Archive | June 2013

Networking Communities

I’ve just started a summer research placement project with the Manchester Digital Laboratory – aka MadLab – and it’s already proving to be an eye-opener. The theme of our project is communities – which are MadLab’s raison d’être; but although I’ve heard people talking about it more than once over the past year, I have to admit I’ve never actually been there before now. Seeing the space and how it’s used is pretty inspiring. Around 50 groups use MadLab regularly, with many more hiring it for one-off or special events – performances, workshops, training sessions. At the same time, it’s friendly, down-to-earth and totally unpretentious, buzzing with a relaxed creativity that attracts groups as diverse as android developers, poets, and budding taxidermists, who drop in and out to share ideas, crack on with work, and generally have a nice time doing what they are passionate about with others who feel the same. It could be hard to find space otherwise. So, that’s the sales pitch, right? Well, actually, it’s entirely accurate. So it seems to me anyway. Finding useful and exciting ways to demonstrate what MadLab is all about using data, graphics, and the 9 days we have available to us, is what our MadLab Community Networking Project is all about. It’s going to be an interesting challenge!

Anna at the Wall

Mapping some of MadLab’s diverse communities

With input and advice from MadLab’s Dave Mee and DARE‘s David Jackson, graphic designer/researcher Anna Frew and myself are going to be gathering, organising and manipulating information about the techies, creatives and other enthusiasts who bring MadLab to life. What are the characteristics of these groups and what are the connections between them? Who and what drives them? How active are they and how do they intersect with public or private sector organisations elsewhere in the city? There are miriad ways to look at the data. Sifting through different sources and different types of documentation, we can identify what we know and what we need to know. Then we can start gathering information from the groups themselves, fleshing everything out and filling in the gaps. Our aim is to shed new light on MadLab, mapping and modelling the networks that operate inside and around it and making it clearer how they fit within its ecosystem. My task is to bring some structure to a bundle of data and metadata, and enrich it. After which, Anna will begin to create some at once beautiful and informative visualisations, giving us multiple perspectives on MadLab’s communities. Naturally this will all end up online at some point. Or so I imagine. The details aren’t yet entirely clear since we’re only just getting started. If you want to know more about our emerging workflows and thought-processes, please do go over to Anna’s blog and read her excellent write-up of what we’ve been doing in Weeks 1 and 2.

Dave's notepad

There are multiple ways to diagram…

For me, the project is a great opportunity. It provides a pathway to learning more not just about data visualisations, which have interested me for a while, but also about the challenges involved in creating and maintaining communities, and the value that organisations like MadLab can bring to a city. As you can see, Post-It notes and brain-storming will be just as important as databases and JavaScript to our workflow! Soon we should have a dedicated space on Tumblr, and eventually an article about the project will appear in the TACIT journal although we have a lot of work to do before then! Please do check back here for updates and let us know if you’re a MadLab member who wants to help us out [madlabcommunityproject at].

Hej, Sweden!

A trip to Gothenburg, Sweden’s second largest city, with one of the world’s most beautiful coastlines, was just what I needed after going far too long without a proper holiday! Staying with a friend made it all the more special since getting an inside perspective always provides a far richer experience than relying on websites and a Lonely Planet guide – not that those aren’t great too of course. Highlights of the trip included sunbathing for hours between the rocks while a gentle sea breeze blew all around, and tasting the various baked goodies on offer at Tjörn’s superb sourdough bakery. I really had forgotten how good it is to forget all about working! 🙂 Inevitably we stuffed ourselves with some of the amazing fish and seafood that Sweden is renowned for. Sjöbaren restaturant in the old part of town has a great selection. Personally, I would recommend their “Wallenberger of the sea” (which I think is egg yolks, cream and ground fish?) with asparagus and flavoured mashed potato. The staff are also really friendly and don’t mind taking some time to explain their menu to you.

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At Röhsska Museum of fashion, design & applied arts, we wandered through an interesting mixture of permanent collections and temporary exhibitions. “Ond Design”, or “Evil Design”, was particularly intriguing. The objects on display are either “designed to harm” or can be “linked to evilness through events that can be called bad”. This means everything from machetes, nazi flags and explosive devices designed to look like children’s toys, to clothes made in sweatshops, consumer electronic goods that harm the environment, and products tested on animals. Röhsska also has a great collection of Japanese statues and a plethora of furniture and glass. Nordiska Akvarellmuseet (the Watercolour Museum) on Tjörn was really worth seeing. Yes, their exhibition on Alice Neel was fascinating – but the setting and the design of the museum itself were equally memorable. Sitting snugly amongst the island’s houses and shellbanks, the museum is bright red and typically Swedish, with relaxing views over the water and studios for both artists and researchers to create and contemplate.

Gothenburg is full of cheerful and beautiful people and it’s hard not to think that some clichés about Sweden are true. Still, not everything is predictable. I was surprised to find that it has a fair few little sushi bars, all of which cater for vegetarians as well as lovers of squid and raw tuna. Another unexpected treat came in the form of some local bagpipers, whose music drifted up through the park one sunny afternoon. Formed in 1976, the Murray Pipes and Drums of Gothenburg play “everything from christenings to funerals” and their founder was himself trained by a genuine Scotsman, somewhere near the banks of Loch Lomond.

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It was kind of cool to be in Gothenburg for various nationally significant events. First, Sweden’s national holiday brought everyone to the park with picnics and surreptitious bottles of wine; then, the national football team lost 2-1 to Austria during a qualifying match for Brazil 2014. But at least a Royal Wedding (which seemed to put even Kate and William’s in the shade) gave everyone reason to celebrate again. Amusingly, the groom was a British-born American who speaks barely any Swedish and who seemed to understand just about as much of the ceremony as I did!

Little Green

People often refer to Chorlton, where I live now in Manchester, as “leafy” or green – and to be sure, on a sunny day, it is certainly one of the nicer places to be. The scents of flowers and plants drift through the streets from various front gardens and parks to provide a reassuring sense that here at least, nature is asserting herself just a little. Still, moving between two cities throws up inevitable comparisons, and back in Glasgow for a few days, I couldn’t help but think that there is nowhere quite like the city’s beautiful West End, which really does come alive on a warm day (20 degrees Celsius!) with a combination of urban modernity and lovingly maintained foliage that most cities would really envy.

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Well, Glasgow does mean “dear green place” after all. Or something like that. Maybe I’m getting nostalgic! Who would have thought I’d get more of a suntan North of the Border than down here? 🙂