Designing the conference

Local businesses and innovation experts are being invited to help shape content for this year’s VentureFest North East, using EventMovement. The free online platform, developed by digital civics researchers at Newcastle University, allows communities to propose, design and plan events, and is now being used to put delegates in control of a new People’s Choice part of the VentureFest North East programme.

Each autumn the regional innovation conference gathers together hundreds of entrepreneurs, innovators and investors to explore current issues and new ideas relating to innovation with a range of leading experts.

Based on feedback from previous events, the overarching theme for the session will be emerging technologies. Opinions are now being sought on specific topics and questions businesses would like to address.

Estelle Blanks, Deputy Director at the Innovation SuperNetwork which delivers VentureFest, said: “Emerging technologies affect us all and it’s a theme of great interest to local businesses. But we want to know exactly what piques their interest.

“For example, would they like to focus on artificial intelligence, virtual reality, printable electronics, med-tech, 5G or the Internet of Things? These are just a few ideas – we are completely open to suggestions and we will respond by designing specific event content.”

The move has been welcomed by regional business organisations including the Federation of Small Businesses. Regional Development Manager Simon Hanson said: “VentureFest North East has always been designed by businesses for businesses. We work closely with the team to shape the entire VentureFest programme according to the needs of our members.

“The fact that the organisers are now going one step further by asking businesses to directly design an element of the event demonstrates how keen they are to reflect the interests of the business community.”

Businesses can suggest topics, vote for those already pitched by others and discuss ideas by visiting until 31 July 2017. This web platform will allow the event organisers to gather ideas, assess their popularity and use this information to design the People’s Choice session.

VentureFest North East 2017 will be held on 14 November at St James’ Park and is free to attend. The conference is all about bringing together people from different business sectors to learn from each other and use innovation to improve the competitiveness and profitability. Registrations are now open at

For more information about EventMovement, please contact Dan Lambton-Howard.

For more information about VentureFest North East please contact Innovation SuperNetwork Communications Manager Laura White on email: or telephone 07739 126152.

Technologies and mental health

Digital Civics projects exploring technologies and mental health were showcased at a student-led mental health conference in Newcastle.

The fourth annual Mind the Gap Conference was organised by Nataly Birbeck, a Digital Civics doctoral researcher and included workshops, panel discussions and live music performances. There were also stalls showcasing local organisations working in the area of mental health, such as charities, meditation providers, and LaunchSpot.

The conference offered an opportunity to discuss and explore many different aspects of mental health. LaunchSpot’s opening competition, Create4Dementia, invites the public to submit ideas for technology they believe could help people living with a diagnosis of dementia. These ideas, having been collaboratively refined by the community, have now been judged by experts in technology and dementia and three ideas have been shortlisted for development. Small businesses and individual developers can now bid for a work contract worth £20,000 to make the winning idea a reality. The boca addiction center helps one detoxify and start afresh from the addiction issues.

People attending the conference were interested to find out more about the ideas and the collaborative design process. Future competitions using the LaunchSpot platform could focus on other mental health issues such as self-harm and eating disorders.

Kellie Morrissey, a researcher involved with LaunchSpot, also ran a workshop session with Jayne Wallace exploring non-verbal communication with people with dementia. Workshop participants made playlists to investigate how music could empower people with dementia, and how fabrics and different textiles could be used to create engaging objects.

Other sessions focussed on subjects such as poetry, peer support and comedy relating to mental health, while discussion panels held throughout the day explored the particular issues around mental health for students, men, people with disabilities and those who are part of the LGBT+ and BAME communities or who belong to a faith group.

Students, researchers, clinicians and members of the local community all took part in the conference, which encouraged discussion about mental health issues. Platforms such as LaunchSpot suggest ways in which digital technologies can intersect with mental health and how technologies developed by the community could shape the way we think and talk about mental health in the future.

For more information please contact Nataly Birbeck.

Technology and the On Hold movement

A new app aims to tap into and expand Greece’s “on hold” movement to encourage Greeks to support their fellow citizens.

Open Lab: Athens was set up in the summer of 2016 to explore the design and development of technologies that support and strengthen solidarity structures in Greece.

The OL: Athens team recently appeared on local radio to discuss their work and the political issues surrounding technology. They are working across a range of areas including education, health and democracy, but one of their most recent projects is with the “on hold” movement.

Customers in shops and cafes can buy extra products, such as a cup of coffee or a loaf of bread, “on hold”. The shopkeeper keeps them behind the counter to give to people who cannot otherwise afford them. In this way people can buy products for their fellow citizens.

