Welcome to Open Lab: Athens

Open Lab has a longstanding interest in the connections between technology and political activism and engaging local communities in decisions that affect them. In the summer of 2016 this research expanded to Greece, with the opening of Open Lab: Athens.

The financial crisis has led to huge changes to Greek society, including the development of a solidarity movement. Open Lab’s first ‘lablet’ aims to work with this movement to design and develop technologies that could facilitate more solidarity structures.

Open Lab has traditionally favoured participatory and embedded research, and OL: Athens is a further example of this: university researchers are working directly alongside citizens and solidarity groups.

OL: Athens is led by Vasilis Vlachokyriakos from Open Lab, in collaboration with researchers from universities across Europe, including Newcastle University, Northumbria University and Swansea University from the UK, Hasselt University in Belgium and Saarland University in Germany. OL: Athens also includes developers to design and develop technologies in collaboration with solidarity groups. The lablet also receives funding from the EPSRC Digital Economy Research Centre at Open Lab, Newcastle University.

OL Athens outsideIn addition to working with technology, the OL: Athens researchers will work closely with local communities. Volunteering and engaging with people involved in the solidarity movement forms a key part of the researchers’ work.

Athens provides a unique opportunity to learn about self-organisation and solidarity movements, and OL: Athens aims to combine the issues and values of the solidarity structures with the development of technology. Vasilis explained: “With the establishment of a local lab in Athens, we sought to begin to develop a collaborative relationship with these groups with the intention of assisting the development of technologies that would support them in their day-to-day activities.”

Currently the lablet is focussing on schools, health care, food provision and local democracy, although the specific areas of research will be determined by the solidarity structures that exist.

Eirini Schoinaraki worked as an intern at OL: Athens during its initial months. “During the past few years, Greece has experienced a long list of changes and is currently experiencing a new period of changes not only on a political / economic level but socially and culturally as well,” she said.

“This has led to an increase in solidarity movements within Greece and I strongly believe that technology will help in facilitating these changes by enabling citizens to progress their ideas and actions. That is why I believe that the initiatives and support provided by OL: Athens can bring about a good change and positively influence Greece’s solidarity movement growth.”


For more information please contact Vasilis Vlachokyriakos.

Newcastle’s parks: present and future

Funding cuts – under the UK’s austerity measures – have put huge financial pressure on many areas of local government service provision. One such service is local parks, which have seen their budgets slashed in an effort to minimise the impact on other areas.

In practice, this means that fewer full-time staff are available to local parks, increasing their reliance on volunteers from local communities.

Public concern has risen about the conditions of the Newcastle’s parks and their future. This has prompted the Council to look for and consider creative solutions for their funding and maintenance, with special consideration given to the opportunities they offer for social activities and the benefits they provide for health and wellbeing.

The extent of the threat, and public concern for local parks, has led the Communities and Local Government Committee to launch an inquiry into public parks to examine the impact of reduced local authority budgets on parks serivices.

It is in this context that, since November 2015, Open Lab has been collaborating with Newcastle park services, park rangers, friends of parks and volunteers’ groups to explore the potential of digital technology to support the delivery of park services.

The ongoing project has developed through a series of engagements and the development of Parks2026—a board game that aims to support different stakeholders (rangers, volunteers, friends of parks, park services officers), examine possible futures scenarios and consider creatively and collaboratively possible solutions for the multifaceted aspects at play in the running of park services. Concurrently Open Lab has also begun to explore how digital technologies might support civic learning activities in parks, which have also been significantly reduced due to the cuts.

Open Lab’s involvement with Newcastle Park Services and volunteers’ groups will continue over the next few months, exploring how design tools and technology can support the examination and decision-making processes towards creative and practical solutions to keep the city’s parks a public asset we can all enjoy and care for.


For more information please contact Clara Crivellaro.

Making movements into educational events

EventMovement is an online platform that allows communities to come together to propose, design and plan events. It is a free and open community commissioning tool for events.

