Sunday, 7 August 2016

Ouch Typing

I hope no nurse or doctor or anatomist ever reads this and diagnoses me with something awful, but I've had a weird thing happen today. 

To set the scene: a day rarely goes by when I don't type.  It's partly because I love what I do and partly that self-employed can't-say-no thing. Some days less than others, say if more editing than transcribing, but some days it can be typing from dawn to dusk. 

I'm not really conscious of actually typing but today my body has made me conscious of NOT typing!  Yesterday I didn't go near my keyboard.  The sun was shining, the sky was blue, the lounger was there and today my arms are killing me! 

Aching forearms, feel weak as a kitten and kind of twitchy fingers.  It's really scared me because the only thing I've done differently is not do what I normally do! 

But then I remembered something similar happened when I was on holiday last.  For the first couple of days, my hands and arms were really not behaving but it didn't matter as long I could pick up a glass or a fork and open the suntan lotion. Today, I really wanted to do a bit of gardening and I'm about to chop some onions and my arms are not willing.

I'm sure I'll be fine, but I'm wondering a bit now about how folk like me who type for a living should actually be looking after their hands and arms.  I'm not talking nail varnish and hand cream or serious stuff like arthritis and carpal tunnel syndrome.  More in my mind is muscles and tendons.  With the Olympics now started, I'm asking myself, after a day of typing should I be plunging my hands and arms into an ice bath at the end of a day?

Like all sensible people, I first consulted Dr Google with my symptoms and then, having scared myself witless, took a different tack and looked at a bit of anatomy. 

Gross picture showing how your fingers are basically hanging off bits of string attached to your arm

I read once that you don't have any muscles in your fingers, and I bore people with this fascinating fact whenever I can at the slightest conversational provocation. What I did not know (having assumed the muscles in your hand controlled these finger tendons a la the thingy bone is connected to the next thingy bone) is that actually it's the forearm muscle at the top (by 'top' I mean as you look down at your arms while typing) which moves your fingers and the tendons extend all the way up there!  So that would explain why my arms are aching today rather than my hands and fingers hurting.  It would also explain why I have freakishly muscly forearms for someone who does zip exercise!  

The most interesting and informative (and well-written) piece I read about arm and hand anatomy and injury and so on, was actually aimed at pianists.  It is really worth reading although quite long, but that's because the author seems to be a very carefully minded person and wants to provide information and background beyond a 'five things every pianist must know about their hands and arms' BuzzFeed-style list.  But since I'm not, here are the five things to eliminate:

  • Stressful movements
  • Awkward positions
  • Co-contraction – working two opposing muscles at the same time when normally one should relax while the other contracts
  • Static muscular effort – keeping a muscle contracted for a long time
  • Excessive force

His key message seems to be that any task which requires repetitive movement can be done injury and pain free for many years if these five things are removed from the equation.

I've got brownie points here because in an idiot savant and random way I addressed them a few years ago. 

I do all my work on a PC (for security reasons) and had always just used a normal PC keyboard but as a friend once noted, "It sounds like you're jangling bones." So when I was going to be doing some captioning work in a venue about three years ago, I needed something quieter and got a little wireless keyboard and weirdly it was way easier and faster. 

Lesson learned, I just used this once back working at home.  It meant less effort to get the keys down, smaller so meant less stretching – but then I do have scary small hands for a grown-up, can barely do an octave on a piano and have got "dots for nails" as a manicurist once noted – and I could type even faster.  

I upgraded and now am a total fan girl of the Microsoft Bluetooth Wedge Keyboard. I live in fear of them stopping making it (because it was designed to work with Windows 8) so can now be found routinely buying up cheap second-hand ones on eBay. Re the stressful movements, I suppose that covers that point too. 

Tools of the trade, my QWihlY Keyboard.  The letters are worn out but I'm hoping my arms last a bit longer

Awkward positions, I again randomly sorted this a few years back too when I went and did Alexander Technique with the adorable Mark Claireaux because I was fed up with being short and thought that would help me have better posture so look taller. Yes, all is vanity. 

Being really lazy, I didn't do well with doing the exercises but I was very taken with Mark's desk chair – it was basically a really cool vintage stool. He explained that loads of people spend lots of money on ergonomic chairs and so on but it's how you sit not what you sit on that matters.  

I now sit properly (I hope) on just an old hard chair which suits my height (it's quite low so my legs don't dangle!) and I got a desk with a pull out lower bit for the keyboard to match the height issue.  I'm wondering if this also addresses the co-contraction and 'static muscular effort' thing too since I'm not holding my upper arms tense in order to 'reach' my desk?

