also have an impact on decisions such as where to buy a house.

In my research, I will be addressing questions on how digital maps are used in everyday life, how the availability (and or uptake) of prosumer capabilities (such as VGI) affect use, and how digital map use relates to other practices (such as home-buying, leisure-walking or everyday life as a student).

Towards a Digital Sociology of Cartography

Digital technologies are now integral and to everyday life. Some, are more overt – the alarm clock that wakes us. Others are less so – automated water pressurisations systems ensuring clean running water reaches our home in the morning, ready for the kettle. In the Social Sciences, we have engaged with them in various ways.

Human geographers have (at times) taken broad technocentric perspective. For example, Rob Kitchin & Martin Dodge (2011) theorise our increasing reliance on software code and algorithmic calculation in everyday life. They argue the infrastructures of our world are increasingly encoded within complex algorithms. From bedside alarm clocks to automated traffic light control systems, from water pressurisation systems to airspace management, software code keeps life ticking along. Even global economic markets are manipulated, controlled, and managed through algorithmic high frequency trading (presumably to remove the potential human error of open outcry systems). Not to mention that awful EdgeRank algorithm in Facebook, which dictates the ‘friends’ feeds I can, or cannot see. It sorts me into an order, of which I have no say and no understanding of the logic. In some cases code has supplanted processes so prolifically that prior manual processes are muted to redundancy (Kitchin & Dodge, 2008: 162), with no back-up plan should the code ever fail.  Equally, science and technology scholars have mapped out the forked paths along which specific technologies have developed, and the actants involved (human or otherwise), pointing to the construction of specific technologies as historical trajectories (alongside discussing the power, aesthetics, and the ethics involved). At times, this has held the tangible aim of informing human factors research, including the user-centred design (UCD) of products based on human-technology interaction. Anthropologists and sociologists have employed innovative methodologies to theorise co-constitutional relationships between technology, environment and users for some time– for example Lucy Suchman’s (1985) focus on the lived use of technologies as situated action entangled within rich configurations of other actions.

To encompass these diverse approaches to digital technologies (many of which are sociologically inclined), the term Digital Sociology, has been put forward by Deborah Lupton (2012a, 2012b). As a descriptive term it replaces the older prefixes Cyber- andSociology of-  with a name compatible to other disciplines’ engagement with the ‘digital turn’ (2012a). For Lupton there are four main approaches to Digital Sociology:

  • Using digital media as tools for networking, self-publicising, collaboration and sharing;
  • Digital data analysis;
  • Critical Digital Sociologies reflexive and critical of digital media;
  • Sociological analyses of Digital Media use and configuring senses of self, embodiments, and social relations.

Digital Sociology is growing, recent developments include the BSA Digital Sociology Study Group set up earlier this year by Mark Carrigan with Lupton’s typology in the defining terms, and Noorje Marres’ recently opened MA/MSc in Digital Sociology, the UK’s first postgraduate course in the subject.

In my research, I am working towards a Digital Sociology of Cartography. That is, the range of web 2.0 digital maps often accessed through ubiquitous, new media, screen-based technologies that gently slip into the background of everyday life: Google (EarthMaps,Yahoo MapsOS MapsOpenStreetMapBing MapsGoCommute and many more. They are used at home on a laptop, on the move via a smart-phone, or as remediated content via a print-out (Bolter & Grusin, 1999). Where standardised paper-based maps (the preceding technology) emerged from industrial period technologies: Lithography, and the Steam engine powered boats and rail systems used for mass-production, travel, and mass-distribution. Digital maps emerged in the last decade through developments in software code and processing speed in computers that allow massive interoperability through XML and HTML (now under HTML 5.0). This provides various opportunities for maps: first, ‘prosumption’ (the production of maps can be undertaken by consumers – users can generate, remix, mash-up, and hack content), especially where Application Programme Interfaces (API’s) are publicly open; second, deep entanglement with other sources.

Although sociological engagement with cartography is nothing new. Social cartography has been used to spatialise and analyse data in the social sciences since the mid-Nineteenth century: Charles Booth’s (1899) maps display demographic survey data; Henry Mayhew’s (1861) maps use speculative participant-observations and census data to develop ‘types’ of street-folk; or John Snow’s early use of the dot-distribution to solve a Cholera epidemic in East London (McLeod, 2000), forming Epidemiology in the process.  Likewise, a theory of Cartography is nothing new. In the post-World War Two period Arthur Robinson set a formal theory with his Academic Cartography, drawing on cybernetics and a Positivist outlook, develop a ‘Map-Communication-Model’ for objective map-production. Later, in the 1980’s, John (Brian) Harley developed a Constructionist inspired Critical Cartography, setting the ground for the GIS Wars in the 1990’s and early 2000’s (in the wake of the Science Wars). With diverse outcomes that continue to date: (Public) Participatory Geographical Information Systems (PPGIS/PGIS), Feminist, Queer, and postcolonial GIS’s, subversive map-art, and projection and co-ordinate debates that continue to date.

