Digital citizenship and beyond

We talk to Rachel Pattinson who manages digital research and social innovation programmes at Open Lab. Our conversation covered how emerging technologies can support citizens, the importance of tech for good and inspiring women into academic computing roles, and the new Centre for Digital Citizens (CDC),

Tell us more about Open Lab and its research.

Open Lab is a world-leading Human Computer Interaction research group in the School of Computing at Newcastle University. We offer a new perspective on interaction design and ubiquitous computing. We're really interested in how technologies can empower communities and the role that digital plays in civic life.

A brand new £9m Centre for Digital Citizens (CDC) was announced late last year, part funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). Tell us more about this collaboration and the aims of the project.

The Centre for Digital Citizens is a Next Stage Digital Economy Centre, led by Newcastle University and Northumbria University and working with partners at UCL and Edinburgh.

Through this five-year programme we’ll be exploring the emerging challenges of digital citizenship and how communities can be part of designing the technologies that they use. Using participatory design and co-creative approaches, our research will focus on data-driven technologies and platform technologies. We’re aiming to deliver new kinds of digital innovation that support citizens.

How will the CDC explore public health and wellbeing, community engagement, citizen safety and lifelong learning?

The Centre for Digital Citizens focuses on four Citizen Challenge Areas: the Well Citizen, the Connected Citizen, the Safe Citizen and the Ageless Citizen.

As digital transformation continues to change the society that we live in we're asking questions such as:

  • How can data and digital technologies help us to live well?
  • How can we design digital-first public services inclusively for people who are digitally marginalised?
  • How can citizens keep safe online? And how can we challenge ageism in technology?

We’ll be exploring these questions through pilots delivered by the Citizen Challenge Areas.

The CDC brings together 28 academics and 18 post-doctoral researchers working with citizens to co-design new products and services. What impact will this have on society, our people and the economy?

We hope that the Centre develops an evidence base to support responsible research and development in technology and that it's a catalyst for digital social innovation here in the North East and beyond.

Our post-doctoral Innovation Fellows will be developing their knowledge of civic technologies through delivering activities for the Centre for Digital Citizens, and we hope that they will go on to become leaders in this field.

The OpenLab is based on Newcastle Helix in the Urban Sciences Building. How does being part of this eco-system support your research and work?

The Urban Sciences Building is home to the School of Computing at Newcastle University and Open Lab collaborates with this wider group of computing researchers, who are doing really ground-breaking work.

Being on the Newcastle Helix site means that we are also surrounded by some incredible organisations. We work closely with the National Innovation Centre for Ageing, who are based at The Catalyst, and we also engage with businesses at The Core. Some of our teaching happens at the Frederick Douglass Centre, too, so we are embedded and connected with lots of different parts of the Newcastle Helix community.

Newcastle Helix The USB
Newcastle Helix The USB

The vision on Newcastle Helix is to help people live smarter and healthier lives. How does your work support this vision?

As a ubiquitous computing lab, we're interested in lots of different kinds of technology and how they have an impact on peoples’ lives. A number of our researchers focus on digital health too: from projects around XR technologies to support those living with dementia, to assessing how wearable technology can support people living with chronic health conditions.

You are co-located alongside Urban Observatory, which hosts the largest set of publicly available real-time urban data in the UK and adjacent to the National Innovation Centre’s for both Data and Ageing. How do you collaborate?

The Urban Observatory is an amazing resource. The Director of the Urban Observatory, Professor Phil James, is one of the Co-Investigators on our Centre for Digital Citizens programme and he's leading the data-driven technologies strand of our work. We've also previously collaborated on projects like Sense my Street, where we developed a toolkit to enable local people to put sensors onto their streets and collect data on things like noise, weather, traffic and air quality to inform and suggest changes for their communities.

Citizen-led innovation is at the heart of what you do, how do you engage the public in your work?

I don't think you can be an effective human computer interaction lab without engaging with humans! We often work with people through partnership with other civic organisations. Over the last few years, Open Lab has worked collaboratively with around 200 different organisations, from local councils, to large tech companies, to small charities. Our research is very participatory and developed with the partners we’re engaging with.

You were recently named one of 100 top Tech Women in the 2020 Awards and are passionate about inspiring women into tech and computing roles and supporting them to do so. How can we address the under representation of women in this sector with some of the challenges they face?

Something that's struck me as someone new to the technology sector is the underrepresentation of women. I think a lot of digital businesses are trying to be as inclusive as possible but it's going to take time to see a gender balance in tech. And this has knock-on effects: from bias in the technologies that are developed, to a lack of women in digital leadership roles.

It was amazing to win a TechWomen100 award in 2020 after less than 18 months of working in a digital role. I try and think about ways that we can positively support, encourage, connect and promote women in the digital sector.

Newcastle has one of the fastest growing digital sectors outside of London. What assets do we have that are unique when compared to other UK cities?

The digital sector in the North East is really exciting - from the start-ups and scale-ups that have developed here, to large digital companies like Sage and Ubisoft who have bases in Newcastle. We also have several government digital services in the North East, and Newcastle Helix is home to the National Innovation Centre for Data.

But what I think is especially exciting about Newcastle is how collaborative and friendly the digital sector is, and how connected we are.

Finally, in a few words. What do you think makes Newcastle Helix special?

Newcastle Helix is a place of curiosity and innovation.

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