So I'm feeling pretty smug, but it doesn't explain the horrendous aching of my arms after I didn't type yesterday.  I've tried Googling more specifically about this but all I came up with was a thing called 'delayed onset muscle soreness' but that seems to relate to something you do once then suffer the consequences a day or so later, like after doing an exercise session.  Surely if I type every day, this is not the case?

Maybe it's like when you get a cold when you go on holiday or how the kids get sick the minute school breaks up, our bodies say, 'Thank you for stopping,' and put their guards down and/or start recovering in an odd way? 

To avoid this in future, I'm going to just be nicer to my arms and hands so they don't rebel again in the future but can I avoid the ice baths?  I searched for hand and arm massage and that threw up the idea that someone else would be bovvered to do that for me. 

So adding in 'self' to the search box, I found an article which serendipitously started with: "We use our hands, wrists, and forearms non-stop throughout theday."  On my wave length, honey!  I skipped the bit about being a 'yogi' but I am going to go buy a tennis ball.  Can I offset that as a cost in my tax return as office equipment?

Monday tomorrow and lots to do (type) so I'm going to give my arms some TLC before bed.  But already they're feeling better (because I've typed this?!) and I've just carried youngest's not insubstantial bike down the steps into the back garden so at least they still work. I chopped the onion without pain and suffering and I'm raring to go after, despite the arm issue, what was a lovely work-free weekend.  

Sunday, 24 July 2016

Live Captioning for Portraits Untold

It’s been a busy couple of weeks.  I actually had to get dressed up and leave the house to go to work, which was quite a shock. 

“Hi, Fess.  Captioning for Portraits Untold?  Sure. What?  You mean I have to actually get dressed and leave the house and go somewhere?!”

Friday 15th July 2016, I headed up to Birmingham to meet for the first time the artist Tanya Raabe-Webber in anticipation of the first of four Portraits Untold events kicking off the next day in the first venue, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (BMAG). I’d be working with Hatch&Twine (formally CoQuo) on the technical side…  Well, I’d be typing the captions using Aidan’s (from H&T) captioning software.  I did though actually contribute to the tech side of things once there since I lent Aidan my iPad to use as a mouse mat - innovation or what? - and I found a spare extension lead at a crucial moment so I'll be a fully qualified roadie before long.

Aidan: Right, Marian, this is a computer.
Don't break it. 
We first met up to talk about this new software last year in London and I first did this captioning lark for them on less sophisticated kit at Salisbury Arts Centre for Liz Crow’s Bedding Out in 2013 (and I produced the transcripts afterwards for that too).  It was amazing to see how efficiently it worked and Fess (Matthew Fessey from H&T) has turned the captions from Birmingham into a transcript, which you can now see in all its typo glory, even though he has given it a bit of a tidy up.  I assume he’ll do the same for them all.  

Going forward to the next event, we are aiming to get something like Breevy. Breevy - a text expander and macro thingy - doesn’t work on Macs but we’ve a few things to choose from. With one of these in place running behind Aidan's software, I can catch transposed ‘ht’ for instance which seems to be a bit of a favourite hting of mine and put in some short cuts to common words that take a bit of typing, like ‘because’, ‘everything’, ‘something’ and so on. Typing the word ‘people’ is annoying so having that shortened will be great because the project is all about people as much as portraits - the sitters and the participating audience.

Then Friday 22nd July I was back (again not wearing pyjamas) on a train just up to London this time to the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) to do it all once more.  Aidan had fixed a glitch (so no more waving my hands in the air, which was previously my subtle signal to him that I'd broke everything mid-sentence) and it went really smoothly.  Aside from having fixed that, Aidan is now officially my favourite person because he said at the end, unprompted, “Aced it again, Marian.”  Just thought I’d humbly report that!

As the live stream of the events went out into the world, the captions could be chosen to be shown scrolling underneath the footage.  In the venues, they were on big screens.  

The caption screen at BMAG (amongst other things)

I hope that by this project raising the bar in terms of access by providing both BSL interpretation (by on these occasions the lovely and super friendly Layne Whittaker) plus captioning, more event producers and organisers can see the benefits of having captioning.  The reasoning is that while Deaf people use BSL, people with hearing impairment or people with acquired hearing loss may not, so both are really needed for access.  I’d like to say that my handing out my business cards to all and sundry after these two events was due to my being on a mission to make all this so.  I was though really just shamelessly and blatantly punting all my services to the great and the good!  
An even bigger caption screen at NPG with Layne in full flow in the foreground
“Anyone know the BSL sign for marimba?
Having the screen there seemed to go down well more generally. Layne said it was handy for her for spelling names (despite me consistently spelling both of hers incorrectly) and Tanya also said that when she was concentrating on the painting and then had to refocus on the conversations, the captions let her get a bit of a recap so she could catch up and join back in. It’s also an added bonus to end up with a written record of the event to go with the video and audio too so people can search for and reference things maybe.

