Ardler Inventor Day #1: Getting To Know You

When you’re doing research with communities, the first event is always the most nerve-wracking. You’ve made all the contacts, been to the community festival, dished out a small forest’s worth of flyers and posters, bought plenty of biscuits.

But will anyone actually turn up?

Repurposing Hackathons for Everyone

The Ardler Inventor Days are being run as part of the EPSRC Hacking for Situated Civic Engagement project. The idea is to investigate whether hackathons—intensive bursts of creative tinkering with technology—could be used to support communities in developing unique technologies to serve their local needs. Working with Dundee’s Ardler community over a series of three events, we’ll be trying to bring people from Ardler together with researchers and makers to share knowledge and imagine new ideas.

Hackathons are usually the domain of techies and programmers, but we want to find out if we can take the basic idea out into communities, tweak it a little bit, and use it as a way to unlock creativity and build relationships that will last much longer than our research project.

As it happened, the turnout for the first Ardler Inventor Day last weekend was about what we’d hoped. About eight people joined us in the Ardler Complex: young and old, father and son, mother and daughter, even three generations from one family! Along with Loraine and me from the university, and three or four friends from the maker community, it made for a group that was a little more intimate than your typical hackathon, but that we thought was the perfect scale for a meaningful community event.

I don’t think anyone knew quite what to expect (including us), but after an ice breaker to get people’s creative juices flowing—teams were challenged to build the tallest Marshmallow supporting structure they could using just spaghetti, tape and string (hint: triangles are your friend, but build the base nice and wide)—and some demos of creative technologies from our makers, we were ready to go.

Designing with Communities

The other big unknown about this first event was: will anything useful come out of it?

It’s hard to know how people would respond to the event we’d put together and how successful we’d be in getting people’s creative juices flowing. At most hackathons, everybody there knows roughly what to expect, and they’ve probably been to hackathons before. But outside of that community, most people aren’t used to being creative on demand.

After guided tours round the community, it was clear we needn’t have worried. From traffic problems and safe routes to school, to the things that were lost when the estate was rebuilt, through to Ardler’s famous Santa’s grotto and local legends about witches and crocodiles, the things that were emerging were a mix of the issues faced by communities up and down the country with things that had a unique Ardler flavour.

Add a lot of craft materials and a bucket full of Lego, and things began to move along on their own accord. There was a lot of richness in the things that were coming out of the workshop and we’re already excited about picking these ideas back up at the next Inventor Day… and trying hard to remember we’re not supposed to be coming up with things ourselves!

The second Ardler Inventor Day is less than two weeks away, on August 27th at the Ardler Complex. Next time, we’ll be developing some of the ideas further and beginning to play around with some technology. If you live in Ardler, if you’re involved in the Ardler community somehow, or if you’re a maker or creative from anywhere in Dundee, get in touch if you’d like to join us for the next event, and see what can create together!

Launching: Hacking for Situated Civic Engagement

Hacking Logo SmallIn November, we kicked off Hacking for Situated Civic Engagement, a project funded by EPSRC to explore how hackathons can be used to design civic technologies with communities. Over the course of the project, we’ll be running a series of hackathons with the Ardler community in Dundee to identify and attempt to address some local issues with civic technologies. As the project gets under way, I wanted to explain a bit about the motivations for doing it.

Leaving the Wild

My research has always been about long-term engagement with people to develop technologies that support their local community. In Wray, we worked with a rural community over four or five years to iteratively develop digital noticeboards, while Bespoke used citizen journalism to inspire the design of unique technologies in an area of Preston. The goal is to build cool stuff that responds to particular local needs, and which hopefully has some real and sustainable effect on the community.

But as these projects drew to a close, a recurring theme began to emerge: handing over the technology to the community at the end was pretty difficult. In Wray, we’d always said they could keep the displays at the end, but we hadn’t counted on hardware failures immediately afterwards. Bespoke had likewise planned to hand things over when we finished, but ultimately failed to do so. I wrote a paper about it—Leaving the Wild—suggesting some steps we could take to minimise the difficulties.

Top Down vs Grassroots

ViewpointMore recently, my research has drifted towards civic engagement and activism, aiming to get people more involved in how their communities are run. On Bespoke, we developed Viewpoint, a device that collected feedback from the community by posting questions in public spaces like shops and community centres.

However, while we talked about empowering the community, looking back with a critical eye it’s clear that both the device itself (designed by us) and the questions being asked (by the council and housing organisations), we all operating in a top-down kind of way. I look back and wonder if we could have done more to give citizens a voice, rather than making them passive respondents. PosterVote was partly a response to this, but ultimately it’s usage is still restricted by the form of the device that we designed.

Towards Sustainable Local Innovation

Together, these two problems lead towards an obvious solution: can communities be supporting in building their own stuff?

