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.

Digital displays in rural Northumberland

Digital displays are a rare sight outside of the city and the urban environment. Typically used for the purposes of advertising and promotion within retail, these simple pieces of hardware are becoming increasingly ubiquitous as an embedded piece of technology within society. In contrast to their increasing numbers, their prices have been ever falling, so that they are now easy to get hold of cheaply, or even free. Combining them with other pieces of cheap computer hardware (eg. Raspberry Pi) and the ever-stretching reach of internet services, we can start to see the more recognisable public displays of urban areas filter into the rural landscape.

The digital civics agenda revolves around empowering members of the public; designing technology alongside people to better fit their needs, with the eventual outcome of handing over control of the tools for them to take on the full governance to utilise, build and develop them as a citizen-led initiative.

Glendale screenAt this current time of austerity, citizen-led initiatives and technology are becoming increasingly popular as local councils and government fail to meet the needs of the population due to severe financial cut backs. The creation of the digital display network is a means of providing a financially sustainable piece of technology for the general public within a rural area of the North East.

The rural environment poses a wide range of challenges for the people who live within its borders. The lack of affordable housing, consistent employment opportunities, community initiatives, higher education and transport are some of the problems affecting one such rural community within Glendale, Northumberland. Working in partnership with Glendale’s local development trust (Glendale Gateway Trust), we created and deployed a series of public displays in 2015 that are designed to better disperse information to the public about local initiatives to generate greater awareness of opportunities. In total, nine displays are currently active within Glendale in a diverse range of locations, ranging from corner stores, post offices, tea rooms, schools and community information centres. The displays themselves have attracted numerous media articles (1, 2, and 3) within their time of deployment.

Glendale screenThe displays have proved to be an effective tool in relieving some of the problems faced by the community of Glendale, especially youth, who were the main focus of the project. We visited the local drop-In centre (Wooler Drop In) to gather some thoughts and opinions surrounding the perceived impact of the displays on young people. We found that displays had been a huge success (particularly the one situated within the Drop-In Centre) at dispersing information and making people more aware of the more localised events and opportunities, with young people stating they had seen and followed up on information. They felt they knew what was going on and what was available to them within their area, and a number had successfully enrolled in apprenticeships from seeing the employment opportunities on the screens.

Patsy Healey, Vice Chair of Glendale Gateway Trust and Emeritus Professor of Town and Country Planning at Newcastle University, stated the importance of such technology within the area of Glendale. There is a severe disconnect between local community groups in how they intercommunicate between themselves, with each organisation preferring their own method for distributing information to the public about their work. She feels that the displays and alternative forms of technology are a step towards uniting the segregated and hidden community groups within Glendale.

For more information please contact Stuart Nicholson.

Research with refugees in rural Lebanon

I spent two months in rural Lebanon working with Syrian refugee women residing in an informal tented settlement. We were working on using an IVR system to access healthcare services and increase refugee agency in the healthcare provider/refugee relationship.

While the results of the research were very interesting, there is more to research than just the results. Rarely do we report on the intricate, and sometimes fragile, nature of the relationships we build with the communities we work with. We also leave out in our papers conversations around “What does it mean to be embedded within a community?”.

So I will take to blogging to document all that happened!

Community customs

One of the things that hits you when you first start engaging with such resource constrained communities is the need to find a balance between respecting their customs without becoming an added strain on their already limited finances. These families are earning way below the poverty line yet their customs entail offering food and beverages to their guests. So to pre-empt that I took food with me for all of us to share and water and juice.

Despite that they would still offer me and all the other women participating drinks. I would refuse, saying, “I will drink from the juice I got for all of us”, which was fine at the start, although the woman hosting me did say to me once, “are you worried our glasses are not clean?”.

I won’t lie, I was mad at myself for making her feel that way and then quickly explained to her in a culturally appropriate way that I do not want to be drinking from the beverages that she had bought for her children. She appreciated that but insisted that I drink something.

I then altered my approach. I would drink from the beverages she offers me and give the beverages I had bought to her at the end of the day. It is these small incidents that can sometimes break the trust and familiarity that you as a researcher had spent so much effort building with the community.

Tea drinking

Similarly, the experience made me really reflect on where to draw the line when it comes to my health. During my initial engagements with the women they explained to me how they are all suffering from chronic diarrhoea and it is because the water they have isn’t clean. So when they would offer me drinks I would only drink juice, thinking that that would be the safer option. However, I soon realized, after getting sick several times, that in order to make the amount of juice enough for everyone they would dilute it with water.

I did not want to insult the host again.

I discussed it with a colleague, who has worked in similar circumstances, and she said the answer is tea because that way the water in my beverage would be boiled. Drinking hot tea in the heat of a Lebanese summer was not ideal, but it seemed to do the trick.

Research as real life

These are only some of the things I encountered while doing my field work. It is these things that we need to talk about as researchers working in such circumstances. No amount of reading can prepare you for embedding yourself within refugee communities. However, sharing our experiences may at least help researchers prepare for such engagements.

For more information please contact Reem Talhouk.