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Where’s Religion? is an open-source mobile and desktop web application developed by humanities faculty and IT professionals at Saint Louis University that supports in-person research, remote data entry, media sharing, and mapping. To do this, the mobile app enables users to collect fieldnotes, image, video, and audio files – all of which are geotagged and timestamped. The desktop companion website/app provides a more feature-rich format to refine fieldnotes, edit media, make new entries, or, for certain user profiles, review or grade other users’ entries. When published, entries are automatically curated online within an interactive public map that has search and filter functions for enhanced usability. Where’s Religion? is conceptualized and designed for students, researchers, and public users to document and share their encounters with “religion” in everyday life – all with the intended purpose of democratizing data collection and visualizing religious and cultural diversity at scale.

Access our desktop app here!

We believe that it is time for our research methodologies in the humanities to catch up with the multisensory realities of human experience and that creating a platform for collecting, organizing, and sharing images, videos, and sounds, along with textual notations, sourced from a wide range of users, is a necessary place to start. From this conviction, Where’s Religion? is conceptualized and designed for diverse users with interests in sharing media and notes about their respective encounters with “religion” in everyday places. We aim to raise the significance of embodied practices and shared spaces, facilitated through collected multimodal media products, to the study of religion, and to prompt data-driven investigation of  popular and disciplinary presumptions of what constitutes “religion.”

Nearly all digital humanities scholarship in religion, theology, and adjacent fields perpetuates historical biases of text-based knowledge and media. While texts are no doubt essential to these fields, the premise of Where’s Religion? has been to create tools for acknowledging, analyzing, and interpreting religion as a multisensory and multimodal component of human life, both within faith traditions and beyond them in the fabrics of culture and society.  We hope our focus on media collection through a wider scope of collectors will serve as a theoretical and methodological prompt. We believe that the resulting collection of materials will be of immense value to American public life – and even international affairs – for the discovery of diversity and the revelation of similarity. 

Being a tool that initiates engaged learning and in-person experience, we seek to build greater recognition of social dynamics and social context in American public life. The ethical use of technology is key here – one of the fundamental principles driving the purpose and design of Where’s Religion? As a mobile and desktop application, the idea is not only to appeal to casual users and students with the mobile app, but also to mimic an ethnographic-style workflow from out-in-the-field data collection to at-home editing and data refinement. Human subject research and place-based research are both critical skills for the modern, media-saturated world – skills that anyone wielding the power to record, to publish, to reach wide audiences within the palm of their hand should know. Where’s Religion? seeks not just to inform users of ethical human subject research and deepen cultural awareness, but to integrate app features and functions that prompt such consideration in real time through popup warnings, haptic feedback, curated information, or otherwise. This is not simply about gathering data, but rather about knowing when, where, and how to (or not to) gather data. Where’s Religion? is a ploy to deeply humanize the “data,” to unpack the ubiquitous media, to slow down and consider the image. Our digital tool therefore combines the computational methods of qualitative research software with an attentiveness to the nuances of “lived” religious life and practice. Our aim is to provide a free, intuitive, and compatible tool for ongoing research and classroom curriculum as well as a user-friendly method for assembling and studying digital media that curates “lived religion” across a diversity of people, places, and things.

Public outreach and engagement has been a cornerstone of this project and our efforts since its origins in 2018. Where’s Religion? aims to further this mission in two ways: through heavy focus on app design and ease of use as well as through the most effective visualization of data. While users are currently invitation only, the app will be publicly available on both Apple and Google Play stores for free mobile device downloads. Using Apple TestFlight and Google Play Console metrics, regular feedback from multiple ongoing test groups, and professional UX advisement, we have designed the app to require no previous training. Its core functions – notetaking and media captures – are an integrated and familiar process that require minimal navigation. We are cautious of an overabundance of features here. And requiring no additional technical knowledge or procedural work, all of this user-gathered information is automatically presented on a map with particular attention to effective curation. All this requires no additional labor or technical knowledge from the user. As a tool for collecting and archiving data, Where’s Religion? is also a visual platform for cultural knowledge – visual, audible, textual, or otherwise. Our public and interactive map is designed and formatted for place-based storytelling. Where’s Religion? lowers the learning curve for digital tools used in humanistic study, and raises the opportunities for relating and consuming humanistic queries in a recognizable, spatial format. 

There is currently no free and open-source app for ethnography or in-person research that captures all media forms and curates entries on a map. The core set of functions of our app – note-taking, media capturing, and mapping – are intended to resolve this. We recognize and appreciate the capabilities and the utility of qualitative software like NVivo, MAXQDA, Atlas.ti, et. al. But we also recognize their proprietary status and associated cost. While abundant with analytical features and potential insights, such qualitative software is replete with complex features and requires a significant amount of training or learning. Such qualitative software is also not useful for fieldwork or in-person research, at least, in real time and in mobile format. With simplicity and without profit in mind, we have taken inspiration from notetaking apps like Apple Notes and Microsoft OneNote to forgo some of these issues like usability, mobility, and expense with qualitative software. Furthermore, using both the Apple App Store and the Google Play Store to host our application, we seek to tap into the popular and public means of acquiring and utilizing smartphones. Where’s Religion? harnesses the ubiquity, functionality, and familiarity of mobile phone technologies and overlays those effects with the typical labor flow of in-person research and ethnography. 

