WheelieMap: Mapping accessibility barriers in the built environment

The built environment is not always inclusive. This issue arises from the fact that it has a range of barriers: trip hazards, poorly designed surfaces, pavements that are too narrow, steps, steep slopes and other potential dangers, both large and small. The result is that people with disabilities are often excluded from society and the workplace, due to the difficulty or relative impossibility of accessing a given location. This problem applies to people who might not be traditionally seen as ‘disabled’, for instance for people with mobility impairments or frailty arising from age. Part of the problem is that these barriers are difficult to document in an objective manner, and without the knowledge of where the hazards lie, local councils are unlikely to do anything about them.

WheelieMap efficiently documents these barriers so they can be addressed and prioritised. WheelieMap is a smartphone app that attaches to the back of a manual wheelchair and records video, GPS location and movement sensor data. The wheelchair user can then review this data and pick out anything they consider to be a potential problem. The combination of location, movement and video data provides them with evidence to document barriers in the built environment. Crucially, it gives the power to identify barriers to people with disabilities, with the particular motion of a wheelchair making it easier to quickly flag potential barriers that town planners may not have considered.

WheelieMap was developed by Reuben Kirkham, and is currently in a consultation phase. Eight participants so far have tested an early working prototype, including a range of wheelchair users and town planners. This reflects the diverse audiences of WheelieMap: it is useful to wheelchair users as a way of documenting their difficulties navigating the urban environment, and is also useful to town planners to help design a more accessible built environment.

The next step in the WheelieMap development process is to build an enhanced version that will make the reports visible and accessible to both disability advocates and local authorities. Reuben hopes this will encourage advocacy to improve the accessibility of our towns and cities, and make it easier for local authorities to plan developments that are more inclusive for people with a range of disabilities.


For more information please contact Reuben Kirkham.

Research with refugees: physical context and design methods

Conducting research with refugee communities is challenging in all parts of a refugee’s journey. However, the varying transitionary stages of refugee journeys (that sometimes includes stages of protracted natures such as residing in a refugee camp) require researchers to consider the methodological approach and methods to conducting research with refugee communities and humanitarian stakeholders. This if the first of several blog posts that will discuss the different considerations for research methods and methodologies as a basis for a workshop that will be held at CHI 2017.

In developing contexts, most research is conducted in situ e.g. refugee settlements/camps. This differs greatly from conducting research and design workshops in public spaces such as libraries and university offices. The physical contexts may restrict methods to be used. For example, when doing research in informal tented settlements in rural Lebanon most of the activities are conducted in the tent of one of the community members. The tents do not have any tables nor any form of elevated seating; participants and researchers sit on cushions on the floor that is sometimes covered with a rug or is bare. The floor is not tiled and not a smooth surface, this coupled with the seating arrangement makes design activities that involve drawing, sketching and even mapping quite frustrating and cumbersome for participants. Therefore, careful consideration is needed for the length of the activities and their structures (i.e. how many participants per group, size of drawing paper etc).

Additionally, we need to consider what materials we can take with us to the field to support the activities (e.g. drawing boards). When considering supporting materials, we also need to reflect on the fact that refugee communities are resource constrained, and drawing boards would be appealing materials that the community would like to keep for their children to use. That would be great if you can give each family in the camp the board – else tensions would arise about who gets what (and of course if your budget allows you to).

This is further compounded by local ethic boards advising against leaving such materials behind as they may be coercive. Consequently, I would suggest placing thick cardboard on the floor where the drawing activities would take place, divide activities into smaller activities that are separated by discussions and conducted over longer time frames, for example dividing what you would usually do in a three-hour design workshop (not accounting for breaks) into several activities over several days that are accompanied by other form of activities including social activities.

This physical context differs from that of refugees in formal camps such as Zaatari camp, urban refugees and refugees that have resettled in host countries. Zaatari camp has several NGO centers across the 12 districts of the camps that are equipped to facilitate group activities. Similarly, urban refugees and resettled refugees are usually invited to community centres, community health clinics, public libraries and even public spaces such as parks for engagements. These facilities can be used to conduct research and design


For more information please contact Reem Talhouk.

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.

Remake a museum

A group including designers, artists, coders and museum fans came together for a hackathon at the Great North Museum: Hancock in Newcastle. Their aim was to think of ways to reimagine and remake the museum: innovative ideas that challenge what a museum is and what it means to its community.


For more information, please contact Robyn Taylor.