Anyone can propose an idea for an event on EventMovement in just a few short clicks. Then, each event idea goes through three phases. The Support phase, the Get Involved phase, and the Plan It phase.

In the Support phase, users promote their idea to their friends, colleagues and through social media in order to gain support for their idea. Supporters can start discussing the idea on the event’s campaign page and are kept up to date with how the plans are progressing.

In the Get Involved phase, the community of supporters who have built up around the event idea start asking and answering questions about the event. They do this by raising and responding to talking points. Anyone can raise a talking point, and they can be about any aspect of the event. Supporters respond to these talking points with answers and can vote on each other’s responses. In this way the most important talking points and design decisions bubble to the top.

The last phase is the Plan It phase. Here supporters can summarise all the activity and design discussions that have taken place so far into a single document. They do this by selecting talking points, and choosing the most popular answers to include in a plan. This plan is both a detailed description of a community co-designed event and evidenced support for that event to happen in the real world.

We ran a short test of EventMovement at Newcastle University Library over three weeks in the summer. 43 students proposed a total of 28 events, with topics including everything from workshops on academic writing and copyright law up to a library cat café and baking classes! Not all the events were widely supported, but many ended up with excited communities of interest that designed and planned events to happen in the real world. With help from the University Library, three of those events are planned for the next few weeks.

In the future we hope to deploy EventMovement on larger scales and with a number of different organisations and businesses. We’re really excited to see how EventMovement might change the ways in which events are commissioned in the real world!


For more information please contact Dan Lambton-Howard.

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.

Sex education and digital civics

There is a problem with sex and relationships education in schools. School require all maintained schools to teach about human growth, reproduction and sexually transmitted infections (STIs); any further information is provided at the discretion of individual schools. Echoing earlier prohibitions on the “promotion of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship” – the notorious Section 28 of the Local Government Act, which was finally repealed throughout the UK in 2003 – this guidance requires that schools avoid the “promotion of early sexual activity or any particular sexual orientation”. A written policy must be produced and made available to parents, and parents are permitted to withdraw their children. Moreover, private schools, alongside newly instated academies and free schools have no obligation to teach any sex education. Therefore, sex education in the UK is effectively optional, and young people are not required by law to have any knowledge about sexuality.

Disturbed by this state of events, Laura Bates and the End Violence Against Women Coalition are putting pressure on the government to make sex education compulsory in all schools in England, setting up an online petition. We, alongside this movement, argue that a compulsory, comprehensive sex education should focus on consent, young people’s rights to their own bodies, be inclusive to LGBT populations, and feature a much avoided “discourse of desire”. Yet, for some it still remains contentious, or maybe just uncomfortable, to even talk about sex with young people.

Why is this? In my project, we are looking to answer this question through digital civics. We have attempted to counteract the adult opinion and debate that dominates this area through engaging young people in a process of ‘user centred design’. Through this, we have explored young people’s perspectives on sex and sexuality, and ‘talking about sex’ more broadly, and explored how we might incorporate these ideas into the design of new digital technologies.

‘Talk About Sex’, one of the outcomes of this process, is a turn based mobile game designed to promote discussions about sex and sexuality. Through this, we are exploring ways to promote ‘positive’ discourses about sex and sexuality on young people’s own terms through lightweight mobile play. But we are also looking at further ways to extend these discussions. How might conversations about sex and sexuality extend to the home, with children’s parents and guardians? How can we make sex education suitable for younger children, so that sex education isn’t merely ‘fire-fighting’ after it’s too late?


For more information please contact Matt Wood.

Bringing local music into local schools

This year I created Remix Portal which is an online music remixing and sharing application that runs in Google Chrome and Firefox.

The motivation behind this work is twofold. Firstly, I thought (and still think) that music education within schools could do a much better job of inspiring students to get involved in music making activities beyond the classroom. Secondly, I had noticed an emerging trend for music to be released in the form of ‘stems’, where separated audio files are provided for each musical component, such as the drums, bass, vocals etc. Stems allow music remixers to create new versions of songs and as these propagate through social media they serve to promote the original band/artist and help them reach new audiences. I think they could be of real benefit to music education too as they allow us to look inside, take apart, tinker with, and rework music.

