CHI 2018: Strategies for Engaging Communities in Creating Physical Civic Technologies

Our second CHI paper this year is also from the Ardler Inventors project, picking up a little further down the line during the second and third stages of the project. The ultimate aim of the project was to explore how we could use hackathon-like events, which we called Inventor Days, to catalyse a community of people from Ardler in Dundee around using technology to support their local area. This built on our findings from previous fieldwork around hackathons.

We discussed the Inventor Days themselves in detail at DIS last year, but this paper takes a higher-level, end-to-end look at the different strategies used across the length of the project to support people in creating their own physical technologies for their local area.

You can find a pre-print online here and the final paper will be open access from the end of April.


We’ve been doing research with neighbourhood-scale technology for nearly 12 years now, working with communities like Wray, Callon & Fishwick and Byker. A key issue that emerged repeatedly through these projects was that, although situated and physical technologies like the Wray Photo Display or Viewpoint were positively received and played useful roles in the local area, these research prototypes often didn’t outlast the project they were associated with.

Instead, our latest work has tried to understand how we can create skills, enthusiasm and relationships that would help a community to identify new uses for technology in their local area, prototype ideas and try them out themselves. This paper describes our experiences of designing and testing a number of strategies:

Inventor Days. These hackathon-like events were the backbone of the project, which aimed to bring together residents from Ardler with members of Dundee’s creative and maker communities. Through a series of three events, residents and makers explored the neighbourhood, developed ideas for their local area and prototyped early versions together. One of the most successful approaches at this stage was re-orienting the events around local knowledge rather than technology, casting attendees from Ardler as the experts.

Inventor Kits. For the next stage, we took ideas generated through the Inventor Days and created kits that could be assembled and modified by community members. This was intended to explore how ideas from one neighbourhood could be replicated and built upon other communities, and how the provision of simple physical prototyping components could support creativity. Something that worked well at this stage was the perception of the kits as a kind of gift, which respected their earlier efforts while allowing them to create a much more finished version.

Community-Led Deployments. Finally, we wanted to understand what challenges participants would face in actually deploying and testing the things they had designed. It was important to both us and the participants that the things that they built actually saw the light of day, even in some temporary form. Alongside the practical difficulties, one of the main things we noticed at this stage was the importance to participants of showing their work to others and gaining feedback in controlled settings, whereas we pushed towards full deployments to test the ideas.

Key Findings

The paper has a lot of practical lessons from each of these stages, some of which I’ve touched on above, but I’ll focus here on some of the higher-level emergent themes in the results that will be most useful to people trying to engage communities in this kind of activity.

Motivations. Going into the project, our framing was largely about solving problems, but community members never responded particularly strongly to this. While most neighbourhoods have their issues, few immediately lend themselves to the type of technologies we were using. Instead, their motivations were about developing skills, expressing themselves and doing things together as a family. As we found during the deployments, the rewards they gained were similarly centred around personal development. This suggests to us that HCI needs to move beyond exclusively framing neighbourhood-level applications of technology in terms of problem-solving.

Ownership and investment. At every stage of the process, we tried to install in a sense of ownership over the prototypes, and it seemed like participants felt real pride in them. But in hindsight, it’s clear that they didn’t have much ownership of the process itself, which was very much driven by us. It’s clear that some degree of bootstrapping is necessary, whether that’s from outside or within the community, but we needed to be more active in ceding increasing control to the community at an earlier stage.

Scaling and maintaining enthusiasm. Finally, our goal was to create something sustainable, and while there are some signs of ongoing activity, this proved to be very difficult. The tight-knit group of core participants was a hugely positive experience for us, but it also made it difficult for new people from the neighbourhood to join in later. As well as thinking about how this core group of participants can be supporting in taking ownership and leading the process, we also need to think about ways to make that process more transparent to others in the neighbourhood and support more lightweight types of participation.

CHI 2018: Everybody’s Hacking: Participation and the Mainstreaming of Hackathons

We’ve had two papers accepted into CHI 2018 based on the Ardler Inventors project, the first of which is based on fieldwork at six hackathons. I’ll write about this one first because chronologically it was the first piece of work done on the project, which informed the design of our Inventor Days at later stages.

You can find a pre-print online here and the final paper will be open access from the end of April.


Hackathons have been around for a while, but they’ve become increasingly popular in recent years. They’ve transcended the software communities that originated them and entered the mainstream, being taken up by a wide range of organisations, including charities and museums.

Many of these share similar goals with other hackathons—that is, to bring developers together to rapidly develop new applications and prototypes. But another breed of hackathons has emerged that takes key properties of the format, particularly their intensive, co-located nature, and uses them to engage with very different audiences. Although they are still often focused on the design of future technologies, they de-emphasise the actual act of creating software, to the extent that some have been described as “hackathons with no hacking”.

Something about the format has captured people’s imaginations in a way that other types of participatory design activities seem not to, inspiring time-starved people to give up entire weekends to imagine future technologies. Our view was that HCI researchers could learn a lot from these “mainstreamed” hackathons, either in further re-positioning them towards research or in designing other participatory activities.

With this in mind, we attended and participated six hackathons, to understand how they worked, how they meaningfully engage non-technical participants, and what we can learn from them for the design of our own events.

Photo © Zoe Prosser for Snook.


