OpenLab : designing tech to transform lives

Pete Wright introduces Open Lab. Based in the Urban Sciences Building on Newcastle Helix, Open Lab is a research group at Newcastle University that has been breaking ground in human computer interaction, and designing technology that helps to transform people’s lives.

What is Human Computer Interaction?

Human Computer Interaction (HCI) is designing digital technology with people in mind, making sure that technology works best for the people who use it. At Open Lab we take that a step further, and design technology with the communities it is intended to benefit – known as co-production.

The challenge of human-centered design is to identify ways of working effectively with so-called ‘end users’ – people who use the technology – whether they are individuals, families, communities, or organisations.

Through this approach, research is not something that is done to people or on people. Rather it is research that is done with people.

Using this method of co-production, we have helped communities commission and design their own apps through App Movement. This included working with Newcastle United Foundation to keep children fit with ThinkActive and helped new mothers find breastfeeding-friendly venues through the app Feedfinder.

What is Open Lab?

Originally known as the Digital Interaction Group, Open Lab formed in 2007. 12 years on we have grown from around 20 researchers to over 100, and are now based in the School of Computing at the Urban Sciences Building on Newcastle Helix.

At Open Lab we embody the spirit of interdisciplinary research. Many of our researchers have backgrounds in healthcare, community arts, urban planning, education, psychology and more.

We create technologies that are both online and offline, and even have our own Maker Space including 3D printers, laser cutters and other tools to create physical technologies, from artistic pieces to wearable tech for people with Parkinson’s.

Much of Open Lab’s work falls under its digital civics theme which is about designing digital technologies that help individuals, local communities, and third sector organisations have a stronger voice in public services, and local democracy.

Open Lab’s Digital Civics funding includes the EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training in Digital Civics, training 55 PhD students 2014-2022 and the Digital Economy Research Centre, employing 25 postdoctoral researchers across faculties in Newcastle and Northumbria universities.

Our digital civics projects explore ways to deliver public services in a more resilient way. We believe that working with citizens as active co-producers of research is the key to this transformation.

Through this radical interdisciplinary approach, our projects connect with many of Newcastle University’s core research strengths from ageing and health to data and cities.

In 2017 we created the app Ticket to Talk with the School of Education – an app that helps young people interact with elderly relatives who are suffering with dementia, which was recently showcased on the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy website.

We have also undertaken projects alongside the Urban Observatory, the largest set of publicly available real-time urban data in the UK, giving people the chance to find out about air pollution on their street – putting data in the hands of the people who matter.

However, our reach goes beyond the North East. We have worked alongside the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies helping them to use participatory video in their monitoring and evaluation. We also have a research lab in Athens, called Open Lab Athens, working in Greece.

Research in Athens revealed that the solidarity movements in Athens were using SMS as their primary means of communication to organise volunteers running food banks, clinics and schools. In response, we created IRIS messenger, a service that allows individuals to make a donation of SMS credit to the social movements.

What’s next for Open Lab?

Along with many projects working with local communities, the NHS, large international NGOs and more. Open Lab is working on our UKRI Network+ Social Justice through the Digital Economy initiative Not Equal.

Network+ brings together academics, businesses, public sector organisations, professional and voluntary and community groups and will aim to look for ways to better design and implement technology to support social justice and fairness in people’s everyday lives.

Last week we launched the Not Equal project that will bring together academics, businesses, public sector organisations, professional and voluntary and community groups to look for ways that technology can be better designed and implemented to support social justice and fairness in people’s everyday lives.

Over the next year Open Lab will continue to develop human-centred design, co-production methods, and social and community technologies that support Newcastle University’s research vision.

We strive to work locally and globally alongside citizens to deliver technology that solves real world problems, and enhances their lives.

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