OL: Athens has introduced App Movement to the on hold movement to create an app, On Hold Go. As with all App Movement projects, the app will be designed collaboratively by its future users, to reflect what they would like to see from it. This combination of organic social actions and digital technologies shows the potential for OL: Athens and has attracted the attention of local media.

Vasilis Vlachokyriakos, who leads OL: Athens, will also be taking part in a panel discussion at the launch of the European Social Innovation Competition, organised by the European Commission.

This year’s competition will be based around the theme of giving everybody equal access to the benefits of technological change. Vasilis will discuss this theme alongside industry leaders from across Europe.

Written by Mark Sleightholm. For more information please contact Vasilis Vlachokyriakos.

How do groups form in digital economies?

Data Publics is a three-day conference Open Lab is organising in collaboration with Lancaster University.

The conference explores the diverse ways in which “publics” are, and can be, constituted, provoked, threatened, understood, and represented. This includes scrutinising the role played in the formation of publics by new on- and offline infrastructures, data visualisations, social and economic practices, research methods and creative practices, and emerging and future technologies.

The event is designed to facilitate cross-cutting conversations between designers, social scientists and creative technologists to explore challenges and opportunities afforded by thinking and working with “Data Publics”.

This is an interdisciplinary conference and contributions from researchers within the areas of social science, design, new media art, data visualisation, and human-computer interaction are warmly invited. The event will comprise a combination of hands-on workshops, paper presentations and an exhibition of work.

Day one will provide hands-on introductions to key methods for investigating data publics, involving two workshops running in parallel. One workshop – ‘Digital Methods/Data Visualisation’, led by David Moats – will introduce the digital methods and data visualisation approaches to conduct research in this field. The other – ‘Strategies, Tools and Participatory Processes’, led by Open Lab’s Clara Crivellaro – will explore the practicalities of using design strategies, tools and participatory processes to support the formation of publics. Days two and three of the conference feature academic paper presentations and exhibits from participants, with a focus on the way a diverse array of methods, analytical approaches, representational techniques and practical engagements might be related to one another and combined.

For more information please contact Clara Crivellaro.

Crashing the conference

How do you find willing participants for a design workshop to develop a mobile application for people who stammer? You crash their national conference, of course.

While putting the user at the centre of the design process is a great way to ensure that the end product will actually be something which interests them, this becomes a whole lot more difficult when willing participants can’t be found. Undertaking design workshops with people who stammer can be tricky if people do not want to contribute.

The nature of stammering is such that many people do not wish to disclose or discuss their stammer. Stammering is characterised by dysfluencies in speech, alongside possible secondary behaviours such as facial grimacing and social avoidance. Our attempts to find participants within Newcastle yielded only a few names. However, when the British Stammering Association (BSA) heard of our search, they offered us the opportunity to attend their national conference being held in Manchester in early September.

The BSA is the national charity for people who stammer in the UK, advocating for and raising awareness of stammering. Every two years the BSA hold their national conference, bringing the stammering community together from across the country (and beyond). While research and therapy also features, the primary attendees of these events are people who stammer themselves, ready to socialise, share their experiences and learn from their peers.

And, with a conference full of people who stammer who are willing to engage in discussions related to their stammer, what better place to find participants for our design workshop?

Working the workshop

We piloted our workshop in Newcastle with two participants and received their feedback on the activities with the view to adapting them to suit a potentially larger group in Manchester. Then we took the show on the road and secured a room for the Friday evening of the conference. Despite being a late addition to the programme, our event was added to the official schedule, advertised as the first workshop of the conference, and we were given a whole lecture theatre to run it in. We had 15 participants across three tables who were asked to complete discussion-generating tasks, before coming together as a larger group to share ideas.

In attending the conference, we were able to reach people who are open to talking about their stammer and sharing their experiences. Conversation flowed at all of the group tables and loads of great ideas came out of the workshop. Now, their input can be used to develop a mobile application which will hopefully aid an even broader range of people who stammer.

DEN Summer School 2016

Each year doctoral researchers from Digital Economy Network Centres for Doctoral Training across the UK have a chance to come together, learn, and enjoy a city in the summer at an annual Digital Economy Network Summer School funded by the EPSRC’s Digital Economy Network. This year this fun and informative exchange happened in Newcastle between 17-20 July 2016. This year’s theme, Digital Citizens, Connected Communities, explored how digital technologies could be used to empower communities.

