Redesigning PECE Founder Interview Notes - Alli Morgan


Intros from Lucy and Hillary

Intro from Alli


Unwittingly involved with PECE - was involved with Asthma Files. Brought into PECE as a user, 2013


Bio student, alienated at a tech university. Was working on powerpoint, wiki, etc. Half of Asthma files was finding a place for it to live. Would Omeka work? What do we want / need out of a platform?


[papers written about pece]


Kept returning to the Wiki - flexible, came closest to the “sandbox” / light structure

Realized wanted outward facing stuff - timeline, etc. having discussions of different features.


[what specific things 


Group structures

A place to be able to work that had some structure but wasn’t overdetermined, like the museum platforms


Q: Working in a digital space? What needed to be supported, esp in a class?

Classes have been most interesting - what do you need to tell someone about theoretical background, why things are designed how they’re designed? It’s clunky - difficult to get an undergrad to engage when you’re making them add metadata and they don’t understand / appreciate reasons why


Most of us based at RPI, now even more dispersed. Relying on shared digital workspace in a new way - admittedly, doesn’t use PECE as well as she can. Topical groups, but most working in the same room. Having convos in real time, more difficult to see the role of the digital work when all talking in person about how to structure these groups.


Q: what would using PECE ‘as well as you can’ look like?

REflects on her own Digital practices more than PECE - very much a “print article to read it” researcher. Working entirely in PECE is uncomfortable and seemingly fleeting. Never comfortable - some are hosting entire dissertation work on PECE - maybe been around too many times for migration to new DRUPAL instances where things have been lost, etc., to be that comfortable. But when read an article that could fit on the Asthma files, slow to put it there - rather put it on email. 


Never really integrated PECE into her own practice, need to be really intentional in thinking how she uses it. Not a bad thing, don’t want it to be a dumping ground. If you’ve used it a lot (uploading content, analytics) need to get into a groove. Uploading one thing a week feels more burdensome than when you’re in the thick of a project and in the habit of doing it. 


Looking at the front page of an instance - don’t get a sense of the activity. Lots of projects, but people need to be intentional with creating instances in a way that renders the amount of content visible. Layers of pages to demonstrate making an essay out of essays. Almost workarounds. Sense that what is on there is obscured - who has engaged with the artifacts you’ve put up? If someone responds to an artifact you’ve annotated, unless you’re constantly checking it’s difficult to have dialogue. Emailing before a meeting to say “please annotate this with this analytic” but difficult to get excited when you can’t tell who is engaging where. Want to see who is interacting, but since it’s difficult to track and you have to email anyway, just email the article. Need to signal that something is there, then solicit engagement outside of the platform. It is interesting to browse what’s there - Mike does this a lot. You can find new and interesting things. That can be fun, but you have to be patient. 


Q: Browsing

People new to the project browse and it’s fun to see how they do that and the things they find. We recommend to those incoming users to see what’s there, not just for the content but for the ease of navigation around the sites. Ran a course a few years ago on Disaster site - her students some of the first users. Weekly assignment to look and see what other people have annotated. Happens in a much different way than they’re used to on Canvas / Blackboard. Getting students enrolled can be tough.


Q: Balance between content that’s interesting / get lost in browsing, versus having trouble finding things that you want to locate

Having platform function as a research space and a discovery space where you happen upon things. Group structure - groups independently working on the site, coming up with their labelling conventions. Long-time users found we need to name things differently and we can’t find them anywhere. Little workarounds that can be frustrating, but a nice - especially with asthma files - beauty in the site searching a term trying to find a project and seeing that there are five people working on the project that you didn’t know.


Q: Does she contact those people who are now working on the same project? Or is it just a nice / comforting / whatever feeling?

In the early days more, when you find someone’s student working on something. Alli Kenner - always has a few students every semester working on these things. 20hrs / week they upload a lot, super into it, then disappear in four months. Have little bursts of activity that are really interesting. With many of the projects we meet so often that that might not be as fruitful for her - following up with someone that might have the same area of research, she already knows them, but for a new user it might be more helpful


Q: What types of things does she use PECE for now?