What has not been addressed are everyday uses of digital maps. GIS practitioners and Neogeographers debate the value of specialist knowledge against the possibility of ‘grassroots’ maps developed through Volunteered Geographic Information (VGI) and user-generated (prosumer) content –  with potential policy implications; Participatory Design (PD), User Experience (UX), and User-Centred Design (UCD) approaches focus on human factors to asses interactions with the map, optimising hardware or software (and occasionally questioning in-design ethics). Yet, to date there is no sociological research on the use of digital maps. In part, this could be the relatively recent development of the technology (their newness). For which, hopefully the upcoming International Cartographic Conference 2013 (Dresden, Germany) should see some new research, especially under the Maps, GIS and Society (T18) theme (chaired by Chris Perkins) and the ICA’s Commission for Neocartography (founded 2011).

To evaluate the value of researching digital maps, we can take one example, and possibly the most popular – Google Earth. It had (an estimated) 400 million unique activations in 2010 (Crampton, 2010: 27), with a seemingly limitless set of uses: In my own experience I have seen surveyors define property boundary lines with them (far cheaper than the cost of a Land Registry search); cyclists plan a route to decide the feasibility of route prior to travel; friends follow an on-screen map in a foreign city to reach a bar; and other friends have relived memorialised their childhood, visiting streets of their childhood home via the Street-View Function. It is widely embedded in various sites, ranging from: large scale multi-national companies like McDonald’s restaurant locator; national organisations, for example, the British Judo Association’s club; national state institutions, such the British Police’s crime map – an interesting choice given the availability of digital maps from the official state supported Ordnance Survey. Even local, independent sources use Google Maps, for example Sheffield based Hui Wei restaurant’s ‘find us’ website page. Given the sheer scale and popularity of digital maps, research should be of interest for anybody interested in migration (will i be safe moving to this new city?), tourism (does that holiday resort look nice?), consumerism (which restaurant review is on the map?) – That is, the spatial knowledge politics that digital maps present for identity construction. With additional interest for planners assessing traffic flow (which maps are used), landed capital investment (do estate agents manipulate embedded data like local school reviews?) and many more. However to date no social research exists on the demographics of users, the rationale for use (or non-use), the interpretation of meaning-making through maps, or the arrays of activity in which maps are most commonly used (will a peak district walker prefer a paper-based map? Will a London tourist trust the paper TFL underground map, or prefer a digital one?). As technology progresses, and advancements like the semantic web (Griffiths et al, 2012), or Web 3.0, and augmented reality (AR) glasses like Google Googles and those in development at Microsoft come into play, it is becoming increasingly important to gain a solid Sociological understanding of these technologies, and the implications they hold for an increasingly mobile world.

In addressing this gap, some Digital Sociologies of Cartography have started to emerge, for brief outline (following Lupton’s schematic typology): Amber Davisson’s collaboration and sharing of data across maps (Davisson, 2011) uses the medium as a tool for networking, collaboration and sharing. Equally, Bearman & Appleton (2012) use Google maps to collate their survey data; Neogeographers and GIS practitioners have moved towards Digital data analysis, however this is limited through the closed circuit of map-ownership over user data (Google do not publicly release user numbers, statistics, or data); Critical Digital Sociologies have been reflexive of digital maps, in particular relationships between map-ownership and military ventures – both through the origins of Google Earth (the initial creation was developed by a CIA feeder technologist called Keyhold) in accidental exposure of sensitive military data into the public realm, and also in the perceived surveillance and issue to privacy through Google Street-View, popularised in the BritishGerman, and Greek reactionary press; in my own work, I have started to focus on everyday use of digital maps (practice) as co-constitutional of sense of space, choice of site and route, and potentially anchoring of (and anchored by) other map-related practices (Couldry, 2004; Swidler, 2001). For now, I am focussing on home buyers, students, and leisure-walkers/trekkers, but a lot of work is still needed to develop Digital Sociologies generally, and specifically those on Digital maps.


