The Association for Qualitative Research
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Why not try digital kit?

Should qualitative researchers be known by the company and technology that they keep? John Griffiths argues that it's time to broaden your horizons

The ubiquitous audiocassette is now 30 years old. It offers reliability, dubious quality and the information captured on it takes real effort to extract and to transmit. Yet there are now alternatives almost as reliable, of much higher quality, which can be shared globally in seconds.

There are three alternative storage technologies: one analogue (cassette tape) and two digital. Mini disk is becoming established as a recording technology. It has CD quality and offers up to 300 minutes per disk using compression.

By using auto marking a group can be broken into five-minute tracks automatically, so that brilliant quote in the midst of the discussion can be found relatively quickly. Each track, meanwhile, can be given a text label.

Its downside? Well, Sony is both an electronics company and a record company. They don't allow short cuts because of worries about piracy. So if you want to take anything off a minidisk player you have to play it back in real time ­ at the same speed as an audiocassette.

Enter mp3, a standard format for compressing audio files. This type of file sits on a computer, has a sound resolution almost as great as a minidisk or CD, and behaves exactly like a computer file. You can drag it, drop it, cut or paste bits out of it. Even email it as an attachment.

Its other major benefit is compression, being typically at least a tenth the size of its CD equivalent. A typical group discussion will barely fit on a conventional audio CD, yet an entire research project of 4-5 groups can be comfortably fitted onto a single CDROM in mp3 format.

Why have you never heard of this before? Because mp3s are marketed to teenagers who use them to download music from the Internet onto computers and then onto mp3 players. But there's nothing to stop you working the opposite way recording your interviews onto an mp3 recorder and moving the files from there onto your computer.

My now veteran mp3 recorder stores 33 hours of audio and stores it as a file. Newer versions hold over 100, so I can carry my last six months of research groups around in my pocket. When I plug it into my PC it sees the recorder as an external hard drive. I can drag files to and from the file manager. A 90-minute group takes around 90 megabytes of space and just two minutes to upload. Which you can't do with cassette tape or minidisk.

When I load the file into an audio editor (there are lots of free ones available) I can increase the sound levels, remove unwanted noise from the entire recording and cut out coughs and hesitations at will. And I can then go on to cut and paste edited quotations straight into Powerpoint.

Using broadband, I can email that same 90-minute group anywhere in about 60 seconds. I can upload it to a website so that the entire team can play it back on their PCs using media players. And the files can be sent abroad to get more competitive transcription rates and an overnight turnaround.

Any more? Well, it's possible ­ using text annotation and hyper linking ­ to link audio markers with the text transcription so that when reading the transcript you are able to flip to and from the nearest marker in the recording.

Analysts, when they get a copy of the proposal and discussion guide, could start to compile indexes of key themes alongside the transcription. If you email out your research on the same night you do the fieldwork, you could have your transcription and an initial analysis on your desk by mid morning..

O.K, this might not be suitable for all qual research, but a lot of research isn't that complicated. It's being sold by the yard with very comfortable margins. There's plenty of room for a price war here for a few enterprising research agencies, plus a vastly accelerated turnaround. And all that stands between you and this is the humble cassette recorder and the human reluctance to change.

Where does video fit? Well everything I've said about mp3 files is true for video only the video format is mpeg4. And yes there's a machine that does that too and costs around £300. I just don't have the room to tell you more here. But one thing's for sure: I wouldn't go back to tape if you paid me.


John Griffiths
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2003