The first session in Birmingham was with film maker John Akomfrah  (yes, he got my card).  Busy lives meant that he and Tanya had never met before that day and it was fascinating listening in as their rapport developed.  

John and Tanya developing rapport not least through mutual admiration of Tanya's frock

The second at NPG was with Dame Evelyn Glennie  (yep, she got one too – I have no shame).  It was quite something to be sat a few feet away from her as she improvised on a waterphone. 

Tanya and Evelyn improvise

The two events had very different atmospheres and the conversations had different rhythms and paces but both produced remarkable outcomes. Obviously Tanya’s portraits are the stars of the shows (aside of course from the caption screens!) but seeing what the audiences had drawn - through both traditional media and via apps like Procreate and Sketchbook - at the venues and also as their pictures came in via Twitter and Instagram - #portraitsuntold - it really spoke of how much the event, through embracing technology, was connecting people, letting people join in, be a part of it, and opening up the usually private portrait process.

The next one will be a bit of a departure as the team heads up to Stoke City FC  – Tanya has had lovely dresses thus far but I’ve suggested a football strip for this one –  where Neil Baldwin  will be the sitter.  That’s in September.  Then we’re off to York in October (where I went to university, so that will be a bit of a memory lane thing for me) where Beningbrough Hall  will be staging it all with the performance artist David Hoyle in the hot seat. I doubt he’ll stay seated as a sitter for much of the time though. Finally it will be nice to head back to the National Portrait Gallery in December where Tanya's four portraits will be brought together for the grand finale.

Really pleased with how it's all gone for everyone so far now we’re at half time as it were and I’m super excited about September.  Seems a long way off though.  I said (whinged) to Fess, “Can’t we do this every week?” 

You see, it’s made me realise just how much I love working as part of a team.  Which is quite funny since my usual work life is so much a solo affair.  I love this too but a mix would be good.  More on this idea soon because I’m hoping it might be about to change.  Still doing what I do as Sound Words but maybe in a different context… Watch this space!
Portraits Untold team photo from Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

Portraits Untold team photo from the National Portrait Gallery 

The Portraits Untold team is:

  • Tanya Raabe-Webber, artist (and queen of style)
  • Mandy Fowler, producer for Portraits Untold (and curator and cultural consultant and...)
  • Jaqueline Cooley, Tanya’s PA (and glass artist)
  • Layne Whittaker, BSLI (and possibly the friendliest person on this planet)
  • Mathew Fessey, Hatch&Twine (The Boss)
  • Aidan Rumble, Hatch&Twine (The Brains)
  • Lara Ratnaraja, cultural consultant and senior research facilitator, Digital Humanities Hub, University of Birmingham ("One of my most favourite projects I have been involved with.")
  • Dr Chris Creed, human-computer interaction specialist, Digital Humanities Hub, University of Birmingham 
  • The two Neils – Tanya and Mandy’s OHs
  • Me!

Portraits Untold is supported and partnered by Arts Council England and The Big Draw and PR is by Braques PR

Monday, 4 July 2016

Some thoughts on the benefits of using an independent professional to provide transcription for qualitative research

Once a recording of an interview (or focus group or meeting or event or happening) has been made, the transcription process can on one level be seen as a translation (Slembrouck, 2007) or transformation of verbal utterances to text (Duranti, 2007). This though is too simple a perspective on the process.

A discussion of research into transcribing qualitative research interviews might sound a bit like a snake eating its own tail.[i] Methodologically speaking, however, how transcripts are produced for qualitative-research purposes is an important consideration in the planning of the wider process, lying as it does between the devising and conducting of the interviews and the analysis of the data.

For starters, the difference between even the most detailed, annotated strict-verbatim transcript produced by a skilled transcriptionist adhering to a detailed brief from an experienced qualitative researcher can only ever be the equivalent of a series of snap shots compared to a film of the same event.

This is not a criticism of transcription or a claim that transcripts are not ‘good enough’ to produce valid qualitative data; it’s just a case of fish and fowl in that a transcript can never be anything other than a text-based record of something else. And even if we embrace all the technology at our disposal and provide embedded audio and/or video links to selected elements for illustration, or even the complete data set for veracity, and publish research in electronic formats,[ii] right here, right now, academic standards require a text-based publication standard.

