Research Methods and Design

This review of four seminars at the University of Canberra in my interest area of; governance, resilience and social capital in urban and regional planning will outline the research questions, the methodology and presentation and assess the strengths and weaknesses of the methodology and whether the results are convincing.

While I found each of the presentations to be helpful there were some significant communication issues in all of them and some valuable lessons about asking the right questions, being clear about the methodology and presenting the outcomes in a clear and legible manner.

Analysing the economic cost of political instability in Fiji

Maneshwar Rao and Xiadong Gong (2014) looked at Fiji prior to the military coup in 1987 and to the unsettling period of political activity up to 2010. The question; has political instability had a direct impact on the economic growth of Fiji? The methodology was to analyse a number of similar countries that had parallel economic development patterns and build a synthetic Fiji option to assess what might have happened to the Fiji economy had the coup not occurred. They identified that between 1970 and 1986 Belize had a very similar pattern of growth and about 26 countries had slightly similar trajectories with a range of variations. From the study of these 26 countries they were able to build a synthetic Fiji which they compared to Fiji’s post 1987 economy. They proposed that using this method they could define a difference between the observed economic patterns and an unobserved pattern that may reflect Fiji’s potential growth. Their conclusion was that the Fijian economy would have nearly doubled in size had the period of economic instability not occurred.

What does this methodology provide to the economist or to the casual reader that an observed economic analysis would not have provided? A graph of the economy between 1970 and 2010 would show that there was a growth period between 1970 and 1986 a period of relative flatness between 1986 and 1990 and a decline between 1990 and 2010. To create a synthetic Fiji, compare that with what actually happened and draw similar conclusions to be a lot of work to point out the obvious. Was the research, methodology and final story compelling? Yes. Is there an application elsewhere, or does it tell a story that is not otherwise obvious, this not immediately clear to a non-economist. It does show that other economies had fluctuating growth for comparison purposes.

Problematising digital public engagement: the politics of academics going online

Professor Deborah Lupton used an online survey of over 700 academics globally who use social media as part of their work. the presentation began by discussing the potential pitfalls of these practices as well as some of the theoretical perspectives of using social media.

The preliminary discussion was related to gender issues in academia, women tend to use Facebook and more personal media while men tend to use LinkedIn and media related to business and factual data. Some of the issues that academics face using social media include; a sense of immediacy relating to their research, and engagement with a much wider range of other researchers interested in the same subjects, not always academics and the ability to engage with academics internationally. Some of the drawbacks that she saw included a much higher proportion of women’s issues relating to how they appeared on the social media than for men.

A significant fear amongst older academics was that their ideas might be taken by other people, however younger academics seem to feel that once something was published in the social media other academics put a date on the release of that information in the social media.

The presentation discussed a number of issues relating to engagement with social media, with other academics through social media and with the general public. Because it was based on an online survey, it did not address how well academics actually engaged, but rather focused on their feedback from their own work.

It was clear from the presentation that some care needs to be taken about how academics engage through social media however, there are also a number of big opportunities; refinement of ideas through discussion, enlarging your geographic area of engagement, immediacy, and the ability to address a broader audience. There are significant opportunities to collaborate with larger groups of researchers.The discussion did highlight a number of very significant risks. The most important risks include; opening yourself up to the scrutiny of others, releasing too much about your ideas too soon and choosing a form of social media that is not appropriate to your area of study.

Was the discussion/seminar convincing? Yes, the increase in the uptake of social media and more clarity around how to use it is making it an essential tool for more academics. Should academic use social media? Yes, with cautiously.

What are the possible urban planning impacts of the implementation of light rail through Flemington Road-Northbourne Avenue?

This seminar was hosted by Canberra Urban and Regional Futures (CURF). The research question is a preliminary work to be undertaken for the Department of Environment and Sustainable Development, ACT Government: “what will Canberra be like after the City Metro?”

