How to Keep Tabs on Qualitative Research.

Anyone who does qualitative research — you know, interviews, ethnographic fieldnotes, participant observation, that kind of stuff–knows how hard it is to keep track of what you’re doing. There are boatloads of research applications like MatLab, SPSS, and Excel that you need to know to do quantitative research. Sure, there are qualitative *analysis* applications. But somehow nothing practical exists to actually *document, store, and manage* qualitative research as you are creating it.

Back in 2013, I decided that the best solution to this problem was to create a Filemaker Pro database (and I wrote about it on Profhacker here), which I did successfully. The problem was, it was time-consuming to learn Filemaker Pro, since even basic functions require intermediate knowledge of the software. Furthermore, it was difficult to share with other researchers, and didn’t lend itself to evolution over the life of the project.

I recently came across Airtable, a cloud-based application that focuses on bridging the gap between spreadsheet ease-of-use and database functionality. I wasn’t looking for an alternative to my Filemaker solution, but when I first played around with Airtable, I immediately found that it was more than capable of everything I was looking for in a database without the learning curve. Best of all, because it is entirely online, it travels well between people and between devices–a problem that Filemaker Pro has never had a simple answer to.

For example, in my fieldwork I do a lot of interviews. I like to keep information about who I’ve talked to, what their affiliation is, and when I interviewed them, as well as a scanned copy of their consent form, interview audiofile, and interview transcripts all in one place. This makes it more straightforward for me to know who I need to talk to next, and allows me to share my progress with the rest of the research team.

I was able to do this in Airtable in a matter of thirty minutes. I created three tables: (1) an organizations table, (2) a contacts table and (3) an interview table. The value in creating separate tables (which isn’t possible in a spreadsheet) is that information can be linked across tables.

(1) In my research, I typically know which organizations I want to speak with. In the “organizations” table, I enter the name of the organization, the type of organization, basic contact information, website, and a rationale for choosing them.

(2) As I make contacts with those organizations, I enter that information in the “contacts” table. I link one column in the contacts table to the “organization” table so that the database “knows” that there is a relationship between the two. This allows information to pull directly into the contacts table without inputting it again.

(3) When I work to obtain interviews with my contacts, I chart progress in the “interviews” table, which includes interview status (i.e. contacted, requested, scheduled, completed), time, data and location metadata, a scan of the consent form (which you can do directly from the Airtable app on your smartphone), the audiofile, and later the interview transcript.

Since the entire database can be shared with other members of the research team, it is easy to see the overall progress of the entire project.

Airtable: Online Interface (redacted for privacy and confidentiality)
Airtable: iPhone Interface (redacted for privacy and confidentiality)

I am just getting started with Airtable, but I can already tell that the days of using Filemaker Pro as a solution to keeping track of my research is very limited.

I am eager to extend the applications of Airtable to other research applications, including the following: (1) collecting information from volunteer research subjects, (2) general project management, and (3) going paperless directly in the field by using smartphone and tablet versions of Airtable.