The project Unfrequently Asked Questions started this accelerator as a proposal for a board game. The game would invite players, in an engaging way, to discover other ways of approaching complex themes and topics and to express their own perspective in relation to them. During the program the team took this idea one step further by addressing the huge challenge that is currently posed to the information society by the corona crisis.
An informed society, the team realized, is not merely one in which people learn to handle facts and verbalize opinions appropriately. It also involves a culture in which people can be really present to one another. A culture in which people are visible, audible, sensible and accountable to one another. However, the current enforced social distancing poses severe restrictions on this ideal culture of presence.
The consequences of this are felt in different ways: people feel it in the gradual absence of friends, colleagues or family members. Municipalities and well-fare organizations across the world feel it in the difficulty they face in their ability to stay in touch with their constituencies and to truly understand their needs. The simplest question: ‘how are you doing?’ has become more and more difficult to ask and more and more difficult to respond to. Not only because we are less present to one another, but also because all the small and big ways in which this crisis affects us – all the new ways of living it implies amidst all the conflicting information about the virus and its cures – are difficult to make sense of and difficult to articulate.
By creating a situation in which existing forms of contact and communication are under pressure, the covid crisis, in other words, calls for new ways in which we can make ourselves visible, audible, sensible, and thus accountable to one another. In response to this issue, Unfrequently Asked Question morphed from a board game into a tool that seeks to re-vitalize a culture of presence in the context of social distancing. In the development of the tool and the analysis of the data the team relies on their Anthropological backgrounds, and particularly on their expertise in the Anthropology of the senses.
The starting point for the tool is the current problem that municipal, social and health organizations face in knowing how to adjust and refine their services. While it is more important than ever for them to flexibly adjust existing programs of service, support and care, it has also become increasingly difficult to know how the covid crisis exactly changes the lives of different citizen groups.
The tool being developed is a mobile friendly web-based app that invites people for a walk. During the walk, there is one basic question the app asks to the participant: ‘How are you doing’? This seems a mundane question. Yet, it is innovative in the many different ways it is posed. The questions and exercises proposed by the app make use of the fact that the activity of moving, and sensorial awareness in particular, act as a trigger for remembering and expressing otherwise difficult to express experiences. Such experiences might be a sense of powerlessness that you experience when you realize you aren’t even able to help that old lady cross the street, or your wheelchaired neighbour up the stairs. It might be the sense of estrangement you feel when you can’t see the facial expression of by-passers. It might be the sight of a flower that evokes longings for a different future, or a smell that evokes a sense of loss that you experience for seeing less friends and family. And as you walk, you might also be reminded of the ideas you had in a lost moment regarding the ways you think municipalities could address your particular situation better.
As the tool prompts questions and exercises on the go, the participant can respond by writing a note, recording sound or video or taking pictures. At the end of the walk, tags that mark these responses will be made visible to the participant to review and add to later. In combination with online feedback sessions with participants, this data will also be analysed by researchers and the insights will be shared with relevant institutions.
The tool has value to its users in different ways. For institutions – like municipalities, health or social organizations – it provides an easy and fast way to collect meaningful ethnographic data in the context of a situation in which swift and concrete actions need to be taken. For participants, the tool is a companion, a kind of journal, that helps them recognize, make sense of and express the everyday ways in which covid impacts their life, knowing that their stories will be heard and contribute to improving institutional processes.
By connecting the everyday experiences of different citizens to institutional responsibilities, policy and forms of care and support, the tool also addresses a larger issue: the longstanding challenge of organizing inclusive democratic participation. Civic participation projects, where citizens are given the opportunity to voice their ideas and opinions on public matters, tend to exclude particular groups of people and forms of experience. This is a well-known caveat of questionnaires and workshop methods designed from an institutional perspective, with questions and methods that contain implicit assumptions about people’s lives and that require only a narrow range of (verbalized) responses. Ethnographic methods, by contrast, are more open to the questions and forms of expression of participants themselves. Yet, because they are time-consuming and expensive, they aren’t adequate for situations in which fast action needs to be taken. This tool strikes the balance by making the tried method of ethnographic research available in an accessible format, creating an engaging experience for participants and producing valuable insights for institutions that can be meaningfully responded to.