XXI.5 September + October 2014
Page: 60
Digital Citation

Online ethnography

Valérie Bauwens, Patrick Genoud

Lessons Learned

“I would like us to get closer to our citizens.” This claim from the Geneva State Councillor in charge of mobility [1] in 2010 was the inspiration for our “augmented citizenship project” that we lead in the summer of 2013. We made our minister’s wish come true by co-creating, with citizens, ideas translating the 2030 mobility vision for Geneva into concrete daily-life solutions. This innovative way of interacting with the public is uncommon in Switzerland. Therefore, before launching a large initiative, we decided to run a pilot project: The MobiLab project was born. Here, we show how it evolved.


The MobiLab project is an online collaborative platform where citizens reported and discussed their daily mobility during an eight-week period using their mobile phones, tablets, and computers. They also posted interesting newspapers articles, commented on recently proposed measures to improve mobility, described surprises they had on the way to work, and so on.

We facilitated discussions on the blog (Figure 1), dedicating each week to a specific topic (e.g., parking, budget). We motivated people to avoid talking about generalities such as “I am fed up with trucks parking on my bikeway” but instead to report about real situations (Figure 2).

All of these concrete submissions from daily life laid the groundwork for fruitful discussions and the creation of realistic solutions.

Using a blog was also a way to enable state employees to dive into the project, integrate findings, and create a direct bond with their customers, namely the local citizens.

Finally, we summarized these testimonies into reports, presentations, articles, and a list of 100 ideas to improve mobility in Geneva. We tried, and are still trying, to continue co-constructing and co-implementing them.

Six Impacts in One Virtuous Circle

We managed to create a virtuous circle: (1) We developed a community; (2) we encouraged it to report about its daily mobility; (3) these reports enabled a dialogue inside the community; (4) the dialogue generated new ideas to improve mobility; (5) this created a motivation to implement the ideas; which (6) transformed the participants’ visions of mobility (Figure 3).

Here is a concrete example describing the dynamics of this virtuous circle. A member of our community (1) made the following comment: (2) “Why isn’t there any plan of the town displayed downtown?” A conversation (3) then started, as many people tried to help her out. For example, “Did you know you could find maps of the town for free at the xxx office?” New ideas (4) emerged from these answers: “How about printing out our own signs and sticking them around the city to guide people? I have seen a similar initiative in the United States ...” [2] (Figure 4).

The discussion sparked so much enthusiasm that one community member was on the verge of implementing the idea: (5) “Yes, cool, let’s do it! Let’s go and print the signs ...” (6) Cohesion, solidarity, and awareness of the issue had been created in the community around the needs of this person.

Highlights for our HCI Community

The main characteristic of MobiLab is that it actually is an “online ethnography and design thinking project.” We took care of the ethnographic research design and the sense making of the data gathered, but we delegated the ethnographic data gathering to the citizens. Also, the solutions design happened mainly online, which bore more fruit than the plain face-to-face co-creation sessions that we organized at the end of the eight weeks. We recommend this method of gathering data collectively on a blog. It was also the optimal soil in which to create an administration-citizen dialogue and potentially deeper behavioral transformations.

The MobiLab experience also reminded us to consider that our projects do not end up with either research results reports or a prototype. We should not only co-construct ideas or prototypes with the users, but also try to co-implement them, as this is when the real challenges emerge.

Finally, many other initiatives of “augmented citizenships” have been launched worldwide. As far as we can observe, they tend to specialize in terms of objectives. Some concentrate on gathering testimonies from citizens, for instance, “Fix my street” [3], and others on co-constructing solutions and visions, as in Singapore [4] or Strasbourg [5]. As mentioned earlier (see the “virtuous circle”), with MobiLab we aimed for a broader range of impacts. The size of our project enabled us to do so. We nevertheless encourage other, even larger projects to widen their ambitions, as they already have many results they can build on.

MobiLab Step by Step

Here are more details behind these key learnings.

1. A sincere and motivated community

Impact: MobiLab was first of all a community of people. Leading such an experiment required people who are sincerely motivated, open-minded, and positive. We recruited 85 members, of whom 35 were active contributors and 10 were facilitators. Our community was heterogeneous: between 25 and 70 years old; living either downtown or on the outskirts of Geneva; single, with families, or in couples; and using a wide range of transportation means. The common points were that all had smartphones, were used to online technology, were interested in the topic of mobility, and wanted to make their town evolve. We also created a community within the public administration service in charge of mobility (our extended MobiLab team): state employees open to discussion with their end-customers and who agreed to spread this approach within their organization.

