Open Lab interns

Over the summer three recent graduates joined Open Lab for three-month internships. They worked on various projects at the Lab connected with ways in which digital technology can have a positive impact on society.

Lynne Mackie

Lynne spent time at Open Lab working on an app for people who stammer. She recently completed a master’s degree in Information and Library Studies at the University of Strathclyde, and is the vice-chairperson of the Scottish Stammering Network.

“I applied for the Digital Civics internship after it was advertised through my department at University,” she explained. “It looked like an amazing opportunity to get some hands-on experience of research in a working environment.

“Additionally, the idea of thinking about new ways to use technology for civic good appealed to the librarian in me and I loved the creativity that seemed to go hand-in-hand with the research.”

Stammering workshopLynne attended stammering conferences in the US and Manchester to gather views of people who stammer, and what they would like to see from a possible app. She also researched existing technology for people who stammer, and developed her work into an academic paper.

At the end of her internship Lynne said: “During my time at Open Lab, I was able to see all of the different work that can happen simultaneously within an academic research environment and how ideas can come together to form something new. It was great to see how everyone works together to support and learn from one another.”

Jekaterina Maksimova

Jekaterina had a background in design and came to the Lab to work on three projects. One of these was the maker workshops with Janis. These workshops allowed people with disabilities to use maker technologies such as 3D printers to design and produce objects for themselves.

“I had an opportunity to work with physically impaired people, observe how they work with technologies and how they create an object for themselves,” Jekaterina explained. “Usually, disable assistive devices are developed by non-disabled designers.”

NUM website plansJekaterina also helped Angelika to design a new website for National Ugly Mugs, a network of support for sex workers, and worked with Tom Nappey and a team of Newcastle students who entered iGEM’s annual synthetic biology competition. The team’s project, ‘Culture Shock’, involved combining electrical circuits with biological components, and required the use of Open Lab’s workspaces. Jekaterina helped the team to design and make prototypes and parts for their project.

Jekaterina said: “This project gave me a great understanding how important design is for science nowadays and how interesting it is to work with people from other disciplines.”

Eirini Schoinaraki

Summer 2016 also saw the opening of Open Lab: Athens, and the third intern, Eirini, worked on a website for this.

Eirini headed to Athens after finishing the first year of her Computer Science degree, and explained: “I learnt to work under pressure in an office environment, but more importantly I noticed that although university gives you the tools to learn, these are usually provided in a safe environment and thus limit your understanding of the full scope of what a specific job entails.”

Eirini worked with Vasilis Vlachokyriakos, the leader of the lablet, to set up its website, which involved modifying templates and adapting the website to support the use of the Greek language. She also made the website mobile-friendly by introducing responsive elements to the CSS.

She also translated all of the text on the website, so that it could appear in Greek and English.

Eirini said: “I thoroughly enjoyed the programme (even though I was complaining about the Greek hot summer to Vasilis) and I wish I could have stayed longer.”

Makers with disabilities and DIY-abilities

My research set out to explore how people with disabilities experience using maker technologies for their own purposes. By “maker technologies” I mean both personal-scale fabrication tools (such as 3D printers and CNC laser cutters) and prototyping toolkits (for example, electronics combined with microcontrollers) – so basically the same equipment that most maker spaces acquire for their members to use for their individual projects.

In theory, these technologies enable makers to build whatever they want. People with disabilities could thus benefit from these technologies by creating their own affordable and personalised DIY assistive technologies. However, previous research has found that in reality it is seldom the people with disabilities who are creating such designs.

In my research I questioned why this is the case and experimented with different ways that maker initiatives can be set up to be more accessible, so that people with disabilities can actively take part in them.

Informed by literature from Disabilities Studies, I chose to apply an action-oriented approach which refuses to set disability on the same level as inability to use maker technologies. The result was a series of maker workshops with and for people with different physical impairments.

In five sessions participants were offered opportunities to learn how to use different mainstream maker technologies (that is 3D printers, laser cutters and programmable electronics) and to work on their own individual maker project. Designing, organising and running these workshops facilitated gaining practical insights on the significance of specific social, material and technological factors for the accessibility of making. At the same time, specific potentials of empowerment in the context of making and disability could be identified by paying close attention to the participants’ experiences.

The making process

Open Lab maker disability workshop

The workshop series was attended by five participants who differed in age, gender and impairment. All of them were experienced computer users with a general interest in technology, but none reported to have any previous background in making or creating objects for themselves. The workshop series was, however, well received. One participant said: “I can sum up the workshop in a few words: Awesome, inspiring us to use what ability we have to make something good and great.”

The participants showed a lot of interest in the technologies and demonstrated a steep learning curve while working with them. During the engagement all participants were able to create several designs and fabricate them as material objects. Examples of these creations were puzzles, keychains, badges, a wall decoration, a zipper extender and a tick fork.

Those who participated in the electronics session even learned the basics of programming in the Arduino framework and applied this knowledge to create a button-triggered traffic light system consisting of LED-lights and a sound buzzer.

Three participants could work on a final maker project:

  • boccia ball holderthe boccia ball holder, a storage extension for the armrest of a manual wheelchair to relieve the player from moving between playing location and ball stand after each throw
  • the temperature sensor, an interactive safety device to detect heat with two different usage modalities for people with disabilities
  • the award, a reconfigurable trophy object consisting of decorative modular components arranged on a base with integrated lights

These creations demonstrated a variety of ideas, different approaches to the making process, and good general understanding of the taught basics. Indeed, the study results seem to support claims of empowerment through making to a certain extent.

However, it is important to consider that this is more related to the specific practices of using such technologies than to the technologies by themselves.

For more information please contact Janis Meissner.