By Ronald Macintyre
Sitting on the boat in Gott bay in Tiree I can see familiar faces from Tiree Tech Wave pass. The 4 hour journey to Oban affords time for me to reflect on the Tech Wave experience if not sound enough internet to upload it onto the blog. I suppose one of the key things I have been thinking about how a Tech Wave fits with the broader aims of Open Educational Practices Scotland. For this I think it is important to say a little about the Tech Wave, its form, its function and its participants. Alan Dix is the convener and inspiration for the event, he works at the University of Birmingham in Human Computer Interactions. He also happens to live on Tiree and during the introduction which took place in the livestock ring of the local Mart he explained he wanted to take ideas and thinking that were on the edge of disciplines to the geographic edge. As he spoke the phrasing made me think of a long past programme Iomairt aig Oir (Initiative at the Edge) programmes that looked to develop creative ideas at the edges, bottom up. The people who came to the event were people whose interest in technology, art, society, design, creativity, meant they often sat uncomfortably within their academic institutions and/or their work contexts. I do not want to over emphasise the outsider perspective as it is relative, but the outsider status is certainly emphasised by the location. I could see how it worked for the participants away from distractions and in a context people felt would inspire their work.
Like a lot of hack type events it was unstructured with people working away on their own stuff, often absorbed in their own or huddled round their own or someone else’s screen. The only activities that really seemed to break out of this pattern was the MSc students from Cardiff who were working on developing an automated sandwich machine, and the team from Cardiff who were doing outreach work with older people in the community around dementia. They were sewing “dementia pockets”, interactive works that combined fabric and technology, on that day the rural centre was abuzz with people sewing. I suppose this lead to my question, one can see the benefits to the community that attend the event, the off island community who come on a creative retreat. However, it is not clear how the “local” community benefit from the presence of these creative people. For example, there was lots of people working on open data, but I was uncertain how connected it was to the data needs of the island. This stimulated some interesting discussions about the orientation of open data, with the participants I spoke to noting that open data was often driven by the data and its owners and not the end users and their needs.
Attendees all felt being open was not enough, it had to be about ensuring what was being released openly was used and useful, it was about “end users”. While the values were explicit, the question was how to develop mechanisms and approaches to enable potential island participants to engage in the design of these systems. While people are drawn by the islands location and the thought provoking leadership of Alan Dix, I am not sure it is realising the full potential for people on the island, and if it is not reaching them, then it cannot be realising the potential opportunities for those that come to the island. How might these be addressed? Perhaps the addition of a more structured series of activities to mediate interactions and to draw in the broader community, creating a space where people might work together. The community, its opportunities and its challenges become central to the approach, and we then start to focus less on content and more on the process whereby two communities meet and exchange – a remote rural community and a technology community. The “dementia pockets” suggest a way forward, but clearly more possibilities exist. I know I am not the only one wondering about these possibilities and I think over the Winter and in preparation for the next event we might look at how we might develop this idea – watch this space as they say.
Looking back on the above text written between Tiree and Oban (thanks CalMac wifi) I see a pattern emerge. While I do not want to lean too heavily on the ambiguity of open, I think my reflections are an extension of a series of posts here where I wonder about what it means to open up the academy, what it means to blur the boundaries, seek and accept open as being about more than licence, content and releasing things into the wild. Thinking about how we unpick the assumptions and the process that lead to things being released and how some the embedded process may lead to some people being excluded. I suppose where I am coming to is seeing a key affordance of open as being about participation.