10 Years of the Wray Photo Display

I still don’t really know how to stand normally.

On August 10th 2006, we deployed the first version of the Wray Photo Display in a side room of the village hall, which was at the time mostly used as a waiting room when the doctor visited.

The software was pretty stable, I thought, but I’d soon learn that was rarely the sticking point when it came to deploying things in public spaces. We spent much of the time trying to figure out how to get into a locked cupboard that housed all the networking equipment, while a visiting German researcher, whose name I forget, took me to one side and conspiratorially suggested “there is a way to unlock doors without a key… I have seen it in movies.”

It was the best day ever.

The Start of Something

DSC_0041As a fresh computer science graduate, I’d been hired for the summer to repurpose the existing Hermes Photo Display, which had been used internally in the Computing Department, into something that could be deployed in a nearby village. Wray had been working with other academics in the department on deploying a wireless mesh network, so goodwill in the community was high and we had a network infrastructure that was (mostly) capable of supporting deployments. So we strung together a gallery of photos programmed in Java, a bit of ropey Bluetooth file transferring that nobody would use, and a simple web interface for uploading photos, and figured we would just see what happened.

We were not quite the first people to take public displays out of offices and into community spaces (e.g. EyeCanvas), but we weren’t far off. The first wave of public displays stuff had really peaked a few years earlier, but it was just becoming possible to take deployments out of semi-controlled environments: decent sized terrible touch screens were just about affordable, wifi was just about available, and phones were, if not smart, then at least not entirely stupid. So the time was right for what I think of as a second wave of public displays research that was able to go properly ‘in the wild’.

It would also turn out to be the start of my research career. As well as exposure to a research environment, what really got me hooked was building something that people actually used—and with enthusiasm no less. Working with the community over the subsequent month or so to rapidly iterate the prototype was incredibly rewarding, as was the feeling of having contributed something, no matter how trivial, to the community. It was some time before I realised this was not how all research was conducted, although I haven’t let that detail bother me since.

The Long Haul

I try not to write or gives talks about Wray much anymore, because I feel like we flogged that deployment pretty hard. Looking back, if I’m honest, most of the interesting findings came out of that first year of deployment, and I would definitely have approached a PhD around it very differently. But I’m still more proud of that piece of work that anything I’ve done subsequently, and the fact that the display is still being used a decade later boggles my mind a little bit. I don’t think there are many bits of work in HCI that can claim that distinction!

As the deployment went on it became clear that were were some big question to be answered about how we end a project like Wray after five years of regular engagement with the community. They valued the display and had put a lot of effort into curating the content they’d uploaded, but I was about to leave Lancaster and had pretty much squeezed out every drop of research I could. The system was stable, but it could never stay that way (and as sod’s law would have it, the hard drive failed within weeks of me leaving).

We summarised those issues in our Leaving the Wild paper, which provided a launching point for my recent strand of research around DIY, makerspaces and hackathons. These projects are really about asking how communities can be empowered to build something like this for themselves. The display had such a positive role on the community, but there’s really nothing there that couldn’t now be hacked together with a Raspberry Pi and a Flickr stream. Same deal with Viewpoint. In an idea world, that kind of technology should be within reach of any community, not just those that have a relationship with the local university.

As for the Wray display itself, last I heard it was still out in the community, now located in the village pub rather than the shop. It’s once again in active use for research, being used by the SHARC project to explore locative community heritage, and another PhD student is beginning their journey in Wray.

CHI 2016: Making Community: The Wider Role of Makerspaces in Public Life

making-community-grabWe’re very happy to have had a paper accepted into CHI 2016 based on the makerspaces survey we carried out in the early stages of In the Making.

The pre-print is now available to download.

Summary

Makerspaces are a growing resource for amateurs and professionals alike. While the role of makerspaces in innovation and peer learning is widely discussed, we attempt to look at the wider roles that makerspaces play in public life. Through site visits and interviews at makerspaces and similar facilities across the UK, we have identified additional roles that these spaces play: as social spaces, in supporting wellbeing, by serving the needs of the communities they are located in and by reaching out to excluded groups. Based on these findings, we suggest implications and future directions for both makerspace organisers and community researchers.

Findings

We found evidence of four roles played by makerspaces in their communities:

Social spaces. Although there is often an emphasis on the equipment (at least from external parties), makerspaces themselves valued the community within the space more than anything else. The equipment was seen as a hook, and often something that could easily be replicated at home, while the community within the space was something people stayed for.

Serving local needs. There was a lot of evidence to suggest that makerspaces tailor their offerings to the local area. A number were located in areas with high unemployment and saw themselves as providing skills that would be useful to nearby industries, including through formal internship and training. One of the most notable examples was in Northern Ireland where makerspaces were set up by the government as part of the reconciliation process.

Wellbeing and empowerment. We found many examples of makerspaces acting as safe, creative spaces where people could express themselves and develop skills and confidence. As well as ‘proper’ makerspaces, we visited a Men’s Shed that best exemplified this, having a explicit but covert goal of supporting mental health in older men.

Widening access. Finally, all of the makerspaces were engaged in some form of outreach that attempted to make their facilities accessible to people who fell outside the maker stereotype, including children and disabled people. However, real challenges exist in making this a reality, including a lack of resources and deeply ingrained beliefs in excluded segments of society about whether they ‘fit’.

PhD Opportunity

I’m also currently advertising for a PhD student who will pick up this thread of work and continue examining the different ways that makerspaces and Men’s Sheds can support community and wellbeing. This paper is really only a starting point, indicating surface-level areas of opportunity, and there is much more work to be done in understanding these opportunities and how we can harness them.