Terra Incognita

Mapping NYC’s digital public spaces in the COVID-19 outbreak

The outbreak of COVID-19 is shifting the way in which we live and work as individuals. It also has a profound effect on how we connect as communities. The prescribed isolation has, in an abrupt way, moved most of our social interactions online. While our traditional spaces for gathering and being together, our physical public spaces, are left deserted, a panoply of digital public spaces continue to emerge. Inadvertently, we are becoming witnesses of and participants in a real-life social experiment of unprecedented scale: the all-encompassing move of most of public space and public life into the digital realm. As this shift is happening, we are seeing the escalated impact of well-known issues that exist within digital space—reliance on private infrastructure, the digital divide, harassment, disproportionately impacted communities, political polarization, misinformation, and so on—as well as the emergence of new variations, such as ZoomBombing. At the same, we are seeing radically scaled experiments in virtual community-building, including everything from virtual Kindergarten classes to seminars, yoga classes, and raves. 

There’s a lot to learn from this moment. We need to take this opportunity to develop a systematic understanding of how these experiments are playing out, and where the digital spaces that have suddenly been populated are serving—and falling short of—the physical spaces they were meant to replace. This insight is essential for developing a strong agenda for re/building a better future post-COVID-19, especially in places that have been severely affected by the pandemic, such as New York City. This research project sets out to do exactly that. It will focus on mapping out the to date unknown digital public spaces—terra incognita—in our hometown, New York City. It builds on the hypothesis that the lack of physical public space has consequences for how people use digital space and sets out to explore if and how digital technologies or platforms make a difference for how people organize their (public) social lives during the pandemic. This project is a collaboration between Civic Signals and the NYU Alliance for Public Interest Technology.

Principal Investigator and Project Director: Dr. Mona Sloane, NYU

Research Lead: Dr. Jordan Kraemer, NYU

Terra Incognita Research

The Terra Incognita research project is a study that sets out to learn more about the emergence of NYC’s digital public spaces during the COVID-19 pandemic. This study will be conducted by Dr. Mona Sloane (Principal Investigator), and Dr. Jordan Kraemer, (Research Lead), and five experienced graduate student researchers. 

Individuals who agree to be in this study are asked to do the following:

  • Take part in an interview with one representative of the research team about their digital engagement in your local community
  • Allow their online interactions and activities to be observed and recorded or saved by one or more members of the research team. Researchers may observe social media posts and comments, personal profiles, follow blogs or other online presence, view online photos or videos, and communicate with participants through instant messaging or other electronic communication systems.

Participants will also have the opportunity to participate in recording your own daily activities, either through:

  • A “mobile ethnography,” where participants take photos and videos of their daily life with their own phone or other devices and share them securely with the researchers, or
  • A time diary participants complete over at least one and up to seven days of your online activities (according to your availability and preference).

Participants will be audio recorded. Participants may review these recordings and request that all or any portion of the recordings be destroyed. Participants’ online interactions will be observed and in some cases, researchers will take screenshots or captures.

Interviews will take between 60 minutes and 120 minutes. Participation in participant-observation will take place whenever participants would normally spend time online. Participation in the mobile ethnography or time diary will take approximately 20 to 30 minutes per day the individual participates, according to availability. 

There are no known risks associated with the participation in this research beyond those of everyday life or potential breach of confidentiality. The research team is taking appropriate measures to prevent a breach of confidentiality. Confidentiality of your research records will be strictly maintained by electronic records (i.e. audio files of the interviews and interview transcripts) being encrypted and stored in a password-protected folder on a password protected computer. Names will be removed from audio files and digital transcripts. Audio files and digital will instead be given codes. The code sheet linking participants’ names with codes will also be an encrypted file stored in a password-protected folder on a password protected computer. Only researchers directly linked to this project will have access to the research data. Your information from this study will not be used for future research.

The purpose of this study is to research the ways in which communities make up for the lack of physical public space during the pandemic. Although participants receive no direct benefits, this research may help the investigators understand how digital spaces are serving—and falling short of—the physical spaces they were meant to replace. 

Participation in this study is voluntary. Individuals may refuse to participate or withdraw at any time without penalty. For interviews, questionnaires, or surveys, participants have the right to skip or not answer any questions you prefer not to answer.

If there is anything about the study or your participation that is unclear or difficult to understand, if you have questions or wish to report a research-related problem, you may contact Dr. Mona Sloane at mona.sloane@nyu.edu, or Dr. Jordan Kraemer at jk5773@nyu.edu.

For questions about your rights as a research participant, you may contact the University Committee on Activities Involving Human Subjects (UCAIHS), New York University, 665 Broadway, Suite 804, New York, New York, 10012, at ask.humansubjects@nyu.edu or (212) 998-4808. Please reference the study # (IRB-FY2020-4461) when contacting the IRB (UCAIHS).