So if we can’t have Comtean confidence in the direct relationship between an audio recording of a research event and the subsequent transcript upon which findings are based, how can this be negotiated through methodology and how can researchers be pragmatic when it comes to pragmatics?

The starting point for answering these questions is maybe defining what the transcribed outcomes will be ‘for’.

If a transcript is for linguistic study, then the transcription process itself is surely part of the researcher’s analysis (Bucholtz & Du Bois, 2006; ten Have, 2007) in making distinctions and decisions about interpretation and representation of speech?

When it comes to qualitative research however, employing a ‘third party’ to transcribe the initial data[iii] not only has benefits in terms of time and priorities in a study’s schedule or in a marketing exercise, but involving an intermediary could be a positive decision with regards to the quality and authority of subsequent research outcomes and findings.  

For instance, knowing what you are looking for makes you more likely to find it? Selection in transcription (and perhaps obfuscation too) can be an unconscious thing; like we read what we thought we’d written,[iv] perhaps we hear what we think we would like to hear. For a researcher who through necessity is using a necessarily unideal source (in a strict scientific positivist sense) by relying on transcripts from audio data as their source material for research, knowing what you are looking for could introduce subconscious and unintended bias, but bias nonetheless, if transcribing your audio data yourself.

If you decide that your methodology should include taking steps to explicitly avoid such potential bias (and potentially gaining you some useful distance from your initial data-collection interviews before you launch into your analysis) by using a third party, you are then perhaps presented with issues to do with consistency and quality if you decide to outsource the process beyond yourself and your department.[v]

For instance, when you submit your audio to an agency, the work is allocated and distributed to a range of transcriptionists with varying levels of experience and skill, each with their individual styles.[vi] While a good agency will have a thorough proofreading process in place, this however is in most cases a proofread not a check on the relationship between the audio and the text. So while this goes to the issue of quality in terms of the agency’s reputation with regards to what a good transcript looks like, it doesn’t address the issue of quality in relation to the relationship between audio and text or consistency between transcripts in a particular ‘batch’ since multiple transcriptionists’ work may be checked by multiple proofreaders.

Using an independent professional transcriptionist can help you overcome these issues.

By asking one transcriber to work with you to produce your transcripts for a study, you can overcome many of the issues associated with not only consistency but also this methodological decision can increase your confidence regarding the transcribed data in relation to the audio recording. Through adopting a briefing/feedback/quality dialogue with one person, you can feel reassured that your transcribed data is consistent to an agreed standard and can be ‘read’ in a consistent way so insights gained from within one transcript can be related to those gleaned between transcripts.[vii]

The only real drawback potentially of using an independent professional transcriptionist as an integral feature of your methodology and process as a member of your research team is one of timing. This is really only an issue of planning. A transcriptionist can usually transcribe 80 minutes of audio a day. If presented with 30 one-hour interviews as one batch, they will need nearly a month to complete the task! If you are conducting two interviews a week, engaging a transcriptionist at the start of the process, feeding the audio through to them as and when research is conducted, your data collection is achieved in a timely way in relation to the research event and the production of source material for analysis.

Independent professional transcribers can be found through a Google search, or you could get in touch with Sound Words. If I can’t do the work, I can put you in touch (for no fee to yourself) with other independent, skilled, experienced transcriptionists (for no fee paid by them).

Transcription is more than translation, transformation and certainly more than ‘just’ typing. By incorporating reflection on the process into the design of research methodology and by using an independent person, this not only allows researchers to confront the issues raised by some commentators into the role transcription plays or the effect of transcription on qualitative-research data and subsequent outcomes but also raises the bar not only in terms of expected quality of transcripts as reliable data sources but also boosts the profile of the professionalism good transcriptionists bring to the work they do and places appropriate value on their work and skills.[viii]

[i] Although doing research into research might seem a bit inward looking, some researchers have looked at the role transcription plays in the research process in the context of methodology. See SA Tilley & Powick, KD, Distanced Data: transcribing other people’s research tapes, Canadian Journal of Education 27 (2002) pp 291-310; JC Lapadat & Lindsay, AC, Transcription in Research and Practice: from standardization of technique to interpretive positionings, Qualitative Inquiry 5:64 (1991); DG Oliver, Serovich, JM & Mason TL, Constraints and Opportunities with Interview Transcription: towards reflection in qualitative research, (2005) 84(2), pp 1273—1289. Others have considered in detail the role of transcription within their wider research projects such as CSG Witcher, Negotiating Transcription as a Relative Insider: implications for rigor, International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 9(2), (2010).