This is easier said than done, of course. Developing skills and creating a culture of applying these skills to local issues is a big task, and one we don’t intend to solve in its entirety. Rather, this project aims to examine just one piece of the puzzle. We’ll be looking at whether hackathons—intensive bursts of activity around the creation of new technologies—can be used to bring together community members and makers to discuss local issues and propose solutions, while creating enthusiasm around technology and the possibilities it presents. We’ll also be exploring how we can document and share these processes and the things we develop, so that other communities—ones who don’t have a research project working with them—can replicate and take inspiration from the same ideas.

The bulk of the project will take place later in the year, but in the meantime we’ll be attending other people’s hackathons around Scotland and UK to figure out how hackathons are already been appropriated for other purposes. You can keep up with us on the project website, as well as on Twitter.

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)

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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.

British HCI and HCI in Britain

Note: I started writing this last month to capture a lot of different conversations I had at British HCI (and which I think everyone else was having too). Long before I bothered to finish it, John Vines distributed offical notes from the town hall meeting, which are much more complete and well worth reading. But they don’t have an anecdote about Greg Abowd.


British HCI was the first conference I attended as a Masters student in 2007 (I didn’t talk to anyone). I attended again in 2011 when it was held in Newcastle, but last month in Lincoln was the first time I’d been when it wasn’t within walking distance of my flat. I think it’s fair to say that the conference is not held in high regard—or at the very least that it has failed in recent years to attract a significant chunk of the HCI community. If I remember rightly, Greg Abowd’s closing keynote in 2011 was itself less than complementary.

This year’s conference, hosted by LiSC, openly sought to reenergise the conference. I don’t think anyone who attended would deny that they achieved it.

What struck me most was that the papers were the least interesting thing on the program. The ~28 full papers were dwarfed by by position papers and invited talks, panels on the REF, designing with data and civic engagement, a research council lunch for early career researchers, an unconference lunch and no less than four keynotes (all from outside HCI). In particular, everything I heard about the doctoral consortium was glowing—some 50 students in a workshop that actively engaged them, rather than half a dozen presenting their work to each other.

Back in 2011, I’m pretty sure Greg Abowd’s point was “stop trying to be a shadow of CHI”. While some regional conferences have managed to make this work and carve out a niche (NordiCHI, for example), this was clearly not working for the UK. At the time, it wasn’t clear what else the conference should try to be. After this year’s conference, I think it’s becoming evident.

What should British HCI be?

What HCI in the UK really needs is better networking on home soil. It’s insane that there are many people in the community that I may only ever see abroad. For whatever reason, British HCI wasn’t bringing people together, and I’ve often thought that the annual Digital Economy conferences were better networking opportunities (particularly given that the largest HCI groups were holding big Digital Economy money and were somewhat obliged to attend or host). Notably, Digital Economy papers aren’t archival.

Making the rest of the program so interesting allowed the organisers to drop the pretence that the papers are important. Instead, they were able to treat the conference as an event to bring people together, share what we’re doing and discuss hot topics. As a result, it had a very different (and better) feel.

But you can’t fix everything at once. Cost remains an issue—at £600 plus meals, it still wasn’t exactly cheap for an early career researcher with no budget. There is only so much you can do about this, but it’s something that the organisers will need to take into account. Heavily subsidising PhD attendees and providing very cheap accommodation was a positive step and allowed us to send some of our students. This sort of thing should be a minimum requirement for anyone who wants to host it.

It’s also tangled up in the issue of who should champion HCI in the UK. Like the conference itself, BCS’s Interaction Specialist Group (which normally endorses the conference, but this year did not) has been marked by a lack of engagement with much of the HCI community, particularly the groups that have emerged as powerhouses in recent years. In the town hall meeting, I pointed out that SICSA is already doing an admirable job in Scotland of many of the things we might want a UK HCI body to do—mainly networking, but also showing leadership on key themes, engaging with industry and funding activities. That said, Scotland has a number of properties that makes this much easier: most of the research groups are clustered within an hour or two’s travel and SICSA is backed up by funding from SFC. Scaling this kind of activity UK-wide might be tricky, but it’s certainly worth looking at what they’re doing.

The meeting didn’t reach a firm conclusion and it’s an ongoing discussion that we need to keep having. Likewise, the conference needs to keep innovating. 2015 doesn’t necessarily need to be the template for future conferences (in fact I’d argue that the distinct local flavour was to its benefit), but it should be a positive example. I don’t know if I’ll attend next year (you couldn’t get much further from Dundee than Bournemouth), but I hope some of the momentum is carried over.

Mea Culpa

PS. I don’t fully remember how I ended up with this, but I hope it didn’t cause any problems for the closing plenary. Whoops!

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