Across four days, CDT students listened to inspiring keynote speakers, attended master classes, organised and took part in student-led workshops, asked the speakers difficult questions during a panel discussion, and attended a range of social events that included bowling and a boat trip along the Tyne!


Doctoral researchers were able to take charge of how they wanted the summer school to be shaped. Feedback gathered after the event included comments such as: “Thank you for listening to our suggestions about giving us flexibility to choose what to attend. Thank you for letting some of us organise our own workshops.”

Some of them took this opportunity with both hands: students organised and carried out seven workshops, across topics ranging from thematic analysis to conversations on ethics or digital democracy, and even a linguistic inquiry into what the Digital Economy actually is.

It was “a really good idea to have this interactive day rather than just listening to speakers”.

It doesn’t come as a surprise that the workshops, the masterclasses, social events, and all the tea and coffee breaks were some of the things that people described to be the ‘best things’ about the summer school. It was just great “how we all bonded all together”!

World class speakers

But let’s move on to the other great thing, the speakers! We were honoured to have four fantastic invited speakers: Mimi Ito told us more about connected learning, Christopher Le Dantec introduced us to new forms of data-based participation, and Brett Scott told us all about how we could hack the future of money. Gregory Abowd told us what an applied computer scientist could look like, and Elizabeth Losh closed the summer school for us by discussing affect and digital pedagogy.

Generally, people were very happy with the “world class speaker” line-up, but there was a little contention about the diversity: while one researcher “loved the diversity of speakers backgrounds”, another complained: “Most of the talks were very US specific.”

All in all, I think this participant sums up our experience of the summer school pretty well when asked what the best thing about it was:

“That’s hard to choose. I really like the masterclass I attended, but some of the side conversations and social events were as memorable”.

Gabber at the DEN Summer School

This year, Newcastle University held the annual Digital Economy Network (DEN) summer school, which brought together early-stage researchers from ten national universities who collectively contribute research towards the digital economy.

Having these researchers in one place provided an opportunity to capture their unique, yet shared experiences of being involved as a researcher in this network. However, current methods to support qualitative data collection are often led by researchers in a formal way (e.g. interviews and focus groups) or do not leverage the potential of digital technologies (national surveys), which are often time consuming to conduct at scale.

Snowball recruitment

Around the same time, I was undertaking research to explore new ways to utilize technologies to simplify the process of qualitative data collection. During which I developed Gabber, a mobile application (yes, another app for research) to capture conversations between peers using topics to scaffold conversations that they have experiences of and to publically share these for others to hear – perfect timing for a trial deployment at the DEN.

Gabber screenshotGabber has three stages to streamline this: (1) the interviewer inputs their friend’s details, including an optional photo/selfie if they desire, (2) they agree on and select a topic they want to discuss, and (3) they record and save the Gabber.

Gabber’s unique characteristics are its incorporation and combination of traditional qualitative research methods within technologies to examine their joint effectiveness. Peer-led interviewing was used to capture conversations between users, snowball recruitment was used to diversify and increase the spread of participation across social circles, and a process of consent through follow-up emails with participants was used to give authority and transparency over the data they jointly created.

Researching the researchers

Gabber was used at the DEN to capture the shared experiences of being a researcher by attendees, but what topics should be discussed, and who decides on these? Users should have control, and so prior to the event attendees were emailed and asked to propose topics that they would enjoy having conversations about. The most common responses were used and reduced to open-ended questions to elicit a breadth of discussions and ranged from: “what inspires your research” to “advice for new CDTs”.

Given the crammed nature a summer school program, is there really enough time to have a gabber? Over the two-day event, fourteen gabbers were recorded by attendees from eight national universities, with a majority choosing to discuss their research inspirations and family’s perceptions of their research.

Full consent to share the gabber created and to associate the optional photo was provided by all participants. This was surprising as a current challenge faced by citizens who contribute to or are involved in research is the attribution of the data they produce, and how they provide consent as the research project evolves. Gabber demonstrated the potential role of technologies to explore these challenges and to alleviate pressures facing researchers in these areas.

Gabber could be configured and used by researchers to rapidly collect perspectives from their participants, or by citizens to collect data for their own shared agendas, such as informing local policy.

This exploration into the role of digital tools to support and modernise qualitative research is an emerging interest of my own, which will involve further research and technology innovation. If you’re interested in collaborating or discussing how such technologies could benefit your work, then get in touch.

For more information please contact Jay Rainey.