We can be (Digital) Heroes

Photo credit: Hardware hacking at Interact Labs, picture courtesy Sean Clark

I’ve been joined by two of the nominees in the Talk Talk Digital Heroes Awards 2015, Sean Clark and Brian Negus. The Digital Heroes Awards recognise inspirational people who are using digital technologies and the Internet to bring about positive social change.
Who are you, and what do you do?
Sean: My name is Sean Clark. I do a number of things - we are currently in my office in Loughborough for a company I run called Cuttlefish. We’re a web design and mobile phone app developer. I also do a lot of work in Leicester, and that’s typically based around my arts and technology interests, where I run a space called Interact Labs which is located at the Phoenix Cinema. That’s an experimental space for people wanting to explore technology from a creative angle. We encourage artists and technologists to come in, work together and explore things - make artworks, have experiments, and that sort of thing. I’ve worked in multimedia, new technology and digital arts for probably over twenty years now.
Brian: I’m Brian Negus, and I’m a retired IT director. I’m registered blind and have been for a long time. I’ve been really fortunate that as I’ve lost my sight, I’ve been able to exploit technology to help me stay in employment and do something useful. Now I’m retired, I’m particularly passionate to help others have that same advantage. I’m working in partnership with Vista, which is the local sight loss charity for Leicestershire and Rutland. Vista have limited funds but can occasionally fund someone on a low income for a piece of technology.
What kinds of tech skills do you work with Vista to help blind people to pick up?
Brian: They provided a totally blind guy with an iPad. I then went in and met him and we are now on a course of training. But what really made me so happy was that this guy has never used any IT before in his life. He’s a retired truck driver - retired because he went blind, of course. By the end of the first session, he had sent his very first email. That is just so good. You really can make huge differences - we were talking about exclusion, and before he was totally excluded from the world of IT. From Facebook, from Twitter, from email. Now he is 100% included. Another of my examples is my totally blind friend with his guide dog, now also using his iPhone as a pedestrian satellite navigation tool. I wouldn’t recommend it to a totally blind person without a guide dog, as it’s not ever so good at finding safe places to cross the road, but you can see that combination working, can’t you. That’s totally brilliant.
How does Interact Labs help to bring technology and the arts together?
Sean: I was running a workshop yesterday at Phoenix, and we were doing simple circuits and LED lighting. A lot of the youngsters who came along were well under ten. They were primary school age. First of all, they’re fascinated by it - they want to make things, and put wires together and make lights light up. I was showing some of the more advanced ones how to control lights using Arduinos. There was a ten year old boy there who after seeing what I had done took my circuit apart, re-assembled it and made a sound to light unit - you tap on a microphone and make lights go on. He was just ten years old. I’m thinking one of the problems with what we teach kids at school is that many of them will go beyond what the teachers can do, and at a much earlier age than you might expect. This ten year old, none of his teachers could really support him in developing his IT skills because they weren’t IT specialists themselves. So Scratch is great, but how do you support people to go beyond that, the more able if you like, who want to do serious programming yet they’re still at primary school. I think there’s a big problem there.
Sean: I’m an artist myself, I create digital artworks. I also believe that artists are amongst the best people to innovate with technology, because they have a thing they want to do, and that thing isn’t constrained by design requirements. Typically design has requirements, and as an artist you set your own requirements when it comes to an artwork. You have boundaries and limitations, but you set them - so an artist can be a great explorer of technology. If we look at the history of technology from photography, cinema, through computing and so on - it’s often been the artists that push it forward. I’ve seen examples of artworks created on 1950s computers, and on the whole the only people who had access to those computers were computer programmers, but the artists snuck in there and started experimenting with it.
What opportunities for a career working in digital technologies do you see emerging for the iPad generation?
Sean: I think a really interesting thing over recent years is that it is now possible to be a bedroom programmer and publish stuff that can be downloaded and looked at by millions.
Brian: And some of the apps that I am using were written precisely by such people.
Sean: I remember as a child there were bedroom programmers who released their software on cassette tape, and they could do everything - they wrote the program, did the graphics, put it onto tape and sold it. They did the lot. And we lost that for a while. There was a period of maybe twenty years where any programming job seemed to require a huge team, and you were always like a little cog in a big machine. And then with apps, and things you can exchange over the Internet, you can now do that again. You can become a complete programmer, sell a product, sell an app - and maybe even make some money out of it.
What one key message would you draw from your work on digital skills and digital inclusion?
Brian: The only way that these skills can be passed on is by creating a network of, I hope, mainly blind and partially sighted trainers but with obviously some sighted helpers in there as well. The notion of blind and partially sighted people helping themselves is so good and so rewarding for the people who go out there and do the training. I have to say I’ve had an enormous amount of fun out of it, and I’m sure you have too Sean. It’s enormously rewarding, and I just want to help more and more people to get that same reward.
Sean: Another really important thing is to remind people that whatever their skills are, they’re valuable - it’s not just because you know the latest piece of technology inside out and therefore you have a particularly valuable skill. At the hackspace it’s not just about the latest technology. There are people with knitting machines, there are people who turn up knowing about a piece of kit that hasn’t been sold for thirty years but is still interesting. It’s reminding people that these skills, whatever they are, are valuable skills and you can share them. You don’t have to just be a technologist.
Many thanks to Brian Negus and Sean Clark for all their fascinating and thought provoking contributions. You can find out more about their work by visiting digitalheroes.talktalk.co.uk (don't forget to vote!), or follow #digitalheroes on social media.

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