Technology at the edge

Professor, researcher, author. And organiser of the Tiree Tech Wave, bringing technological experimentation to a remote Scottish island. Alan Dix is among the most influential figures within human-computer interaction, and his career is as varied as it is distinguished. He is an author of one of the key HCI textbooks and has extensive experience of teaching, currently at the University of Birmingham.

Alan has recently hosted the thirteenth Tiree Tech Wave, which he describes as “an opportunity to work, talk and make with others without any set criteria or objectives.” Technologists, artists, designers, activists and philosophers came together on the Inner Hebridean island to experiment.

“Of course,” Alan continued, “precisely because there are no objectives, exciting things happen – both practical and theoretical, including numerous collaborations, projects and publications.” A best paper award at CHI 2015 was given to a paper that arose from a Tiree project.

Alan was inspired to initiate the tech waves after moving to Tiree and discovering “that there was something about the vast open horizon that opened up the mind. After all, the wild Celtic fringe is where scholarship was kept alive through the Dark Ages.”

If the remoteness of Tiree helps to free developers from the distractions of their everyday lives, it also offers inspiration of a more direct kind. Alan explained: “If the islands – and indeed other remote areas – are to survive and be living communities, then digital technology will play a significant part.”

Alan is interested in “technology at the edge” and believes the tech waves help to bring the latest ideas to the Tiree community in a mutually-beneficial exchange. In 2013 he spent three months walking over a thousand miles across Wales and, amongst other things, investigated issues of broadband connectivity and mobile coverage. He was shocked by what he found.

“Some countries have embraced digital access as a core infrastructure for modern society, but in the UK, despite eGovernment and digital commerce making the internet an essential part of citizenship, in practice connectivity is simply a matter of economics,” he said. “In particular, all along the coast there is ample mobile coverage outwards to sea, where wealthy yachts-folk sail, but little or none on the land where poorer rural communities strive.”

The intervening four years has seen numerous initiatives to improve rural connectivity, but Alan is still dismayed at the technological isolation of many rural areas. He believes change will only come with “a drastic change of heart” from the government, but argues that software designers could also do more to cater to areas with low connectivity.­­­

Alan’s recent interest in the role of technology in rural areas is by no means the extent of his research, however. Over the past 30 years Alan has worked in “pretty much every aspect of human-computer interaction”, and currently works for Talis, software developers for higher education. Alan specialises in learning analytics in the reuse of materials from MOOCs, massive open online courses, for flipped class learning.

He says that this role “often overlaps” with his teaching, which recently has centred more around technology in rural settings and “how open data can be consumed and, perhaps more importantly, produced by small communities to inform and empower them.”

This variety within HCI is mirrored by his moves between different disciplines altogether. “I actually ended up in HCI almost by accident,” Alan explained. “I was originally a mathematician, and was part of the British Team to the XX International Mathematical Olympiad. After a period working in agricultural engineering research and then Cobol programming, I returned to academia to work on an Alvey project on formal methods in interactive systems… and the rest is history!” Today, Alan combines elements of his mathematical and statistical background with his HCI teaching.

Author: Mark Sleightholm

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