Newcastle at the forefront of planning

A report by Future Cities Catapult has named Newcastle as one of the leading cities in the UK for digital planning and engagement.

The Future Cities Catapult’s Future of Planning project aims to explore how digital technologies can influence and improve planning practices and making the planning process more transparent and collaborative.

As part of this investigation into the future of planning, Future Cities Catapult have published a report into existing digital tools and how they are used in the planning industry. Newcastle was one of three “exemplary cities” listed in the report, alongside Bristol and Plymouth. The report praised Newcastle’s innovative and collaborative planning environment.

“Newcastle University, as a neutral academic body with a civic mission to give back to the city, has been critical in brokering between the different sectors and bringing them together for collaborative projects in digital planning,” the report explained, “especially under the leadership of Professor Mark Tewdwr-Jones, Director of Newcastle City Futures.”

The collaboration between universities, local government and local, national and international businesses – the kind facilitated by Newcastle City Futures and the Digital Civics initiative – puts Newcastle in a much stronger position than many other UK cities when it comes to planning innovation and engagement.

One of the Open Lab projects featured in the report was Jen Manuel’s research using Bootlegger to engage local people in planning decisions. The app facilitates the creation of videos, filmed collaboratively by multiple users, that document issues, opportunities and challenges of their neighbourhoods. These can then be used in planning discussions, and help to break down barriers between residents and planners.

The report states, “the app has been a great success with Berwick-upon-Tweed, as it has been used as a powerful device to communicate changes in a way that the public can easily access and recognise rather than by statutory documents.”

Change Explorer is another of the projects highlighted in the report. The app was designed by Zander Wilson, a doctoral researcher at Open Lab, and notifies people when they are close to an area that has plans for redevelopment. They will then be able to view and comment on the plans, making it much easier for local residents and visitors to have their say on planning decisions.

Zander also used Open Lab’s App Movement platform to design an app that allows members of the public to identify and review examples of Brutalist architecture. This means people can document the significance and condition of Brutalist buildings, which can help with heritage and conservation, as well as sparking discussion over architecture and town planning.

Newcastle’s application of digital technologies to planning decisions and processes fits within Open Lab’s digital civics research, and suggests one way in which planning could change in the future. The report comes out at a time of wider discussion on the future of planning and communities and age-friendly cities.


For more information, please contact Mark Tewdwr-Jones.

Working towards a Blue House roundabout solution

Following Newcastle City Council’s decision in August to rethink their plans for the Blue House roundabout, a working group was set up with representatives from the Council and local community groups. Open Lab has helped to facilitate this process, including documenting the consultation process on the working group’s website.

The working group has held regular meetings to discuss the plans for the roundabout, which has one of the highest accident rates in Newcastle. The idea behind the group was to increase public consultation and engagement in the planning process, something which resonates with much of Open Lab’s work.

Clara Crivellaro, who has done research into an online community-led campaign to save Tynemouth Outdoor Pool, has attended meetings as part of the Open Lab team. She explained: “This is part of a larger agenda within digital civics, looking into the potential role of digital technologies and design to support meaningful public discussions and processes of public consultations around the future of the places that matter to us in the city.”

Blue House Roundabout

Open Lab’s involvement with the Blue House roundabout working group also builds on work by Ian Johnson, Zander Wilson and Jen Manuel, who have all researched ways of engaging the public, and in particular voices that are not often heard, with planning decisions.

While the working group was designed to include the voices of a range of residents and users of the roundabout, the planning process can still be made more transparent. Both textual and graphic minutes of the meetings are uploaded to the working group’s website, but the press are not allowed access to the meetings themselves.

This demonstrates a need to balance the requests of the working group participants with public accountability and involvement in planning processes, which feeds in to Open Lab’s digital civics research. The Blue House roundabout working group is not just about finding the best solution to the increased traffic at the roundabout; it is an opportunity to explore new ways of using technology to engage the public in planning decisions.


For more information please contact Clara Crivellaro.

Metro Futures: the story so far

Since the start of November members of the public have been sharing their ideas for the future of the Tyne and Wear Metro. As part of a massive public consultation into the design of a new generation of Metro carriages, the Metro Futures project – a collaboration between Nexus, who own Metro, and Open Lab – aims to ask people what they like about Metro, and what they would like to change.

Metro users – and potential users – are being invited to share their views on the Metro Futures website, in pop-up labs held throughout November across Tyne and Wear, and on social media, using the hashtag #MetroFutures.