Hackathons as public engagement. For most of the organisations and the participants, the actual creation of prototypes and ideas was not the primary purpose of the events. Instead they served as an exciting and creative way to engage with a new topic or issue, and with new communities. For many of the organisations, they served almost as a form of consultation exercise: attendees brought new perspectives and ideas to issues that the organisers had been working with for some time. The hackathon environment helped them to reach people in a more creative way that wasn’t possible with other types of workshop.

Participating without coding. Given the lack of focus on the prototypes themselves, it wasn’t difficult for the events to engage with a wider audience beyond technologists. Much of the “hacking” involved production of content, such as video, cardboard mock-ups, or even just discussions of concepts. Where teams did produce code, members from non-technical background often served roles including researching, creating content, or providing inspiration and insights into the specific topic that coders lacked.

Tensions in the format. Despite the enthusiasm with which they’ve been taken up, the hackathon format didn’t always sit comfortably with the new audiences it had been targeted at. From simple issues with communicating what its purpose was, to more fundamental challenges around inclusion, organisers had to put significant effort into creating an environment that was welcoming. Our own subsequent work in this area took a lot of this on board, thinking about how we could address some of these issues without losing the core of what made hackathons attractive.

Hackathons as participatory spaces. Above all, we came away from this research with the sense that the attraction of hackathons was in the creation of participatory spaces, where the right mix of people and skills could come together to engage with the subject on their own terms. Moreover, this was not just a means to an end, but an enjoyable activity in itself. We were particularly reminded of Vines et al’s call for participants to be able to take a more active role in configuring participatory activities—something that was certainly happening at the events we attended.

Community Inventor Days in Ardler

A couple of weeks ago I presented our paper Community Inventor Days: Scaffolding Grassroots Innovation with Maker Events at DIS 2017 in Edinburgh. It’s the first publication from our Ardler Inventors project, summing up the series of three hackathon-like events that we ran in Ardler last summer.

The paper is open access and available from the ACM Digital Library.

Since I completely failed to blog about the second and third events, I’m going to summarise the paper a little here…

Ardler Inventor Days

Way back in August last year, I wrote about the first Inventor Day, where we brought together people from Ardler in Dundee with makers from Dundee and further afield. The idea was that by forging relationships, creating skills ands generating enthusiasm, we could enable communities to build their own civic technologies. By the end of that first event, we’d made a lot of progress towards bringing everybody together as a group and had a good idea of the type of things we might want to make over the next two events.

The other events focused more on prototyping and making, first by introducing a wide range of hardware prototyping platforms (Arduino kits, Raspberry Pis and plenty of glue guns), and then by moving the third event to Dundee Makerspace for physical prototyping using the laser cutter. We also wanted to introduce the makerspace as a facility that the group could continue to access, where they might find support and equipment that the project had provided.

In the paper, we focus largely on the journeys of two key participants from Ardler who attended all three events, who we’ll call Steve and Rebecca. Steve came along with his son and daughter and worked with a few different people to drive forward his idea for a digital noticeboard. But even better was what happened in between the events: more than anyone else, Steve was continuing to explore electronics (including dismantling a plug-in air freshener to scavenge a PIR sensor), as well as seeking out opinions on their ideas. Rebecca was similarly focused on realising her idea for a musical game that would help to keep children away from a busy road. She started off exploring electronics and getting stuck into Arduino programming, but decided it wasn’t something she enjoyed and wished she’d experimented instead with some of the conductive inks we’d brought along. At the third event, she was more in her element, able to draw on her interest in craft when it came to building the physical device.

What Happened Next?

The main goal of this project was to try build relationships and enthusiasm that would outlast the project itself, so it’s important not just to look at the events, but also what happened afterwards. We held quite a few small “aftercare” events after the main ones, including inviting everyone to our studio and a showcase event in the community. At each of these, we were struck by how much they felt like a group of friends coming back together.

We also saw continuing activity clearly linked to the Inventor Days. Steve had really gotten hooked on electronics and had worked on a number of projects with his children, including Arduino-powered Halloween decorations. Rebecca had started a science club at the local primary school, which had originally emerged out of conversations with the school about the events.

We’ve seen less ongoing engagement with the makers, and I think that’s partly because we’d needed to bring many of them in from other cities, but also because we didn’t fully identify or communicate what the value of the events was for makers. It was pretty clear people from Ardler got a lot out of it, and I think the makers did too, but was it enough to keep them engaged in the community?

What Did We Learn?

Something that emerged in various was across the project was the value of situating making in the familiar. Most people are not intrinsically motivated by technology or the act of making itself, but we found we could involve people in these kind of activities if it was motivated around things they cared about: improving their community, or having a fun Saturday with their kids. This also emerged in the sorts of roles people were playing in groups: they brought their own knowledge and skills that could be drawn upon.

The second major finding relates back to the project’s goals of sustainability and legacy. While it’s true that our intervention as researchers was essential in facilitating the events, we did establish the feasibility of short-burst interventions for bootstrapping this kind of activity in the community. I think this is significant, because it brings what we did into the realms of possibility for a lot of community organisations and local authorities, who don’t have the capacity to do the kind of deeply engaged multi-year community technology projects we’ve done in the past. Running two or three events to jump-start the sort of enthusiasm we saw in Ardler, on the other hand, is well within their reach.

We’ve kept in touch with Ardler since the end of the project, and hopefully we can work with them again in the future. But in the meantime, we’re excited to sit back and see what our participants get up to on their own!

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.