The method was to hold a debate; three expert panellists based on the particular area of expertise questioned by an invited audience. The three presenters were David Flannery, an architect and planner currently working at CURF on the report for the ACT government, tailored to Northbourne Avenue. The second presenter was Anthony Burton, employed by the heart foundation with a Ph.D. in community health and urban design. The third presenter, Paul Tranter of the University of New South Wales, ACT campus is a lecturer in urban geography and transport planning.

David Flannery’s position (unpublished April 2014) is essentially that backing the City Metro Plan is effectively a leap of faith into an uncertain but better future with some risks, but worth taking.

Flannery postulated that the positive outcomes which outweigh the negative include; increased land values, increased density, a travel mode shift from cars to public transport, two-way movement in to and from the city in parallel and less car parking requirements in the city. There would also be commercial and retail opportunities.

He also listed a number of unknowns that may lead to unexpected outcomes. It would also probably lead to less carbon emissions, an opportunity to enhance biodiversity and increase in sustainable development outcomes.

Anthony Burton was more directly positive in his response indicating that the alternatives to the light rail are untenable leading to gridlock and the growth of car numbers in Canberra. In his view the potential for mixed use density along the corridor would improve; demand for walking and active commuting, create a boulevard on Northbourne Avenue that is worthy of the national capital and create a sense of arrival so that visitors won’t need a “city” sign to tell them when they are in the city.

Paul Tranter on the other hand dismissed the economics of the light rail as being a side issue. He put three questions to the audience; is light rail the best option for the city and can we justify it? Economically-no!
He postulated that if we ask questions about the type of city that we should have, we are more likely to come to a position on whether or not we should have a light rail as part of that city. He took the position that to get people to use public transport we need to use something that is much more romantic than the current bus system and provides a functional and efficient movement process.

If the methodology was to test some ideas in a semi public arena, to hold a debate between three alternate views of the light rail in the city, these speakers were generally self-supporting, rather more like three strands to a rope than opposing views pulling each other apart. But what they did bring together was the trinity of the healthy populations, resilient cities and planning by design debates that are prominent in the current urban planning analysis. There was no or little empirical evidence to support the three positions. Nevertheless, the combination of the three arguments provides a powerful foundation for further discussion on the impact of city metro.

Peer Reviewing an Article

Jenny Chesters from the Australian and New Zealand School of government

Jenny Chesters from the Australian and New Zealand School of government ran a session on Wednesday, 20 March 2014 entitled reviewing a paper. She provided a paper called Wealth Inequality in Australia prior to the session which she then indicated that attendees should nominate whether the paper should:

be excepted without revision,
be accepted with minor revisions,
be accepted with major revisions,
be rejected,
the seminar took attendees through the process of reviewing an article and gave some insight into how an article should be written, how it should be set out and how to go through the process of preparing an article from the point of view of a reviewer. What extent does the writer need to address or define matters raised in the article, identify the scope and parameters of the article and rethink the question, methodologies and conclusions, and importantly how the article fits together as a narrative as well as containing logical processes.

In the process of attending a number of seminars and forums it has become clear to me that the initial question, the methodology and the purpose of the paper/forum all need to be clear to the audience and appropriate to the question and investigation process. It has also become very clear that honest comments and reviews by peers can significantly improve the question, the methodology and the conclusions. It is also clear just how difficult it is to define a question appropriately, carefully select methodologies that are appropriate and present the information to a sceptical audience.

Aao, Mahneswar and Gong, Xiaodong unpublished, The• Economic Cost of Political Instability: a Case Study of Fiji Thursday 10th of April 2014, 12:30 to 1:30 PM building 24, room a 4 230 University of Canberra.
Flannery, David; Tranter, Prof Paul; Burton, Anthony: unpublished, Canberra after Light Rail, What Impact Will the Capital Metro Have on Canberra? 30 March 2014 5:30 PM building 24, CURF University of Canberra
Professor Deborah Lupton, Problematising digital public engagement: the politics of academics going online, Wednesday 2 April,  10.30-11.30am, 9C25 University of Canberra
Jenny Chesters, Wednesday, 19 March 2014 building 24 room A4 Reviewing an Article; A Guide for Writers.