Excited about exploring w/ Kim - Catalyst piece about toxicity living on the disaster STS site. Not allowed to hyperlink anything like news articles or photos, annoyed, it’s an online journal. Now have a link to a PECE essay in the metadata of the main journal, links to everything we would have linked to in the essay. Interested in the role that PECE could play to traditional publication - making PECE essays out of old publications to be engaged with in a new way. Ability for someone to annotate either individual artifacts or images or the whole thing could be really cool - can interact with a journal article in a way that’s not possible. How would we share data e.g. interviews, in this case government reports up front. 


Q: Are you engaging more outwardly instead of research?

Yes, in a PECE lull. Finished dissertation three months ago. Getting into COVID project, Lots of material amassing right now, but not to the same depth in the past. 


Q: What was it like when you weren’t in a “PECE Lull”?

Developing analytics, the meat of the work of these projects - the development of the question sets. Really the primary strengths that PECE brings - not just an archival space, the question sets are really different. A lot of that doesn’t necessarily happen on PECE, but PECE gives us the capacity to think about how a project / artifact - what we offer is these question sets


A lot of the collaboration happens off PECE or adjacent to PECE - question sets really proliferate, what does it look like to retire a question set and how does that work technologically? If all of the questions exist in other places in different analytics, but for ease of use want them structured differently (e.g. using analytics for a class). Have lots of analytics, some of which you don’t realize are there. Interesting to see what’s there and if the authors of those sets are aware


Q: Focus more on generating questions instead of annotating with analytics?

With answering of these questions you’re almost adding another one or thinking higher / lower ordered. That’s been interesting in thinking how to scaffold project-level questions with empirical questions.


Imagined ideal use - make a question set and have it be deployed in a particular setting. User X comes along and finds that question set, they use it for a different setting, they add a question. Someone else uses that entire analytic to think about something else, associate questions with different questions / projects, I return to it and think about my artifact differently. Romantic ideal that it happens organically through use. At least in my experience, it’s a bit more of an intentional structuring that often happens offline. Might be using question sets in a course, which are not usually added to by students. Working on sick cities project (Under asthma files), had to be intentional with scaffolding questions and directing users in different cities to use them. 




[loaded question - is the intentionality required for engagement due to usability or lack of need?

Understandable why a student wouldn’t continue - undergrad researchers in grad school who will email her links tangentially related to their research - some actively engage with zotero. Is this “ease of use” - you can hit the button and the article has been added to library. If there was some way to, on the site itself, page, whatever, a “quick add” - honestly people don’t want to take the time to labor over all of the fields (metadata) we require them to complete. Also, so many different groups - leave the platform for six months / year, feels almost like you’re not sure where to put something. Side entry, don’t need to fully commit - something like that would be interesting. 


PECE - don’t want to overdetermine what users do. 


Kim sending detailed instructions for how to go about engagement with the site - want you to build essay that does X Y Z. Use analytic for Y. It is desire for a structure that works and is consistent, works for students, but at the same time, the beauty of it is that it’s this sandbox land. Lightly enough structure - develop the structure for these individual uses, class, projects, short-term installation, that totally changes how you’re going to engage with it. People who brought in to annotate, just annotate. Those whose first assignment was an essay in other things, that’s your mode of engagement moving forward. The local ways its used can be highly structured in a way that almost feels oppositional to the way we imagined using the platform. 


Goal to allow people to feel like they can do anything they want. Hasn’t been fully realized - the way that it does serve, not be a researcher, just be coming at it from the public side and find interesting thing, but I don’t think we get engagement that way. Those coming in as newer users, see all of the functionality from the beginning. Those who have been working with it for a longer time (even before group structure or timelines or essays), I just don’t always use them because I got accustomed to using it from the beginning - need to remind myself of the functionality. 


