Project Overview

Breastfeeding in Public: analytics and politics

computational linguistics / social media / data

Whilst at Open lab I collaborated with colleagues on a project about women’s experiences of breastfeeding in public. I analysed the comments left by mothers using the mobile app FeedFinder, to provide reviews about how breastfeeding friendly certain venues and locations were. By combining this qualitative textual data set with the Index of Multiple Deprivation, I began to explore the material concerns that affected women’s experiences of breastfeeding in public. The language used and the opinions expressed were varied, but certain patterns emerged that suggested differences between experiences of those in more or less deprived areas.

Reviews left in more deprived venues were far more concerned about whether there was a designated private area for breastfeeding, if this included a partition or lockable door and the quality and cleanliness of this area. Conversely, in the least deprived areas, the focus was more on the ambience of a venue, the quality of the tea and cake, and how friendly and welcoming the staff were. Both groups talked about privacy, but in very different ways. It could be that the seating was booth style and afforded some degree of privacy or discretion in less deprived areas, whereas privacy was more about a physically separate space for those in more deprived areas. So what does this tell us and what does it mean?

Outside of the academic constraints of rigour I am more free to speculate… Or throw out an abundance of questions I can’t answer. According to Public Health England, fear of breastfeeding in public causes a third of breastfeeding women to choose not to breastfeed in public, and one in ten new mothers to abstain altogether [1].

A key ambiguity that comes from the research we did, is: are venues in less deprived areas more positively encouraging breastfeeding or are the people who go there more comfortable with it and less bothered about whether there is a private area? And the reverse in more deprived areas? Whether a mother chooses to breastfeed is entirely the decision of the mother and what she deems best for her and her child, but what is the best way to support those who would like to, to feel comfortable doing so?

[1] Public Health England. 2015. New mothers are anxious about breastfeeding in public. (2015). https://www.gov.uk/government/news/new-mothers-are-anxious-about-breastfeeding-in-public

Here’s the official blurb about the actual research and methodology (or you can read the paper here):
With technologies that afford much larger-scale data collection than previously imagined, new ways of processing and interpreting qualitative textual data are required. HCI researchers use a range of methods for interpreting the ‘full range of human experience’ from qualitative data, however, such approaches are not always scalable. Feminist geography seeks to explore how diverse and varied accounts of place can be understood and represented, whilst avoiding reductive classification systems. In this paper, we assess the extent to which unsupervised topic models can support such a research agenda. Drawing on literature from Feminist and Critical GIS, we present a case study analysis of a Volunteered Geographic Information dataset of reviews about breastfeeding in public spaces. We demonstrate that topic modelling can offer novel insights and nuanced interpretations of complex concepts such as privacy and be integrated into a critically reflexive feminist data analysis approach that captures and represents diverse experiences of place.