Key success factors:

  • Recruitment of the external community. We recruited members of the public through existing, well-known, open-minded Geneva communities.
  • Recruitment of the internal community. We recruited and motivated state employees by adapting the project goals to the needs of an existing project: Mobilities 2030, the multimodal [6] strategy of the State of Geneva.
  • Trust. We managed to foster trust by being transparent about our goals, not promising what we could not deliver, and always delivering what we had promised. We also guaranteed the confidentiality of the data through a charter binding all participants.

Areas for improvement: Even though our sample was varied enough for this experiment, we believe its spread should be broader to gain a complete overview of mobility habits [7].

2. Daily life testimonies

Impact: At the end of this two-month experience, we had explored six facets of the mobility experience in Geneva (choice of transportation means, parking, comfort, budget management, security, and ride-sharing). For each of these facets, we provided a report giving a picture of the situation in Geneva at that time. This is as if we had completed six mini ethnographic studies within a single research project.

Key success factors: “Speak concretely.” We always asked people to provide concrete details—“Can you please tell us what happened precisely? Where was it? When?”

Areas for improvement: A drawback of the method is that it relies solely on the testimonies of participants, which are not possible to question deeply in a blog. Even though our project leader did not request it, adding our own observations and one-on-one interviews enabled a deepening of the study.

3. Dialogue within the administration and between the administration and the public

Impact: At the end of the project, participating citizens made statements such as: “I am going to miss it”; “I could get my voice heard”; “We had real interactions with our administration.” The state employees were also happy: “It is nice to be in a dialogue for a change instead of being judged.” The two communities created at the beginning of the project had merged.

Key success factors:

  • In-person meetings. We made sure that all participants met in person from time to time. For instance, we organized a meeting for a drink in a park.
  • An editorial plan. This plan (a table indicating the question to be asked by each of our team members and when) was the score that set the rhythm for our community. The topics had been carefully chosen to provide ideas to support the mobility strategy (Mobilities 2030). First, we interviewed the people in charge of the strategy about how, based on their projections, mobility behaviors needed to evolve to achieve the strategy (e.g., drivers should park their cars at the entrance of the city in a park-and-ride area). This directly provided us with the topics and indirectly with the questions to be addressed by MobiLab (e.g., parking habits). We then selected eight of the topics and the questions that should be addressed accordingly.

Areas for improvement: The number of posts and comments started decreasing after five to six weeks, and some participants indicated a decrease in motivation. Together with our community we identified two potential solutions to this issue: Either shorten the experiment or increase the number of participants to maintain a high level of activity on the platform.

4. 100 Ideas

Impact: MobiLab performed perfectly as an incubator of solutions. On the basis of individual testimonies we created 100 ideas (see sidebar). An idea would emerge during a discussion; it would be debated and eventually refined. It could also generate another idea or emerge a few days later and be further deepened.

Key success factors:

  • Written format. Elaborating ideas on a blog was instrumental to achieving such a result. Writing helps one to think through the ramifications of an idea before sharing it, and adding a picture helps in visualizing it.
  • Ideas selection process. Two mobility specialists classified and prioritized the results. They considered what their department could launch independently and what required external partners. Accordingly, they selected two ideas they could act on directly and five they could initiate but not implement alone.

Areas for improvement: The quantity of the ideas collected was not considered an issue, so there was significant room for improvement in their depth and maturity. We did not take the time to elaborate the ideas before reworking them with the community during the creativity workshop. Mobility specialists should have selected, categorized, and reworked them before conducting the workshop.

5. Actions

The service in charge of mobility is now working on the implementation of seven of the ideas selected from this project.

We realized that one major advantage of such an experiment is that the public sector ceases to be the sole initiator of actions toward improving mobility in Geneva. It has a community to share this responsibility with!

Areas for improvement: Implementing some of the ideas created by the community and its continued involvement in the process is the prerequisite to sustain the virtuous circle: Participants want to see that something concrete emerges from their investment of time and energy. We should have planned more resources for this phase. Ideas will be implemented, but we hope the process will be fast enough to maintain the motivation of the community.

6. Transformation of Mindsets

Impact: The other side of the project was focused on its potential to transform the administration. As employees who participated in the project attested, they experienced a real change in the way they perceive their work: “I can put faces to the figures in our reports”; “We switch from stereotypes of mobility habits to real-life stories”; “I now see my job differently. I have understood that the engineering vision of my job is not enough to bring answers.” They have shifted from an engineering perspective to a much more open attitude toward the public. And they are convinced that expanding the project to include more of their colleagues would be a benefit for their organization.

Key success factors:

  • Relevance of the project. One key for success was constructing our internal core team or community around a topic that is of real concern to the administration.
  • Internal communication. We shared our project results with the rest of the department through two internal newsletters and a presentation during a department meeting. We also spent one day per week in the open space of the mobility service offices to directly answer any questions about the project.
  • Top management support. The project was launched with the full agreement and support of top management.

