A publication for the faculty, staff, administrators, and friends of California State University, Chico
March 30, 2011 Volume 41 / Number 5

Rae Scevers, a senior majoring in political science with an option in public administration, sorts through reams of papers. She is a TA and RA to Paul Viotti and Gabriel Aguilera, Political Science. Photo by Jaclyn Percy.
Photo of Eugenie Rovai, Steve Stewart, and Sarah Bergquist

Researchers Use iPads to Take Political Science on the Road

Social scientists at Chico State are using a cluster of iPads in a mobile experimental lab to conduct cutting-edge research on political and economic attitudes in the United States and beyond. Paul Viotti, Political Science, is relying on the iPads to revolutionize the way he collects data on attitudes toward economic inequality.

Income and wealth inequality have grown considerably in the United States and in many other countries since the 1970s. Illustrating the growing economic divide, Viotti reports that in the United States the average CEO in 2011 earns approximately 300 times the salary of the average worker. By contrast, this ratio was closer to 40 to 1 in 1980. With a grant from the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences, Professor Viotti plans to deploy the mobile lab across the United States as well as other countries to better understand the economic transformation taking place in much of the world.    

In small groups, subjects will use iPad apps in economics experiments designed to test people’s views of fairness with respect to economic inequality. In the experiments, subjects choose how to divide actual portions of income between themselves. The decisions that they make determine how much they are paid at the end of the experiments. In a version of the experiments, one subject may choose anonymously on a continuum from keeping all of the income ($100) or sharing it equally with others in the group ($20 per person). Viotti finds that certain demographic factors including gender, ethnic identity, religion, and political orientation affect how subjects behave in the economics experiments. In the United States, for example, women, Latinos, and African Americans tend to choose more equal distributions of income in such scenarios.    

Since 2005, Paul Viotti and Alessandra Cassar (Economics, University of San Francisco) have organized and run thousands of rounds of experiments and surveys across the United States, India, Panama, Uganda, and China. This fieldwork has produced many thousands of paper responses that currently spill out of his file cabinets in his already cozy office. Data entry on the project has consumed thousands of hours, and researchers continually face the risk of losing data during air travel. The networked iPads eliminate the need to administer paper-based studies, which will generate significant savings over time in terms of paper usage, data-entry costs, and data storage.

In addition, the mobile lab will greatly reduce the potential for data loss associated with travel. After spending thousands dollars on a round of experiments, losing a suitcase full of data would be catastrophic. In this regard, the mobile lab will safely extend research horizons beyond the corridors of the University to, for example, urban parks in Manhattan and even small villages in Senegal, West Africa.

In the old paper-based setup, Viotti and his researchers frequently returned from fieldwork with reams of paper weighing more than 20 pounds. A cluster of five iPads, each weighing just over a pound, is replacing the paper burden, enabling efficient attitudinal research outside of university facilities. Liberated from the burden of collating, stapling, and organizing stacks of paper, the researchers’ 3G-enabled iPads will be able to connect to the Internet wherever there is a cellular signal to back up valuable data.

By jettisoning the paper-and-toner roots of experimental and survey research, Chico State is establishing itself as an early adopter and pioneer in the use of more nimble wireless tools through the adoption the mobile iPad lab. The significant efficiency gains are consistent with the University’s goal to pursue sustainable practices in the 21st century while it continues to be at the vanguard in research and teaching.