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.