UW News

October 26, 2011

Class notes: Information School studies Occupy Seattle

UW News

For the first assignment of fall quarter in her Library Information Science 510 course, titled Information Behavior, Professor Karen Fisher allowed students to visit Occupy Seattle, among other locations, to study the ongoing protest — a sort of growing community — from an information perspective.

Three of her students — Brent Bell, Justin Dickson and Andy Donovan — visited the protest camp at different times over a 10-day period and put their findings into a six-page report for an assignment Fisher calls Information Grounds.

About the class: Fisher wrote in the syllabus, “This course examines … (h)ow people need, seek, manage, give, share, and use information in different contexts. It introduces the theoretical frameworks and research methodologies that underpin how information scientists study information behavior.” It focuses on how information behavior can be used to “inform and improve” information systems.

The assignment: Fisher wrote, “Information Grounds is a field assignment taught at the iSchool to our incoming undergraduate and Masters of Library Information Science (MLIS) students. Its goal is for students to become aware of how information exists in informal settings, how information is created by people coming together, how it can be analyzed  in terms of people-place-information factors, and how information professionals can foster information grounds in terms of information technology, services and policy.

The Occupy Seattle protests at Westlake Center in early October.

The Occupy Seattle protests at Westlake Center in early October.Joe Mabel, Wikimedia Commons

“Working in groups of four to five, the students go to a setting of their choice at different hours of the day and week to observe the people and experience what information means in that setting, including how it changes with time. The students write a short report and give oral presentations in class the following week when we compare their findings across settings.”

Occupy Seattle was one of eight settings students studied. Others included the Pike Place Market, a grocery store, a bowling alley, Suzzallo Library — and even a karaoke bar.

Instructors goals: I created the concept of information grounds in the 1990s based on my dissertation research to describe informal social settings where people come together for an instrumental purpose but their behavior fosters a social atmosphere that fosters the spontaneous and serendipitous sharing of information. While obvious examples may include coffee shops, sports fields, hobby clubs, dog parks, dumpster diving, and public bathrooms, other ‘hostage settings include riding the bus, and waiting at the doctors office or supermarket. My research over the years shows that information grounds can be analyzed using a 15-factor people-place-information trichotomy.”

Other assignments for the quarter included:

  • study of “lay information mediaries” and “muses” — a term Fisher coined for “people who seek information in a nonprofessional way or information capacity on behalf of others (muses) without necessarily being asked to do so, or engaging in follow up,”
  • study of “information worlds,” or the “sum of information behavior (and) life experiences … of a particular user group.”
  • assessing and analyzing models of information behavior.
  • studying principles of information behavior and discussing and updating these to better reflect the online realities of hypertexting, and multimedia.
  • A final paper of reflection on how the study of information behavior “has changed your perspective on the world of information and the possibilities of working with people, information and information systems.

Student views: The students wrote in their report that they identified Occupy Seattle as “a likely fertile information ground.” They added, “We believed that there was a high probability for the occurrence of spontaneous conversation in the ‘down times between political discourse and demonstration, and we were curious about the kind of information they shared, as well as how information changed during different times and activities.”

They stated, “We observed and identified three types of information shared during our time at Westlake Park: political/ideological, organizational and incidental/serendipitous,” and described these. They also noted:

  • “At the sites quietest times, political information flows wordlessly outward to the public from the signage and bodies of the protestors.”
  • “…(W)hile the protest has a general theme of economic inequality, some individuals were present to disseminate political information for specific interest groups (labor unions, environmental and homeless advocacy organizations etc.) to both passers-by and protestors.”
  • Incidental information sharing at Occupy Seattle “scaled from the mundane to the significant, even profound.” They describe a jazz trumpeter meeting a pianist and finding a gig, and an unemployed volunteer organizer being offered a job. They wrote, “This suggests that the sharing of incidental information is not only a trivial time-killer; sometimes it functions as a necessary distraction, useful for enduring the rigors of the extended protest.”
  • “Occupy Seattle has established a successful protest site with well-attended activities. … We do think, however, that the incidental/serendipitous information shared and created between people at the site in the time between and around political activities may be some of the most important for the movement and its cause, which is based on the belief that a vast majority of Americans share an economic and political disadvantage.”
  • “To encourage more of this kind of exchange, we would only encourage Occupy Seattle to keep Westlake Park as welcoming as possible. It can continue to discourage aggression, confrontation, drug use and other behaviors that may keep some would-be participators at home.”

Class Notes in an occasional UW Today column highlighting interesting and unusual classes at the UW.