Published: 28 October 2015

Digital technology offers new insights for research

What actually happens within households? We know that men are increasingly sharing in domestic duties and parenting; but does this mean that these activities are being done with their partners or are they taking turns? Do families eat together and talk to each other, or do they have separate meals in different rooms while talking on social media to their friends?

It is hard to observe households, and research on these issues is typically through self-reporting, answering questions and filling in diaries, or with highly invasive methods such as video recording.

A new £798,000 study will see Professor Nigel Gilbert, from the Centre for Research in Social Simulation, and Professor Klause Moessner, from the 5G Innovation Centre, join with with Ewa Luger (from Microsoft Research), to examine how technology can improve analysis and research.

Digital devices are becoming more sophisticated. A modern mobile phone can measure position and movement, as well as what the phone is being used for. Many people wear sensors for heart rate, sleeping patterns, and physical activity. And fixed sensors in houses can be simply plugged in to measure sound and energy use.

Using such sensors effectively would reduce the need for questionnaires and interviews, reducing the amount of work for respondents and providing potentially more accurate reporting.

However, there are technical problems to be solved. What can be measured by these devices? How can the data be converted into meaningful descriptions of activities? How reliable are these descriptions? There are also ethical concerns. How can the datasets be securely stored and for how long? How does consent work if people forget the devices are there? When should consent be obtained from people who are monitored but not intentionally included in the research, such as visitors?

The project, entitled ‘HomeSense: digital sensors for social research’, will examine these technical and ethical issues and develop guidelines for social researchers who want to use digital sensing devices in their research. These will be based on expert advice and discussion with members of the general public, as well as the experience of household members and researchers in a trial study.

The data collected in the trial study will be used to compare, contrast and integrate the use of sensor devices with existing research methods. The trial data and comparison of methods will be the foundation to develop analysis tools that help researchers to interpret and understand the rich data that can be collected with these methods, to answer questions about what happens within households.

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