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Conducting Mixed Method and Ethnographic Research in the Digital Age: Using Mobile Phones and Geospatial Internet Technologies to Collaborate With Youth on the Move

Date & Time:
16:30:00 - 18:00:00,
Tuesday 9 February, 2016


Historically, it has been challenging to do longitudinal research with migratory groups. In the United States, homeless young people are estimated to number as many as five million, and while they are considered a highly mobile population, little is known about the character of their mobility. Increasingly, in many U.S. cities, the enforcement of “quality of life” ordinances mean that homeless young people are harassed, receive citations, accumulate warrants, and are often dislocated and expelled by authorities for such activities as staying in boarded up buildings, camping in public parks, sleeping on the sidewalk, and for having pets without costly registration tags. For these, and other reasons, homeless youth often live “under the radar” and “off the grid”.

The health and safety risks of homeless young people are extremely high, when compared with their housed counterparts. Providers and outreach workers consider homeless young people difficult to reach and, even when they do access healthcare services, they are often lost to follow-up. In spite of police harassment, significant health burdens, and lack of financial resources, homeless young people often travel and relocate proactively. Walking, catching rides, hitchhiking, and hopping freight trains, they choose different destination locations for a variety of reasons.

The Youth Trek study piloted the use of mobile phones, in conjunction with survey and geospatial internet tools, collaborating with homeless young people for up to two years, to document their lives as they travelled. Through a method developed called “travelogueing”, participants incorporated documentary photography and photo essays, geography (mapped travel routes) and recorded geo-narratives, and personalized cartography to create rich textured travelogues describing their lives, challenges, and aspirations. These research approaches, which rely on mobile phone and internet technologies, not only enable an understanding of travel trajectories over time, but also offer a series of real time snapshots of life, introduced through the first person perspectives of youth.

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  • Name: Amy Donovan Blondell
  • Affiliation: Oxford Department of International Development, Queen Elizabeth House
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  • Bio: Working at the intersection of the social sciences, geography, public health, and the documentary arts, Dr. Donovan Blondell conducts participatory research projects with highly mobile homeless young people in the U.S. context. The methods and findings of the Youth Trek study are elaborated in Geographies of Children and Young People (in Press, Skelton, ed., Springer) in chapters addressing: gender and sexuality; artistic representation and subjectivity; migration and journeying; navigating environmental hazards, border crossing, and work in formal and informal economies. At present, Dr. Donovan Blondell is a visiting research fellow in the Oxford Department of International Development completing a book on the mobility, healthcare, housing, employment, and income generating activities of homeless young people as they travel across county, state, and sometimes national borders.