Thursday, February 13, 2014

Networking with Communities

My associate supervisor recently sent me some interesting information about couple of communities around the Brisbane region. So, I thought to visit them and check what is going on. One of them is a discussion group for software developers and the other is a hacker community who develop creative and new gadgets.

First it was the discussion group where I had to sign in for a discussion session through an online schedule. This was held in a commercial building in the Brisbane CBD. I was running to catch the lift in the building when a person held the lift door for me - surprisingly he was going to the same floor in this 30 story building! I got to know that he was the host for the discussion and I introduced myself and my research to him. Then he explained that they get together weekly or fortnightly to discuss about different projects that are going on – charity projects in particular. This meeting was about a website for a charity organization. They ask people who are interested in the software development to turn up and contribute their knowledge.

Most of the participants were software coders with a couple of exceptions of testers. However, Most of them were not professionals in their field. They do it as a hobby and keen to learn and contribute new stuff. After a short session about the website and they discussed about mechanics of the website. The main discussion was on how to solve technical issues in the website and how to improve it. Apart from this main discussion, there were mini-discussions going on about areas that are not related to the website such as latest trends in the industry, issues with their own projects, etc. They were sharing their knowledge and helping each other to solve their issues with regard to software development. I believed the informal and friendly atmosphere allowed them to express their ideas in a free manner. This resulted in interesting ideas which I thought would have not come up in a formal discussion setting.

The meeting place of the other community was located slightly away from CBD in an industrial area. I was worried when I get down from the bus (after a huge struggle to find the correct stop!!!) if I came to the correct place. But, luckily I saw their logo on a huge metal fence. I was greeted by a gentleman who took me around the place for a brisk tour. It was a huge area with number of workshops including wood work, metal work, blacksmith, food and 3D printing and games. They have some heavy machinery especially in the wood and metal work areas.

I saw a bunch of busy people working on laptops and electronics circuits when I was entering the 3D printing and games workshop. They have couple of 3D printers which can create designs using plastic based on the software sketches that are fed into them. I observed some of them are working on Arduino like kits also. Although I could not get a clear idea about the ongoing projects, I saw some of the gadgets are marked with project details. One of the technicians stated that "Once you are a member here, feel free to drop in and do whatever you like as long as it is in accepted boundaries." They have a highly informal and unconventional ways of developing gadgets. They described about a walking surveillance robot which is simply made using a laptop, webcam, wheel supported carrier for laptop that can be operated by a motor. They said that it is such a "crude" design! But I thought if it can do its job well that is all required - and plus it costs way less than a conventional robot, though it might not be pleasing to the eye

A 3D Printer
Another interesting fact was that they are having a BBQ on Tuesdays where people can get to know each other. They said that it is important to maintain the social aspect of the community through such events. It will help to develop healthy connections amongst the members in the long run. As you might have noticed this is one of the key aspects mentioned throughout my earlier discussions with number of parties. "Building and maintaining strong networks is the key".

On my walk back to catch the last bus to the train station around 6.15 pm, I was thinking if we need to provoke creative and new design ideas we need to create friendly environments through informal ways. It not only helps to create new and creative designs but also supports in developing strong networks. Typical classroom or design methods might not yield these advantages. Positive vibes from the visit seasoned the wonderful scenery of the Sun-set when I grabbed a seat in the city-bound train...

Monday, February 10, 2014

A "Surpirse Treat"

It was a busy day - a Friday. I was resting on the couch when I felt like checking my email from phone I saw a message titled "Affordable and easy to use communication technologies for people with MJD". I was delighted to know that it was a reply for a message I sent to MJD Foundation couple of months ago. Surely 'a surpirse treat' - enough to cool me down after the brisk walk from the uni. MJD foundation is the main body to facilitate Machado-Joseph Disease (MJD) affected people in Groote Eylandt. It is a non-profit organization which facilitates events across multiple areas such as research, education, equipment, advocacy and services. Research funded by this foundation is classified into curative (finding a cure for MJD) and QoL (improving lifestyle of MJD sufferers). This particular email was from an Occupational Therapist (OT) working closely with MJD foundation to aid MJD affected indigenous people in number of areas including Groote Eylandt. So, I replied her to arrange a Skype conversation to discuss about my project and her ideas.

I have started the discussion with an introduction to my project. She seemed to be excited about it and asked me how she can help. So, firstly I asked her about the requirements of the MJD affected people with regard to communication technologies. She gave a brief introduction about MJD without any medical jargon. Although I have already read most of the things she said (see My 1st Blog Post) it helped me to refresh my memory and of course to understand the diverse effects of MJD on people. She mentioned that these effects can be ranging from slight difficulties in walking to complete dysfunction of hands, legs and upper body. So, there are people with MJD who can still walk and those who are locked into wheelchairs. She noted that it will be important to focus on a specific group of people who suffer with similar physical limitations. Then, developing technologies for that particular group will be easy as we can focus more on their affordances.

An important aspect she mentioned is that MJD affected people in Groote are highly interested in using tablet computers - especially iPad. They are very keen to play simple games like bubble game on their iPads. Using games to engage the disabled people effectively in communication is one of the highlights from the earlier discussions as well. She stated that typing words using touch pad is sometimes difficult as people tend to drag their fingers across the screen. She said that they use Proloquo2Go software application which uses number of symbols, to communicate messages with a help of a text-to-speech engine. However, this application is quite expensive (~230 AUD) and it might be possible to develop a similar application for a much less or no price!

Main Interface of Proloquo2Go Software Application

I told her about the idea of using cushions as buttons to control a media player on an iPad. She said although there can be difficulties in neck motions, it might be an interesting avenue to research. They are yet to ascertain the ability of the MJD affected people to move head to control devices. However, this might be an appealing interface especially for people who are severely affected by MJD and have lost their limb movement capabilities.

It was interesting to know that people at Groote are fond of social networking sites like Facebook and online streaming sites like YouTube. This is a sign that the disabled people require something enjoyable and exiting to get involved in communication activities. The OT said that these activities are very useful to avoid these people been isolated from the others. I was glad to hear that there is an iPad initiative running in Groote which provides people with both physical and technical resources. Although they have a good 3G network coverage in the area it incurs a cost for usage.

So, it seemed that there are number of opportunities to provide the MJD affected people with more effective communication technologies. It is clear that although there are some difficulties, they have sufficient resources to adapt a new technology. Maintaining strong connections with OTs and other key people and authorities will be the cornerstone of developing technologies that can sustain for a long time period. Our OT said that she will convey about my research to the community at Groote and also possibly get back to me with some photographs of people using technical devices. When I have ended the Skype chat I realized that how important it is to understand the context when doing research that concerns humans!