When I started my research, I didn’t fully understand how lucky I was to have an industry partner attached to the project. As part of an existing Design Research Institute project, my PhD position was essentially like a normal full-time position, with a project ready to kick off; all I did was slot in and get started. Which, of course, sounds much easier than it was.

I’m now about 50% through my allotted time, and about one month in to my field work. The idea all along, even in the very first version of my research proposal, was to base my research around case studies. This isn’t surprising, and is still true; however, my idea of what a case study is has changed significantly. When I first started, I understood the entire geographical region of a park to be my case study. “Wilson’s Promontory National Park” was going to be a chapter in my thesis, and the unit of measurement would have been people’s behaviour in and around that location. I thought that simply having an industry partner meant I could tick the case study box.

Based on the handful of interviews I’ve done so far I now realise that just as much happens outside a park than in it, and that narrowing the case study to a geographical location would ignore the thread of knowledge that goes through the entire organisation, and is not just situated in the park. Whilst locations (and people’s understandings of them) are still the core of my research, the actual frame through which I analyse that has changed. My case studies are no longer just geographical locations, but are ecological projects that start and end outside of the park.

Parks and people

Parks Victoria is a large organisation with many different focuses, summarised up by the phrase “Healthy parks, Healthy people”. This suggests two primary facets to park management: the ecological integrity of the park, and the focus on the public’s enjoyment of these natural environments. Whilst these values appear to be at odds with each other at times, they are also closely intertwined; people cannot enjoy parks if the ecology is not managed correctly, and tourism provides valuable financial support to allow purely ecological projects to continue. The emotional connections people establish with parks similarly gives Parks Victoria added weight when it comes to gaining clout with the state government. People are passionate about these places, and this translates into votes.

That aside, my research is focused on the ecological management of parks, particularly in relation to the sharing and generation of tacit knowledge about bushfire prevention, management and recovery. Internally, this kind of management falls under the umbrella of “natural values”, a term that describes the ecological management priorities in and around a given park.

Natural values management

The organisation has a set of values that dictates the kinds of ecological management projects that are planned and carried out. These values act as a means to prioritise the management activities in a park, and may be something like:

Ensure endagered species and their environments are protected.

From this value, the management team – working with park rangers – plan projects to achieve and satisfy that goal. These projects may be to do with monitoring of species populations or the control of noxious flora that could jeopardise the species’ habitat. Once a project is decided upon, a team of people design and plan the research project, collaborating withrangers to choose practical and appropriate sites, and sometimes with contractors and other groups to carry out the actual research. Analysis is then fed back into the organisation and contributes to long term trend mapping.

It is these research projects that provide a common thread throughout the whole organisation, and I now plan on following two of these projects as case studies. One project will be based at Wilson’s Prom, whilst it’s looking like the other will be in the Otways National Park.

The thread between locations, people and space

By having natural values management projects as broader case studies, I will hopefully have a more complete picture of what happens during park manangement, and this picture will not be limited simply to a geographical location. Whilst the way people relate to locations is still the core of my research, having an organisation wide thread to follow will allow me to:

  • Understand individual rangers and scientists views of the locations they manage, in the shared context of an NVM project.
  • Understand how different people interpret the same space; do rangers and scientists have different views on locations, and what implications does this have when they come to work on the same project?
  • Examine how these differences play out in a project, and what it may mean for the design of a context-sensitive knowledge tool.

Similarly, by having two sites of research, I will be able to:

  • Compare the kinds of knowledge being generated and used across similar projects, but different locations.
  • Generate a set of design principles that could be applied across more varied environments. Whilst parks are still the focus, having multiple locations will make the principles for situated and located sense-making more robust.

Implications for design

From an analysis of qualitative data around these case studies I hope to establish some broad design principles that I can use to come up with a location-based, multi-faceted and in-situ knowledge service. I hope this exercise will contribute to the broader ubiquitous computing literature, and I’m also hoping to develop some basic working prototypes to be used and tested in the field. I’m going to WWDC in June, and will use what I learn there to do some rapid prototyping (and check out San Francisco, of course).

This is not an essay

Obviously this isn’t an essay on knowledge spaces, as I had previously posted. Given recent flooding at Wilson’s Prom – my primary case study – I had to refocus on finding another case study site last week. The park received 500mm of rain in one 24 hour period, and most of the infrastructure in the park has been damaged or washed away. Access is limited to the park, and the staff based there have been shifted away from their usual roles – everyone is focused on recovering the park as quickly as possible, and are now working outside the park until work facilities have been restored. This post is a step towards some kind of contingency plan, and we’re all hoping The Prom will recover quickly.


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