Ways of visualizing science and technology: Results of an ethnographic pilot study with Portuguese and US engineers

Eleven people attended the presentation by Rosário Durão at ISCTE. She presented her ongoing research on ways of visualizing science and technology.

The VISTAC research project aims to distinguish between what is universal and what is culturally specific in visuals and visual conceptualization in different parts of the world.

The inspiration came from observing differences between her own students at New Mexico Tech. She proceeded by asking a few students to visually represent some universal concepts for students in two countries and cultures where they had lived for at least a year. The results exhibited distinct cultural influences, such as:

  • A Chinese student skimmed the technical details of a dam alongside a lengthy ideological text arguing how the dam would be good for the people. In the version for U.S. students, a large, detailed drawing of a dam took center stage.
  • A Nigerian student explaining the food chain to other Nigerian students placed a lion at the top of the food chain.

That's how VISTAC was born as an international research project. Rosário expects the long-term study to continue until she needs a walking stick. Right now she can only present preliminary results from a pilot study with engineers.

About half a dozen researchers have been conducting ethnographic interviews of engineers. The interviews themselves have also shown cultural differences, such as:

  • Greek engineers shooed away the interviewer after a couple of hours (the shadowing process was supposed to take two days).
  • Moroccan engineers claimed privacy concerns, dodging the shadowing studies.

Rosário succeeded in interviewing four civil engineers, including a few in Lisbon. She found these engineers surrounded by paper, computers, and smart phones. They used whatever was more effective.

She presented the following preliminary results about civil engineers:

  • They research previous projects, standards, brochures, wherever needed, including in their personal mobile phone.
  • They organize information, and need information architecture.
  • They communicate in the field. Their work is to solve problems from dawn to dusk. In the USA, they use videoconferencing a lot.
  • They use technology a lot. For example, they bring documents to meetings in their mobile phones. They annotate maps on Google Earth. They use their personal mobile phone for work and leisure.
  • They document things, sometimes in unexpected places. For example, they make collaborative drawings on walls. They carry lots of paper with color highlights. And they insert the meeting minutes on the agenda.
  • They are concerned with language and terminology, because language can be a barrier in international projects. Some companies actually reject projects where the language may be a problem. Instructions for the Chinese market require more illustrations, including diagrams to enable local repairs.
  • They are in constant training, which mostly happens during lunch time.
  • They solve problems visually. 2D representations can be hard to visualize in 3D. Architecture plans may also miss some of the information required by builders.
  • They visualize. Civil engineers must visualize the future reality, they must see the completed building in their head, as well as the building process itself. Afterwards, they just use the plan for accuracy or to validate their ideas.

Rosário sees networks of human and non-human, with constant inscriptions and deletions, forming complex networks in constant mutation.

— Joaquim Baptista, EuroSIGDOC vice-chair, px@acm.org

The invitation (15-May)

You may know that Rosário Durão helped bootstrap the group Technical Writers @ Lisbon back in 2013. Last year we organized a formal event when she was in Lisbon, and she treated us with a first-class workshop about active learning. Unfortunately, we could not secure a room to have a similar event this year. Instead, Rosário will present her research projects at two Portuguese Universities.

  • Ways of visualizing science and technology: Results of an ethnographic pilot study with Portuguese and US engineers
  • Tuesday, May 24th, 18h-19h30, ISCTE, room C508 (later changed to B103)

The VISTAC – Science and Technology Visuals in Action Engineering Pilot Study aims to understand how engineering professionals use, produce and speak about/reflect on S&T visuals, in their workplaces. Through preliminary surveys, onsite ethnographic and video-ethnographic observations, and reflective interviews, the study seeks to answer the following research questions:

  • When, where and how do engineers from different parts of the world use, produce and speak about/reflect on S&T visuals in their workplaces?
  • What are the similarities and differences in the way engineers use, produce and speak about/reflect on S&T visuals in their workplaces?
  • What are the similarities and differences in the visuals engineers produce?
  • What is the reasoning behind engineers’ visual practices and visual representations?
  • How do rhetorical, company, professional, sociocultural, technological, political, geographic and human factors, among others, shape and are shaped by the visuals engineers produce?

More information on the VISTAC homepage.

Thanks to our sponsors for all the support: EuroSIGDOC (room and site) and APCOMTEC (marketing). And special thanks to Rosário Durão for her willingness to share.

— Carlos Costa, EuroSIGDOC chair, carlos.costa@acm.org
— Joaquim Baptista, EuroSIGDOC vice-chair, px@acm.org
— Alexandra Albuquerque, APCOMTEC, info@apcomtec.org

PS: We are trying to put together events on June 8th (evening) and June 18th (morning or whole day). Stay tuned.

PPS: How all communication fails, except by accident — Jukka "Yucca" Korpela (2010)