I deployed Remix Portal within Year 8 music classes and used it to support the teaching of music production skills. Despite the complex looking interface (which was due to it being modelled on an analogue audio mixing desk), the students all got the hang of it by the end of the first hour-long lesson.

Remix PortalI chose to use music sourced from local bands in order to try and help the students gain an understanding that musical talent isn’t the sole preserve of X Factor finalists but can be found within their local communities too. Interestingly, whilst many of the students did not like the music on offer they all acknowledged the talents of the musicians and were encouraged by the fact that they operate within their local area.

During this project I learned that remixing activities can promote deep and active listening (which is highly relevant to the music curriculum). For example, being able to isolate individual parts of the music, such as the vocals, made the students notice things about the music they might not have otherwise. I also learned that remixing activities can be highly engaging for students so long as either the music they are remixing matches a style they like, or they are able to remix music into a style they like.

The next step is to scale the system up and get lots more musicians involved so that there is a much greater range of song options for the young people to choose from. I also want to create a range of ‘lesson idea’ packs to try and encourage more teachers to use Remix Portal within their teaching. I should then be in a good position to take a deeper look at the possibilities that music remixing and sharing can bring to formal education, and also start to look at how it may be used within informal learning contexts.


For more information please contact Colin Dodds.

Parks as learning spaces

For my Digital Civics MRes project I created Park:Learn, a mobile application designed to enable situated mobile learning within local parks. Parks have suffered huge funding cuts due to their low priority within local authorities’ budgets: in 2014, the Heritage Lottery fund found that 86% of park managers have seen their funding slashed since 2010. This has especially affected the parks’ abilities to function as a learning resource, with many parks introducing fees for school trips.

We found further evidence of this when we visited some of the parks in the Newcastle area. Due to a loss of funding Jesmond Dene no longer has a dedicated education officer, with many of the existing educational materials going unused as a result. The issue has been further compounded by schools also suffering a series of yearly budget cuts.

Park:Learn phonePark:Learn

We held a series of exploratory workshops and visits to the parks in the Newcastle area in order to learn more about the issue, its causes and effects. We found that park rangers and teachers alike were very keen on holding more outdoor learning activities in their local parks. Teachers in particular noted that many of the obstacles to doing so (besides budgetary issues) were related to fitting the sessions into their scheme of work and being able to justify them afterwards with evidence of the children’s learning.

In response, I developed a Park:Learn prototype. This mobile learning application allows for the completion of park-based learning activities, utilising the capabilities of the user’s device, the park environment and the joint expertise of teachers and experts within the local community, such as the rangers.

The learning activities were created through the suggestions given by the teachers and rangers, and are made up of tasks involving photography, audio and video recording, drawing, typing, map-reading and location hunting via GPS.

The app in action

We piloted the application in Exhibition Park, with 23 children aged 4-12. Over the course of the session over 160 photos were taken, alongside David Attenborough-style video documentaries and drawings.

Park:Learn useThe app was extremely popular with the children, who said that the creative acts of taking photographs and recording video made learning subjects like habitats “more interesting and exciting”. They also claimed with certainty that they would enjoy using a tool like this in future school trips.

However, this pilot prototype was just that – a pilot for a bigger, more impactful project. In future work we aim to be able to allow teachers and community experts to create and share these activities in the application, allowing for the creation of a sustainable, community-driven platform for outdoor learning activities.

Ideally, we eventually want children to be able to create these activities for their peers, as creation is often regarded as a path towards deep learning reflection. We hope that this will lead to local parks being better utilised as educational resources and, as a result, increase their perceived value.


For more information please contact Dan Richardson.

Commissioning in education

Using the notion of commissioning in education is one of the main research agendas in our educational technology subgroup. However, commissioning is a very general term that is used in a variety of ways. Below, I will try to explain what I mean when I say commissioning in education and especially as it applies to the general commissioning platform that we are working on.

