Erewhon workshop

On Friday December 5th we held our first Erewhon workshop — an opportunity for us to tell people about the aims of the project, get their feedback on some of our initial ideas, and give them a chance to make suggestions of their own. Despite a few last-minute cancellations we still had about 40 attendees (staff and students) — not a bad turnout for the last day of term!

The first half of the workshop was all about ‘setting the scene’, showing the technological landscape we’re working in. Tim started this off with a lively overview of the capabilities of smartphones, with demonstrations of a wide variety of tools on the iPhone, the G1 and the HTC TyTN — the aim being to show people just how much functionality is already available and in use now (and, by extension, what imagined possibilities might be reality by this time next year…). We wanted to make it clear that we’re not just talking about browsing the web on a small screen; we’re talking about the phone as a platform and an interface in its own right.

From the technological landscape we moved to the physical landscape, and our attempts to map it; I gave an overview of the work we’d done so far on ‘OxPoints’ (the original name for our fledgling geo database), the data we’d amassed, the simple services already available making use of that data (more about that on the handout — see link below), and the direction the new data model was taking; building on this, Sebastian then talked about some of the more exciting future possibilities for mapping, creating visualisations, and enhancing existing services.

Adam then gave a demonstration of what Sakai has to offer, and Tim explained some of the problems with the VLE for mobile users, and showed how mobile access to Sakai might work. As we’d hoped, Tim’s mockups of possible mobile interfaces sparked plenty of discussion, not just of the functionality but more philosophical issues — should a mobile interface be as close as possible to the ‘normal’ web interface, or should it be a different thing altogether? Would developing a separate mobile interface risk creating a ‘two-tier’ system where some users had access to functionality that others lacked?

Then came the real challenge — a group exercise designed to get people talking and thinking about the possibilities and problems. Groups were given a list of suggested applications or services making use of mobile technology and/or geolocation services, and asked to choose their top three (or add new suggestions of their own). For each choice they had to answer a couple of questions:

  1. Who will benefit? (e.g. lecturers, admin staff, students…)
  2. What are the prerequisites? For example, what information would be needed to make this idea work? What infrastructure would it need? What equipment would people have to get?

After a bit of industrious scribbling on index cards, the groups started discussing the ideas; it quickly became clear that the conversations were taking shape sensibly without our help, so as ‘facilitators’ we were able to stay fairly hands-off — this was exactly what we’d hoped for, to avoid steering people in the direction of our own preconceptions.

We’d had various worries when organising the workshop (not counting the normal pre-presentation nerves!), but the group work so far had shown that most of those fears were unfounded. The other risk was that there would be no useful consensus, that all we’d learn would be that different people all wanted different things (undoubtedly true, but not much help in terms of prioritising!) — but in fact it turned out that the choices clustered around a handful of ideas:

  • Show the location of wireless access points in the University; find the nearest University building with a wireless access point
  • Find the nearest copy of a book from a reading list (bearing in mind which libraries you can use, and the opening hours of libraries)
  • Find where seminars on Byzantine Studies are taking place today and direct you there by bike; estimate the time it will take for you to get there from where you are now
  • Find where Professor X is at this moment
  • Sign up for tutorials on your phone
  • Receive SMS alerts for courses and lectures
  • Locate the nearest seminar room which is free, bookable by my department
  • Access course materials that you can read/listen to on your mobile

The question of being able to pinpoint the location a specific person raised a lot of questions about privacy, of course; but it was reassuring to see that most of the suggestions that people liked were within the realms of possibility.

Overall I think we all felt the workshop was a success; attendees hopefully went away with some food for thought and ideas to take back to their colleagues, as well as useful ideas for using their mobiles (or good excuses to go out and buy a smartphone!), and we came away with reassurance that we’re going in the right direction, and some interesting ideas to think about.

Slides and supporting notes from the workshop are available on the project website, as well as a summary of feedback from attendees.

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