Simon Bowen, who leads the project for Open Lab, said: “We’re taking this conversation across the region with a series of pop-up labs where we’re asking people to share what is important about Metro today and explore the Metro of tomorrow.”

Pop-up labs:

  • Customs House, South Shields – Wednesday 9 November, 12:00-17:00
  • Gateshead Interchange – Friday 11 November, 14:30-18:30
  • The Bridges Shopping Centre, Sunderland – Friday 18 November, 11:00-15:00
  • Tynemouth Market – Sunday 20 November, 9:00-16:00
  • Newcastle Airport – Thursday 24 November (on trains during the day)
  • intu Eldon Square – Saturday 26 November, 11:00-15:00

“We want local people to tell us much as possible about what they want to see from new trains,” explained Huw Lewis, Head of Customer Services at Nexus.

“The pop-up labs put together by Newcastle University’s Open Lab are a fun and informative way for people right across the communities Metro serves to get involved.”

Around 30 members of the public have also been recruited as co-researchers. They will attend four design workshop and think in detail about Metro today and what the Metro of the future could look like. The ideas coming out of these workshops will also be added to the Metro Futures website to prompt further online discussion.

Local schoolchildren will also be involved in the design process. They will spend time on a spare Metrocar to explore new ideas, echoing the role of children in testing out the original Metrocars 40 years ago.

Involving local people in decision that affect them is a key theme within digital civics, and the Metro Futures project aims to bring back the spirit of innovation that characterised the early days of Metro.

The ideas and feedback from the public will be used to design the new-look Metrocars, with a detailed business plan expected to be presented to the Department for Transport before the end of the year.

Huw explained: “The business case we are submitting to Government for new trains at the end of this year is vital for Metro’s future, and we want local people to be at the heart of our plans.”

The current Metro carriages have been in use since Metro opened in 1980, so the new designs will shape the look of Metro for decades to come.


For more information please contact Simon Bowen.

Technology, transport and town hall meetings

As well as being Labour’s MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, Chi Onwurah is interested in both transport and digital technology. The intersection of these two areas falls within Open Lab’s digital civics research, and the potential for technology to transform transport is enormous.

Cycling in Newcastle

Having recently started cycling again, Chi is keen for Newcastle to become more cycle-friendly. She praised the efforts of the Council to promote cycling in Newcastle, and pointed out that the city is steep compared to many others in the UK, making it more difficult for cyclists.

However, in addition to more cycle lanes, and cycle lanes that do more to protect cyclists, Chi would like more awareness around cycling, such as bike maintenance and safety, explaining: “people are still quite astounded when I turn up on a bike, and I think normalising it would help.” This is perhaps an area where digital technology can help,

“I’d like to see better and clearer cycle routes, which are enforced, so you don’t get cars parking in them all the time,” she continued. “I don’t know why they often stick bollards in front of cycle routes, but it feels like you’re negotiating an obstacle course sometimes.”

Digital planning

Another obstacle course that needs negotiating is the planning process. In August Chi organised a Town Hall meeting in Gosforth to discuss the Council’s plans for Blue House roundabout, which were dropped after significant public opposition.

This meeting highlighted Chi’s point that people are most engaged with planning decisions when they disagree. She speculated that digital technology could offer a way of engaging people without first making them angry.

Making meetings inclusive is also important: the people who attended the Blue House roundabout meeting in August “didn’t have childcare or other care responsibilities at that time, and who knew about it, because we put out a few fliers, but I mainly tweeted about it.

“You need to have different ways of engaging with different demographics: those who work evenings, those who have childcare responsibilities, those who aren’t on the internet or don’t use it that much.”

Opening up an online platform for discussion of planning issues could help to balance the difficulties people may face in attending physical meetings, but this is then dependent on internet access. “I think there’s the potential for digital technology to play a really important role in engaging people,” Chi said, adding that she hadn’t yet “seen any really engaging or compelling applications that really do help us out”.

One example of success in this area of engagement is the games industry – “nobody ever has to pay people to play games” – and Chi hoped that this level of engagement could also be achieved in apps and platforms that encourage people to get involved in planning and local decision making.

Whether through games or anger, getting local people involved in planning decisions is a key aim for both Chi and Open Lab’s digital civics researchers. The Blue House roundabout controversy showed the crossover of planning, transport and technology that Chi feels so passionately about.

Big Draw jigsaw

A key digital civics theme is looking at new and alternative methods to allow easier participation in how people’s places change. Within this theme, digital local democracy, we are looking at how technology might help enable ‘planning’, the discipline of deciding land uses, to include more people in how their areas change.