[ii] Obviously such an approach raises horrendous issues around participant anonymity and confidentiality. Also, audio quality is an issue in some research settings, aside from the methodological and ethical considerations. This is where a skilled and experienced transcriptionist can be the bridge between seemingly unintelligible audio and useful important qualitative data for subsequent analysis.

[iii] That said, “Some accounts of transcription take research recordings to be data (Coates & Thornborrow, 1999; Mondada, 2007), whereas others view transcripts as data (see Johnson, 2000; Ochs, 1979).” (Davidson, 2009) In this discussion, I’m using the word ‘data’ to refer to what is captured by a qualitative-research approach, which can be sometimes augmented by information about pragmatics, and analysed above and beyond the ‘stuff’ or ‘content’ of the outcome of an interview for instance. Data in this sense exists in both the audio content and the transcribed content.

[iv] Dr Tom Stafford from Sheffield University has analysed why it is we can’t spot our own typos because we read what we think we’ve written not what is actually on the page.  

[v] I had the pleasure of editing a PhD which was based on a series of transcripts produced by an agency. I was hugely surprised by the differences in the way various ‘styles’ were adopted in the different transcripts, for instance from average sentence length to use of punctuation.

[vi] We don’t speak in sentences. When transcribing verbal utterances, the transcriber makes his/her own decision as to where breaks can be made and represents this through use of punctuation. The mark of a good transcriptionist is the ability to make lengthy seemingly non-segmented utterances intelligible through having a keen sense of how speech is verbally co-ordinated and then they represent this through standard punctuation. Each transcriber’s take of how this can be achieved varies, for instance in terms of what makes for a ‘good’ sentence length in a context, how parts of an utterance are connected in more or less relative ways through content and theme, thus determining whether a new sentence can be begun or if a particular co-ordinator (such as ‘and’, ‘or’, ‘but’, ‘then’) should remain as just that in order to strike a balance between the integrity of a speaker’s proposition and the intelligibility of the transcript. While the words on the page themselves may not vary (although transcribers have varying levels of guess tolerance or query tolerance or may be more or less open to note taking and querying aspects of a person’s speech – I myself am more likely to offer choices between potential words ‘heard’ than make a guess and I provide notes to flag any queries in sense and meaning) between one transcriber’s work and the next, how this structuring and representation of phrases inevitably will differ.

[vii] Having such a relationship can also mean that you are working with a team member and colleague during what can be quite an isolating experience. Please see my testimonials for implicit evidence of this!

[viii] Oliver and Serovich state: “While often seen as a behind-the-scenes task, we suggest that transcription is a powerful act of representation.” Looking ‘behind the scenes’ can be a useful enabling thing if researchers wish to ‘incorporate reflection into their research design by interrogating their transcription decisions and the possible impact these decisions may have on participants and research outcomes.” (P.1273)  I would argue that the ethics of a study could be extended to the means of production of the data source you will use for a qualitative-research study. The person an agency uses to transcribe your qualitative-research audio will not be an employee but a freelance, self-employed sole-trader. They are therefore not covered by any employment law in relation to how the agency deals with them or treats them. They can be paid as little as 40p per audio minute with an industry average of 60p. A good transcriber can usually manage between 10 and 15 minutes of audio per hour of their time. This means they are earning less than or just about the minimum wage. This is just for the typing. Most agencies will then expect the transcriber to proofread and check the transcript (as the transcriber would want to a) for their own sense of having done a good job and b) so the agency continues to engage them). Their initial hourly rate therefore drops substantially with this final treatment of the transcript. This situation could potentially affect decisions made regarding the ethics of a research study. For instance research into the impact of austerity based on transcription of audio of interviews with those affected by such government policy which were based on transcripts produced by someone earning less than the minimum-wage hourly rate throws up one or two ethical contradictions! In addition, while the person who is responsible for producing your data source is being paid not very much, you are being charged for the fees the agency takes. This can be as much as 60p per audio minute (if you are being charged £1.00 per audio minute and the transcriber is being paid 40p). On top of this, you may have VAT to pay to an agency whereas a sole-trader is unlikely to earn enough to be VAT registered. If you are responsible for the judicious use of research grants or client money, such an awareness of the economies behind agency transcription might be useful in terms of justifying spending. Obviously time scales, practicality and the nature of your data may mean that an agency is needed and many people rely on them for work and employment in both the short and long term.