We had the pleasure of hosting Fan Yi Zeng for her ES3008 research project last semester. Fan Yi shares her experience here of conducting a research project on land prices in Indonesia:
Understanding geospatial land price data in rural Indonesia: Reflections on my research journey
If I were to sum up my research experience over the past semester in one word, it would be “unexpected”.
Over the past six months, I was given the exciting opportunity to work on a research project under the patient guidance of Asst. Prof Janice Lee and Dr. Yuti Fatimah. My project was about understanding geospatial land price data in rural Indonesia through text analysis as well as data processing and visualization techniques. While land prices are crucial in land-use decisions, they are often excluded from analyses due to the difficulties in obtaining raw land prices. Hence, I attempted to develop a method to process raw land prices, using data obtained through text mining from the online market platform OLX. Along the way, I had to pick up the coding language R, as well as develop my familiarity with Microsoft Excel.
It was a project I would have never expected myself to take on, for multiple reasons. While I had previously learnt another coding language (MATLAB) in a class setting, having to learn a new coding language independently was an unchartered territory that seemed too intimidating. Furthermore, I was neither confident with data, nor was I comfortable with numbers. At first glance, it seemed like a task riddled with my weaknesses.
This is where I must thank Prof Janice for encouraging me to step out of my comfort zone, reminding me that research experiences—other than being about the research itself—are also about personal growth. More than anything, my ultimate decision to take on the project was a decision to challenge myself and confront my fears, which was also what made this experience so much more meaningful to me.
The project was not only unexpected in my decision to take it up, but also in how it developed. While I had initially planned to examine geospatial patterns in land prices and possible correlations with other biophysical variables, this plan had to be put on hold when we realized that our web-scraped data, due to its user-generated nature, was characterized overwhelmingly by non-uniformity of measurement units, information provided, and more. Consequently, I changed my focus to developing a processing methodology for the web-scraped data, in order to render it meaningfully usable for further analysis.
As much as the process was challenging (one thing I remember in particular was always having a Google Translate window open on my computer, to translate the data which was in Bahasa Indonesia), it was also immensely fulfilling. The unexpected change in research direction taught me to remain flexible and adapt to unprecedented obstacles, while the many days of struggling with learning a new coding language have left me much more confident in debugging errors independently. In fact, I would say one of my greatest takeaways is my increased confidence and calmness in navigating challenges and finding solutions (particularly in terms of coding), which I find really amazing when I think back to how afraid I used to be before this project.
Through this experience, I also learnt about how to conduct a full research project, from conceptualization and digging into existing literature, to forming my own research direction, executing my research, and presenting the results through both an oral presentation and a final research report. While it was definitely tiring at times, I always came away from project meetings reenergized and motivated due to the encouraging support of my mentors.
Apart from honing my skills, this project has also been extremely eye-opening. Before this, I have never thought to question the concept of land, taking the role of land as a territory, or ‘property’, for granted. While this was not directly related to my project, my exploration in the various literatures regarding land led me to learn the importance of appreciating the historical relationships between people and land when appraising the actual value of land. Land, as I know now, is not simply a financial asset, but also a mechanism to facilitate power relations—a site of both dispossession and the reclamation of justice.
Full of challenges and takeaways, my first foray into conducting a full research project has been a rollercoaster ride of emotions. But above all, I have been blessed with the constant support and understanding of my mentors, who generously gave me a safe space to try, to make mistakes, and to learn. That is why this experience is one that I will always hold close to my heart, even as I go on to embark on new projects in the future.