This blog post is to announce a one-off event being held at the University of Edinburgh in September 2012. The event has secured funding from the University’s Challenge Investment Fund, and it aims to bring together people from different backgrounds who share an interest in providing technology-based solutions to the difficulties faced by people with autism spectrum disorders, and their families and friends. We’re tentatively calling the event – and any project that grows out of it – AWARE, which is a contraction of “autism software” but also references the way in which we want our future work to be tightly bound to the real life needs of people with ASD, and to the requirements of the commercial sector. You can find out more about the event here, and please do get in touch if you would like to attend, though places are very limited.
The idea of developing work in partnership with a private company often induces fear in academics. It can be tricky aligning research and commercial concerns. However, I am a pragmatist and while I aim always to meet the highest scientific standards in my research, I also think that applied work needs to be just that – applied. An idea for a therapeutic aid or educational tool is no good if it doesn’t result in a product, and the product is no good if it doesn’t reach the consumer who stands to benefit. Working with a commercial partner permits an idea with strong theoretical grounding to be converted into a creative, glossy product, quickly, and then in turn evaluated using a rigorous research design to eliminate bias. Moreover, by working together universities and private companies can access third party funding to support the work.
Of course, there is value in approaching the limits of what technology can do, in order to provide the foundations of work for the future. ECHOES is a great example of this – the creators are frank about the fact that the technology they are using (very large touchscreens with highpowered computers) is not accessible to families or even schools. But their work is exploring what technological approaches might look like in the future. Plus a lot of the participatory design techniques, evaluation methods and lessons learned during the project have been of great value to my own project, helping me to avoid various pitfalls and complete our app on time. So it is not my intention to say that all academic study should result in a publicly available product – but I do think if your stated goal is to provide a support or service for a vulnerable group, you have a duty to turn that research into something tangible, and available.