When would new users do a photo essay versus timeline, why is it called a PECE essay? Need to explain the history of the project in order to justify why some of these decisions were made. Then worry if that overdetermines their use of it as well. Some people use tags, some don’t - when something is text v. image that links someone else - everyone has their own habits and workarounds, but there is a sense with new users of “am I doing it right?” Even for me - stuff Tim and James have done with structuring different spaces, does feel like they’re developing these “best practices” for how to develop a project. I don’t necessarily want to do anything on these projects until I see the structures they’ve put in place and can work within them - they have style guides and things I never imagined PECE having. 


Q: New audiences? Or still academic engagement?

Unsure if we’re getting that traffic - don’t imagine that catered search is true with general public. Might be getting a bit of that. Don’t think we want the front page of any of these projects to “lose space” documenting what the project is to the public. Difficult for first glance to tell what the instances are and what sort of researchers are engaged. Need to dig a bit to find an about, the about isn’t necessarily clear as to what’s going on. So that’s the biggest thing. We’ll hint at our design logics and substantive logics for each platform, but it doesn't always make it clear what the motivations are of each instance. I would want that to be more explicit so that outside users could explore with those understandings of who we are and what we’re trying to do. 


Q: Main things that you think people want to do in PECE?

Tough. There have been interesting shorter-term projects that I’ve never imagined PECE hosting, but have been effective. I’ve wondered whether there is sustained engagement after a project might end. Thinking of different projects running through center of ethnography, maybe some of the 4S stuff, people being enrolled (more highly structured projects) for a particular period - really effective at getting a lot of content on the site and forcing engagement. Toxic subjects and places - spreadsheet where people are assigned artifacts to annotate. Thinking about how someone who first gets accustomed to using the platform like that might eventually use it for their own individual use, interested if we speak with people who were initially enrolled for a short period and what that looked like. Teaching through it feels timely right now - what kind of teaching through PECE offers that other platforms don’t - something we’ve long needed to articulate. Comes down to shared questions again. Had a pet project of wanting to turn PECE into a tool for patients. Interesting, same problems we’re attending to in ethnographic research are those digital medical records make messes of too. Interesting to think about the affordances that PECE offers. 


Q: Do you feel this is a branching off of using PECE for a non-ethnographic research / teaching, sort of non-academic use as a branch off, or as also pretty tied in to how PECE is being currently used?

Part of hesitancy - Kim always wants to take on another project to do. Hesitant to run with PECE for patients. Needs to look radically different in terms of use, some concerns over privacy. Need to strip out the idea of how we use this for academic use, keep the theoretical principles, can’t just be another instance of PECE. Wouldn’t necessarily be effective in that way. 


Q: If you were to design PECE as a tool for patients, would want to work with patients to identify what they need from it, in the same way we’re trying to find out what academics need from it now.

It is a lot of the same elements, but there is a bit of a different ordering of how they play out. Groups aren’t nearly as fundamental for patients as they are for the asthma files. To think about how that would look differently, technically too. 


It’s really easy to be critical of PECE. This is some of the frustration. It’s not intuitive, it feels clunky, but it’s in a state that I couldn’t have imagined five years ago for ease of use. I have to remind myself of that too, put it in perspective. So much work has been put into it, it still has some technical barriers, isn’t necessarily user-friendly in the ways we wish it could be, but it’s really come a long way. You could get descriptions from Lindsay about what it looked like earlier on - screenshots. Still very excited about where it’s at right now. 



Creative Commons Licence


Contributed date

December 16, 2020 - 10:08pm

Critical Commentary

These are notes supplementing the interview conducted by Lucy Pei and Hillary Abraham of Alli Morgan on May 13th, 2020 as part of the Redesigning PECE project. The audio recording of the interview can be found here.

Cite as

Anonymous, "Redesigning PECE Founder Interview Notes - Alli Morgan", contributed by Hillary Abraham and Lucy Pei, Platform for Experimental Collaborative Ethnography, Platform for Experimental Collaborative Ethnography, last modified 16 December 2020, accessed 24 September 2021.