Areas for improvement: The transformation of an organization through a project like MobiLab requires careful thought about how to “evangelize” the organization during four phases: before the blog is ready, when the blog is open to participants, after it is closed (sorting and deepening), and when the resulting ideas are implemented. In a similar project, we would certainly invest more of our energy in the third phase than we did.

Figure 5 shows the optimal planning for such a project. Activities in these four phases, such as allowing employees to spend time on the blog, should be planned by the project team and approved by the organization’s top and middle management at the very start of the project

Conclusions for the State of Geneva

To the best of our knowledge, MobiLab is the first experiment of this kind in Switzerland’s public sector. Its success exceeded many of our expectations. The response to MobiLab demonstrates that a part of the population expects this type of (online) co-creation process and that it should be tested on a larger scale.

A first battle has been won toward more public-centric policies, but there is still much work left to do. The public needs to learn how to make best use of this new opportunity provided by the state. Within the administration, the virtuous dynamics induced by MobiLab will deploy their full potential only when it is integrated into the daily operations of the organization. We hope that MobiLab will inspire similar projects in other services of the State of Geneva and be a driver to propagate such experiments and instill new dynamics in the public administration. To build on a Dott Cornwall’s report [8], after the ages of stone, bronze, iron, and today’s “information age,” we hope we are entering the “age of social participation.”


Many thanks to the rest of the MobiLab team: Dorothée Zarjevski (project head and communications specialist for the State Councillor in charge of mobility), Adrien Vieira de Mello (specialist in information systems), Vincent Galley (geomatics specialist), and all mobility specialists (Mathieu Baradel, Julie Guinguene, Delphine Fontaine, Rémi Wurtz, and Damien Cataldi, Yann Gerdil-Margueron).

But big thanks especially to our MobiLab community members, who sincerely invested their time and gave so much positive energy to make this experiment a success. Let’s go on constructing the future of our regions together!


1. Michèle Künzler, State Councillor in charge of the Department of Mobility, Home Affairs, and the Environment for the canton of Geneva.

2. Walk your city; http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/cityfabric/walk-your-city

3. http://www.fixmystreet.com

4. OSC Our Singapore Conversation; http://www.reach.gov.sg/Portals/0/Microsite/osc/OSC_Reflection.pdf

5. Carticipe, a territorial participative tool: http://strasbourg2028.carticipe.fr

6. Being multimodal means attempting to think and choose the optimal transportation means for a given trip.

7. One of the goals of this project was to perform qualitative (and not quantitative) research about mobility habits in Geneva. This is why we did not seek a representative sample of people, but instead a varied one.

8. Siodmok, A. Big society by design: Working with citizens and communities in a collaborative process of innovation and enterprise. Dott Cornwall, U.K., 2010. http://dottcornwall.s3.amazonaws.com/big_society_by_design_b6753e123b189d6e.pdf


Valérie Bauwens is the founder and director of Human-Centricity (http://www.human-centricity.com), a company that co-creates solutions with cities, companies, and other institutions based on daily life observations of clients, users, and employees. She specializes in management of behavior change for the following domains: technology adoption, future cities, and work-practices evolution. valerie.bauwens@human-centricity.com

Patrick Genoud works for the Observatoire Technologique of the State of Geneva, where he is involved in strategic planning for the information technology department. He always considers technologies from a global and user-centric perspective. His current domains of interest mainly concern open content, co-creation, and innovation in the public sector. patrick.genoud@etat.ge.ch


F1Figure 1. Screenshot of the MobiLab blog.

F2Figure 2. Picture posted by a MobiLab contributor showing a truck parked in a bike lane.

F3Figure 3. The virtuous circle dynamics.

F4Figure 4. The conversation can bring the participants to ideas generated elsewhere (here, to the Walk [Your City] initiative).

F5Figure 5. The project planning process.

Sidebar: 100 Ideas

  • (15 ideas) Short-term issues that should be solved quickly: e.g., this parking lot is dangerous and should be redesigned
  • (15 ideas) New mobility solutions: e.g., the 10 euros cardboard bike
  • (15 ideas) Creating more enjoyable places: e.g., transform some parking lots into gardens
  • (10 ideas) Opening mentalities to greener mobility behaviors: e.g., encourage artistic projects that will motivate people to walk more
  • (10 ideas) Opening mentalities to more respectful behaviors: e.g., alternative civility currency
  • (10 ideas) Guaranteeing security, health, and protection against theft: e.g., distinctive traffic lights for bikes and cars
  • (10 ideas) New services supporting mobility: e.g., communication hubs, like park-and-ride stations, offering more varied services such as emissions testing
  • (5 ideas) More user-friendly payment and service interfaces
  • (5 ideas) Price plans encouraging multimodality
  • (5 ideas) Maintaining the dialogue between the state and the public

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