In the North East, as well as in most other regions, there is a wealth of intellectual, social, and physical resources that are under-utilized, and in some cases not utilized at all, despite their great potential to contribute to improving the learning experience and social capital of students. A number of initiatives have been made by individuals or organizations to link schools and businesses, public sector, and non-profit organisations, but these are done on a small scale and require a significant amount of coordination. These initiatives have usually proved to be very successful, with benefits to all the partners involved, but due to the amount of effort required to coordinate them, they remain small initiatives lasting only for a limited period of time. Our goal is to build a platform that can play a major role in building school-community partnerships with minimum manual coordination to ensure scalability and sustainability. It is an ambitious goal with many challenges, but that’s what makes it interesting and worthy of being a major research project.

Accordingly, the platform needs to support the following main features:

  • Allow anybody, including students, parents or local businesses, to propose a campaign, learning resource or data collection.
  • Provide tools and channels to help in promoting this idea with the aim of collecting enough endorsements to validate the need and support for any proposal.
  • Once enough support has been gathered, the platform must provide the mechanisms to prepare the required resources. This stage will vary largely depending on the proposed idea.

The main roles identified here are those of the idea proposer, supporters, contributors, and users/beneficiaries. Any person or organisation can play any of these roles. That is, while a local organisation can commission a school to carry out a certain project-based learning activity that has an educational benefit, the school, or even the students themselves, can commission the community members to contribute resources or collect data for them to use in school projects. The platform must therefore allow for a reciprocal relationship between the schools and their communities.

A commissioning platform in practice

Here is an example scenario of how the commissioning platform can be used:

A village shop owner wants to increase awareness about the benefits of shopping from the local village shop versus larger city supermarkets. The owner proposes the idea on the platform with the aim of commissioning students of the village school to lead an awareness campaign on the benefits of using local shops.

The idea gains support from other shop owners and some parents, and a geography teacher at the local school learns about the project.

The project moves to the design phase. The shop owners, with the help of the teacher, shape this idea into a project-based learning activity with clear learning goals. They agree on some key points to address, a time scale, and possible outcomes, such as flyers and an awareness video.

This ends up being a well-defined project-based learning activity that ticks a number of learning objectives around economy, society, environment, effects, and change; one that other teachers can use for their local areas as well.

Whilst carrying out the project, the students decide to start their own commissioning activity where they commission the local community to record short videos on mobile phones and provide data for the students to use to produce their flyers and awareness video.


For more information please contact Ahmed Kharrufa.

Virtual cultural collaboration

Technology has many implications for education particularly in scaffolding learning within and outside classrooms. This research focused on how digital technologies could provide avenues for schools and communities to collaborate to produce resources for cross-cultural learning purposes within classrooms.

My research interest within technology mediated cross-cultural learning sparked the curiosity to look at how video technology on mobile smartphones can: support the process of creating rich and authentic cultural resources for learning; support cross-cultural learning; and create new avenues for meaningful home-school and school-home communication.

In order to explore answers to the above questions I worked with three diverse cultural families in Newcastle who had at least one school-going child aged between 9-12 years. I asked the families to use two different video technologies on their smartphones and produce cultural content by recording cultural instances that occur in their everyday life. We held an initial workshop with the families to explore notions of culture and how to identify cultural instances in their everyday life. Following this activity, the families used the existing video application available on the phones to ensure familiarity and developed video content. In the next stage families used Bootlegger, an application designed to scaffold video capturing on mobile devices.

The content developed by the families were then taken to the teachers to understand how educators viewed such resources, and if such resource creation and curation could be included within school curricula. Findings from the study highlight the positive impact of the videos on both those who created them (parents and children) and those who viewed them (teachers) leading to cross-cultural and intra-cultural learning. The activity also showed how as a researcher, I often played the role of a broker, facilitating and mediating links between families and schools. This is important when working within cross-cultural domains where the presence of an actor (a human or a human-mediated-technology) with agency is key to not only forge relationships but also narrow the gaps between communities and classrooms to impact teaching and learning beyond school boundaries.


For more information contact Vidya Sarangapani.