The utility of mapping projects in digital humanities is evident from their popularity. Our sense is that this is not merely the result of place-based research interests, but is also a testament to the educational efficacy and intuitive clarity of information presented in this form for both academic and popular audiences. Where’s Religion? is designed to further this as both a tool for collecting and archiving mappable data and a platform for automated data visualization in map form. The prevalence and industry contributions of ArcGIS in these regards is noteworthy. But its cost, exclusivity, and usability are issues we intend to forgo and improve. While the suite of ArcGIS software is widely used and useful for GIS industry professionals, we find the UX/UI components of the data collection field tools like Survey 123, QuickCapture, and Field Maps to be cumbersome. Where’s Religion? combines the intuitive interface of Apple Notes and Microsoft OneNote – simultaneously allowing users to take notes and capture all forms of media – and simply presents those entries on a map. That the entries within Where’s Religion? are curated without additional user time or labor and extra technical knowledge is an intended benefit. From data collection to data visualization, ArcGIS StoryMaps is a dynamic platform for the presentation and communication of this kind of information, but has a rather high learning curve. Using simple and effective mapping design elements borrowed from Zillow (the popular real estate marketplace company map), we have created Where’s Religion? to achieve this story-telling function and aesthetic without the requisite technical knowledge and labor. 

While the popularity of mapping projects within digital humanities is evident, we recognize the associated problem of siloed information within such projects and platforms. The searchability of ArcGIS in toto stands in admirable contrast to this; projects that use that data collection tool can be discovered using the basic search query of the platform. While using open-source code, we have designed Where’s Religion? to model this centralized data archiving and researchability. Where’s Religion? Is a data collection tool and repository for data on “religion,” but it may also be a more generalizable platform for humanistic studies that involve taking notes and/or capturing media. To this end, Where’s Religion? is custom built using the most rigorous standard for open web design and shared data – Five Star Linked Data. This means that our app is available on the Web; it is machine readable structured data; it is non-proprietary; it is published using open standards from the World Wide Web Consortium; and it all links to other Linked Open Data. To aid front-end research, metadata is captured with each entry in the form of automatic geotagging and timestamping, as well as user-selected categorizations and typologies provided within the app. All of our taxonomic categories are chosen from industry standard controlled language vocabularies for better researchability and the prevention of information siloing. Linked Data is a big part of this. Making the data Open (as in open access and open standards) is a step further. The Web Annotation W3C standard is not only adhered to, but automatically encoded as part of the data capture, so non-technical contributors can create good data. Our focus on reusing existing vocabularies and resistance to creating proprietary flavors of web ontologies makes the generated data more reusable and researchable. The user interfaces are coded as plainly as possible to avoid issues with longevity or dependencies on technologies or frameworks that may create security or maintenance issues. Data creation and exhibition is parameterized so the project can be easily reconfigured for different scopes, datasets, schemas. The moderation model creates tiers of data, welcoming contribution and tracking all assertions with attribution, but only elevating approved and polished records. Put simply, Where’s Religion? is designed for multiple project inputs and the subsequent and simplified discoverability of any given datum within. 

We will continue development of Where’s Religion? in Summer and Fall ’24 as we refine its various features and functions based on our body of users and our development team. The app will be publicly launched in Fall ’24 and will include an accompanying conference at SLU. The conference will focus on the app – its development, its research use, its potential, and other topics that bisect “religion” and technology. We plan and have set aside funding for Where’s Religion? developers and users to participate, present on their technical work and network with researchers from around the country at our conference, ideally recruiting new users while celebrating the groundbreaking work they have facilitated for the study of religion. We hope to use Where’s Religion? to publicly display the value of digital tools in the study of religion – as currently, there are no centers or institutional initiatives that combine Religious Studies with digital technologies (although it is worth noting that SLU’s Center on Digital Humanities began as the Center on Digital Theology nearly two decades ago, which positions SLU as a national leader in this still-emerging area of research and scholarship).

Initiated in 2018, the Where’s Religion? is a keystone outcome of the Lived Religion in the Digital Age project at Saint Louis University. We have received external support from the Henry Luce Foundation ($400,000 in 2018 and $470,000 in 2022), and internal support from the College of Arts & Sciences, the Office for the Vice President for Research and the Research Computing Group, Open Source with SLU, the Walter J. Ong, S.J., Center for Digital Humanities, and the CREST Center.