As the first part of the Community Food Access study, we wanted to understand, in-depth, the experiences of people facing food insecurity in the Boulder community. To do this, we used a multimedia-elicitation interview (MEI) methodology. What is an MEI study you might ask? MEI is a participatory, semi-structured method where participants record media (i.e., photos, videos, and audio recordings) related to a topic of interest using a multimedia recording device, such as a camera phone. In this way, the method is similar to photovoice or diary studies, more commonly seen in HCI.
The media captured by participants are reviewed during a subsequent semi-structured interview and used to guide the conversation. The media they record serve as prompts for a conversation on the topic of interest and are captured as research artifacts for analysis.
The figure below illustrates the research design and activities we conducted in this study. We first met with participants to introduce them to the study, then asked them to record media of their experiences getting food for two weeks. At the end of the two week period, we met with them to conduct the semi-structured interview exploring their media recordings.
In our study, we provided each participant with an Android camera phone, so that they could record their experiences (with pictures, video, and voice recordings) over the two week period. Because the topic “your experiences getting food” was overly broad, we provided participants with four specific prompts to consider when recording their experiences:
- Record moments when you are in the process of getting food
- Record things that make it more difficult to get, prepare, or eat food
- Record tools you use to help you get food
- Record positive experiences you have with food
One important consideration with using the MEI methodology was around how to be inclusive of people who are unable or uncomfortable using a camera phone to record their experiences. As an alternative, we allowed participants to use a voice recorder (which we provided) to record voice diaries of their experiences or to write their experiences down on paper. Only a few participants selected this option, but without it they would not have been able to participate.
Why use a method like the MEI instead of something simpler like traditional semi-structured interviews or a diary study? We used this method because it allowed us to see the experiences faced by participants through their eyes. This was essential to the goals of the study. Furthermore, it allowed us to share the ownership of data collection with participants and provided them an opportunity to control their contribution to the research. Through this, we built trust with participants and the broader community in which we are working. The focus on diverse types of media and the emphasis on using that media to frame a semi-structured interview made it more comprehensive than a traditional diary study. The method also allowed us to gain a better understanding of the media captured by participants as opposed to if we had collected the media without discussing it.
In total, 26 people who self-identified as experiencing food insecurity participated in the MEI study. They recorded a total of 767 photos (36.52 average per participant) and 228 videos (10.86 average per participant) using the camera phones. I would love to share some of the media recorded by participants because they are truly amazing and eye-opening. However protecting participants’ privacy is a concern of the utmost importance for us. Furthermore, we have given participants ownership over what they would like to share and how they’d like to share it. We are in the process of reaching out to participants to ask them what media they would feel comfortable sharing publicly.
Although I used the MEI method in previous studies, I had never seen engagement at the level we saw in this study. This excitement around recording and sharing their experiences and desire to have a was consistent with what they said during the interviews. This has become a major theme and focus in our research. In fact, we are in the process of developing a series of design workshops to explore forms of participation in community efforts to improve food access.
Although our analysis is still on-going with this study, a number of major themes have emerged which we have been communicating to community stakeholders. Here are a brief sampling of some of the insights from our study:
- Barriers to food access go far beyond a lack of financial resources. Participants identified barriers including limited transportation, disability and mobility issues, weather, problematic hours of operation for food access resources, difficulty finding information about the resources available to them, low quality of available food, limited social support, paperwork and red tape, and a lack of respect and even outright harassment when seeking support.
- The tools people use to support their food access range from the complex, such as smartphones and personal vehicles, to the mundane, for example bags and carts for carrying food long distances. When people lack even these mundane tools, it makes it much harder for them to get food.
- At the core of it, our participants characterized food insecurity as a lack of control. Any effort to improve food access should focus on restoring control and ownership to the people affected.
- Our research identified a number of opportunities for technology to help improve food access for people experiencing food insecurity. For instance, we could design technologies that facilitate communication, coordination, and co-learning between people affected by similar challenges around food access.
This work is far from done. Our next steps include finishing our analysis of the extremely rich dataset we collected, developing actionable reports for community stakeholders with concrete recommendations, developing scenarios and personas to inform design, and hosting a series of design workshops with people affected by food insecurity.