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.

The Internet of Arrogant Things (or My First Month with a Nest)

8533928577_d54905441a_z

Just before Christmas, I got a Nest installed. I’ve only lived in a house with a thermostat for one glorious, cosy year out of 12 years of renting, so this was kind of a big deal. Never again would unpredictable British weather and a mechanical timer thwart my attempts to be vaguely comfortable. My energy bills would surely plummet.

Well, sort of.

I hadn’t counted on quite how simple the Nest was. On the one hand, this is a triumph—but usability is easier to accomplish if you keep the feature set small, and that’s certainly what Nest has done. It’s billed as a learning thermostat, so the idea is that it learns your routine and sets the schedule accordingly. But if you do want to take control yourself, the Nest offers remarkably few features or access to your data.

There are lots of reasons why you might want to do this. I have some obscure electric meter with off-peak hours spread throughout the day (early morning, late afternoon and late evening), so bringing the flat up to temperature in the afternoon while I’m at work and letting it cool until the off-peak rate kicks back in can potentially be cheaper than heating at home time. Nest would quickly figure out I was at work during the off-peak period and tweak my schedule to turn on later at peak prices.

This is probably a niche requirement, so fair enough so far. But when you turn off the auto scheduling features and use a fixed schedule, you lose access to almost every other smart aspect of the thermostat—and more importantly, all the knowledge it has gathered. For example, the Nest knows how long it’s going to take my house to heat up, which is factored into its auto scheduling, but it doesn’t allow me to leverage that knowledge if I insist on doing something exotic like maintaining a manual schedule*. Nest has a backlog of data about the temperature of my flat, but it doesn’t let me see even the simplest graph showing temperature against heating to help me make decisions. It’s Nest’s way or the highway.

This is in fact possible. It was hidden away under the name “True Radiant”. 

I have an arrogant thermostat.

A large part of the Internet of Things vision is systems that behave exactly like this: using sensors and data to make intelligent decisions without the need for a human to intervene. But is arrogance an unavoidable consequence of smart objects? Does delegating control have to mean ceding it completely? To my mind, a smart thermostat should mean you don’t have to be smart, but it shouldn’t mean you can’t be. So what are the alternatives?

There is an API, but for whatever reason, there doesn’t seem to be a thriving ecosystem of apps and Nest doesn’t seem in a hurry to advertise anything except products from commercial partners. Skylark seems pretty useful, and adds the curiously absent ability to make decisions based on your smartphone’s GPS location. Other than that, most apps seem to replicate the functionality of the Nest app itself. Maybe this will change, but for the time being you’re stuck if you don’t have pretty good dev skills. So what about everyone else?

What if Nest wasn’t a learning thermostat, but a teaching one? A teaching thermostat might help me to understand the behaviour of my flat and heating system under different conditions and make informed decisions. It could help me to decide whether I should heat my flat during that off-peak period or just wait until later. It could help me to balance comfort with cost and with sustainability. It would do the hard work, but it would give me meaningful ways to input into that process. Deciding my schedule would be a collaborative process.

That’s just one possibility, and maybe the app ecosystem will perk up and help fill in these gaps. But for now, my smart thermostat is just a pretty thermostat.