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Lupton, D. (2012b). Digital Sociology: An Introduction (pp. 1–17). Sydney: University of Sydney.

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McLeod, K. S. (2000). Our sense of Snow: the myth of John Snow in medical geography. [In:] Social science & medicine (1982), 50 (7-8), 923–35.

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Starting a part-time PhD

Reflections on starting a part-time PhD – two years on:

So, in October 2011 I enrolled on a part-time, self-funded PhD. What did I expect? Well, to start with, I assumed a massive leap into a complex world of data collection and analysis, with tonnes of reading. I expected a beast that would take over my life. What I got was a structured approach and some basic academic things…

To start with, phase one – the initial proposal, was just a starting point, finding a research (and re-searchable! question was the end-goal. This was harder than I had thought it would be. Most people have either a) a rough idea of the area they want to study, or b) they know exactly  what they want to research. I was the latter, so phase one was easy. Phase two, refining the question and getting some tributary questions that open in up was a pain. That requires some real thought on what is/is not really important to your research question, and what you really want to get out of the answers. So that was few months out of the way.

The next stage, required compulsory modules. To capitalise fully, and stifle research as far as possible the ESRC decided that  all research students most go through a set of modules. Irrespective of previously having been through the detail or not, and irrespective of relevance. In my case, 3 x months on Ontology, Epistemology, and Methodology (with an expanded bit on Ethics and Integrity thrown in). In reality, anyone reading Bertrand Russell, David Silverman, or a generic methodology textbook by a key writer in their own discipline could skip this. Sadly, University’s have their hands ties on this one. For a self-funding PhD, it was a waste of time (3 x months) and resource (money, expenses, holidays off work etc.).

So, modules out the way (boxes ticked, money and time lost) you can get on with the research. Well, actually no. You need to start on a Research Design. This is like a mini-thesis bible. It has sections on: aims, purpose, context, research questions, philosophical framework, data collection, data analysis, and ethical considerations.   When writing this, it’s the first time you realise that writing is not easy. It’s the main craft of academia, and it is a craft. People either underwrite (lay terms) or overwrite (pretentious academic jargon). I have been guilty of both.  It really is worth setting aside a day here and really learning how to use Word. The spellcheck function (in full, with differing grammar checks, readability stats etc.) and also how to use comments, notes, tracked changes, version control. All of it. While you are at it, get and online storage space for back-up. I chose Dropbox for ease of use. At this stage, you may want to purchase Scrivenor too,

So, you hand in the Research design at about month 5 (full-time) schedule and start working on a Methodology chapter. You can take half the design, and some of the stuff from the modules (most of which will be useless and lack relevance to your specific project) and hash it together.

After a few re-writes you should be about ready to start working towards an upgrade proposal. A few admin tasks – Ethics form, Gantt chart of project plan/timeline of thesis, chapter outline, etc. and away you go.

The upgrade proposal is quite tricky.The upgrade proposal is generally structured as: aims, purpose, context,  research questions, overview of literature review, research design, data collection methods, data analysis methods, and ethical considerations. Although different institutions, and indeed different departments within any one institution may have different stipulations and timescales.

For me, the requirements were for a document around 3000 words (+/- 10%), with a 6,000 to 10,000 word Literature Review. This was written for an examiner outside my department and a postgraduate tutor. As a document it’s the first entry to academia, and the first time you meet as an academic to defend something. It needs to be well written and water-tight. The thing to remember is that the upgrade panel is not really there to discuss the finer points of theory, their job is to ensure the reputation of the University is upheld. Once you upgrade, your out in the world doing your own research, with a potential to cause a PR nightmare. They need to know your proposed project is rigorous, meaningful and can be completed on time (yes, they are targeted on that!).

In my case, I passed the upgrade panel in March 2013 with minor changes to the ethics form, which was 6 months early for a part-time Schedule.

My tips for any aspiring PhD in the social sciences would be:
1. Read a book on Methodology before starting your course. Get a good understanding of Ontology, Epistemology, and Methodology. Define your position. This will help you get past any compulsory modules early, and save you several weeks.
2. Think on *exactly* what you want to research, and let that drive the literature and methods you look at and use. That will help with the research design, which will become a methodology, which will help you upgrade.
3. Get the appropriate software for you and learn how to use it – I use Mendeley for references, you might prefer EndNote. I also use NVivo, which takes a while to learn.
4. Socialise, mingle, network. A PhD is isolating, your Facebook and Twitter ‘friends’ will only help so far.