One part of this is getting people involved in the planning process as early as possible. This is where visions of an area are shared, rather than the discussion of individual planning applications. Many people are forced to quickly understand what town planning is when they hear about a planning application, but to have a real say, these opinions need to be voiced at an early stage.

flyer, plain jigsaw pieces and coloured-in jigsaw pieces on a tableWith this in mind, Digital Civics at Open Lab (Newcastle University), Newcastle City Futures and Seven Stories collaborated on technology for the national Big Draw festival (the world’s biggest celebration of drawing) a few weeks ago, hosted at Seven Stories (the National Centre for Childrens Books). The Big Draw aims to enhance the “advocacy, empowerment and engagement” of people through drawing.

We saw an opportunity to combine planning, drawing, and digital technology. Drawing allowed the visitors to overcome some of the traditional barriers to getting involved with planning, such as having to write long letters and understanding long documents.

The technology was pretty simple: a traditional wooden jigsaw, lots of pens, and a Raspberry Pi (a credit card-sized computer). The children were encouraged to draw their visions of Newcastle on the pieces, and then explain their vision through talking about them.

The puzzle pieces were identified using an RFID tag (a technology which allows an object to be identified, frequently seen in contactless bank cards) embedded within the puzzle piece, which allowed audio clips to be associated with a puzzle piece.

3D model of NewcastleThe colourful puzzle came back with many varied visions of Newcastle and Gateshead. A five-hour barge trip along the Tyne and a colourful new bridge across the Tyne – painted in green, yellow, black, blue and purple – were just two of the ideas that emerged from the puzzle. These ideas will soon be available to view on a dedicated website.

The puzzle will also be used as part of the Metro Futures project, allowing anyone to design their perfect Metrocar, and explain their design to the world. If you’d like to have a play with the puzzle, you’ll find it at one of these Metro Future events.


If anyone would like to make their own puzzle machine, they can download the design here: openlab.ncl.ac.uk/gitlab/alexander.wilson/puzzle. For more information please contact Zander Wilson.

Citizen Tagger: A new way to annotate audio content

Citizen Tagger is a mobile platform that facilitates the tagging of audio-based chat-show content. Users can listen to a pre-recorded show or a live show (for example, one run using Citizen Radio), and add unstructured text or audio tags as they listen to the show.

This process of social tagging can then be used to categorize the content within the chat show more easily, and help future listeners of the show find information they are looking for more easily.

This project was inspired by previous work which has explored the role of audio-based approaches to annotate information that could be useful for low-literate users in resource-constrained settings. Social tagging (a community of users applying free-form tags to digital objects) was investigated as a way to give listeners of chat shows an additional role in knowledge production.

Citizen Tagger is Android-based and is supported by a Python Flask enabled backend. The application prompts users to create regular tags as they are listening to shows that are listed within the application (or when they are taking part in a community-run radio show hosted by a Citizen Radio user). The application allows users to configure their tagging experience by changing the frequency of the tagging prompts and their preferred audio-tag length.Citizen Tagger

As part of the prompts, users were encouraged to summarise the section of the show they had just listened to. Criteria for assessing tag quality was necessary as free-form tags were allowed by the application, and these criteria included word frequency (analysing words that are used across the tag dataset), tag conciseness (tags that use less space to get their message across are rated higher), and tag objectivity (how much of the user’s interpretation is present in the tag content).

Through an iterative design process, Citizen Tagger underwent a rapid prototyping and testing phase over a four-week period. The users listened to and tagged chat shows and were interviewed afterwards. The application was improved using observational notes, logs and bug reports that emerged in this phase.

After the prototyping process, Citizen Tagger was further refined and deployed with 16 individuals, recruited through an opportunistic sampling approach, who tagged a panel discussion. Based on usage statistics, created tags, and the use of other qualitative data, the experience of tag creation using manual tagging and tagging prompts was assessed. Questions around how to configure tagging-related parameters were investigated, and how to motivate users to create effective tags.

The findings indicate that users subjectively understood that tagging experience, and expressed a desire to be able to configure it to their own needs. When doing a tag quality analysis, audio tags were more popular and allowed greater expression from users.

The study also highlighted the balance required between the effort required to tag, and the enjoyment of listening to the show. To many, tagging was a cognitively demanding task. The project explored these themes and suggested some design implications that emerged as a result for future work in this area.


For Delvin‘s blog on volunteering and for contact details, find him at www.delv.in