Fossbox came together as a critical technology group in 2005 to take forward research outcomes into sustained community action. Our initial mission was to explore, advocate, and develop the use of free and open technologies for social change. As the years have passed and DIY technologies running on ‘string and sealing wax’ have given way to sophisticated ‘software as a service’ (SaaS) platforms, our mission has become less focused on advocacy and the development of practical tech solutions and more on the way that technology increasingly permeates our lives in ever more seamless and less visible ways.
As SaaS platforms proliferated and the Silicon Valley giants grew in influence we became increasingly concerned about the lack of openness and accountability and so, around a decade ago, we began exploring issues of privacy and control of technology in economy and society with researchers, artists, and communities. With the rise of data-driven influencers, technologies of ‘frictionless’ urban infrastructure, and mass surveillance – both corporate and governmental – as well as ‘trolling’ and online abuse, we began working to promote critical engagement with technology in society and techniques for staying safe online.
We take these themes into our research collaborations and work with researchers and innovative artists to find new ways of bringing technological concepts into everyday discourse so that they can be openly discussed as social issues. More recently, we are engaging with the ‘gig economy’ and precarity both within and beyond the creative sector.
Fossbox wanted to take forward discussions we had been having with Autonomous Tech Fetish (ATF) and Furtherfield Commons and some activist workshops we took part in organised by the Tactical Tech Collective Gender & Tech Popup Institute into a more focused exploration of the issues around sexuality, gender and surveillance and to develop small, practical actions to begin to secure ourselves but also develop a better understanding and a more collectivised civil response. We ran a programme of workshops with ATF at the Common House and Furtherfield Commons in 2015 using film, music, and skills workshops to develop awareness of the sophistication of corporate tracking and to begin to develop discussions and techniques for taking more control of digital space. Charles Hutchins composed a sonification of Mozilla’s ‘lightbeam‘ extension which shows how trackers connect you as you move through cyberspace – even we were a little astonished by the results! We have been running exploratory workshops with ATF and the Anti-University since then.
In 2009, Fossbox brought together a group of women interested in co-design, digital arts, and coding to exchange knowledge, spark new ideas, and to support women in gaining confidence in using technology and code in art and design as well as art and design in technology. As Creative Entrepreneur in Residence at QMUL School of Business and Management, funded by CreativeWorks London KE Hub/AHRC Paula was able to take this forward supported by QMUL, the British Computer Society (BCS), The National Museum of Computing (TNMOC), Google and Société Générale. Working with a team of volunteers recruited from ECRs and creative industries we created a successful conference in the first year (2012) building in the second year to an international event with 80 responses to CfP and 200+ participants with presenters from throughout EMEA, Asia and Latin America. We also partnered with OU, Brunel, Bournemouth Arts and created spin-off hack events at TNMOC and BCS. This work made a significant contribution to EECS at QMUL’s Athena SWAN award in 2012 and BCS is still running the ‘career tasters’.
The Starting from Values project was one of seven recently funded in a call for developing different ways of investigating the legacy of Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) Connected Communities projects. The project has led to new ways of defining ‘legacy’, lending legitimacy and authority to previously unheard or less ‘tangible’ legacies of Connected Communities projects, and contributes to wider questions on shared values, authority and legacies in collaborative research projects. Fossbox’s Director was a community co-investigator on the project.
Fossbox has subsequently used adaptations of the methodology to evaluate various projects including The Cultural Capital Exchange Exchange network funded by HEFCE and ACE which enables artists, cultural and creative SMEs and ECRs to collaborate on research and enrich the ecology between the arts, creative industries and Universities. Fossbox set up a digital collaboration platform which was used also to embed reflection on legacies and to provide data on participation as it develops as well as workshops to explore the less tangible legacies of the project for participating ECRs and creative SMEs.
Scaling up co-design research and practice was a research project aiming to unleash and build upon the intrinsic capacities of communities, community organizations and academic institutions in order to scale up their co-design practices and ultimately extend their reach and impact. It was funded by the AHRC Connected Communities scheme. Fossbox joined the project as a technological transformation consultant. Our focus was not only on how effective use of technology could amplify and disseminate co-design practices but also on the use of technology in research collaboration.
We took forward some practical collaborations from the partnership:
Blackwood interactive map application: We had worked with Blackwood as part of the Scaling Up project to use blended techniques to build participation in their interactive assistive technology design forum. We also explored the viability of using sensor data to automate mapping of accessible navigation for wheelchair uses on the Open Street Map (OSM) by automatically tracking and uploading data about routes and terrain. Blackwood subsequently consulted Fossbox about developing a mapping project which would allow greater rationalisation of existing services and a simple, interactive, approach to keeping information updated whilst freely and simply searchable by the public – who can also add their own local knowledges to the live map.
Hublink: Fossbox also developed a collaboration with Lisa Haskell, then a PhD student at Bournemouth University. We worked with Lisa to develop Hublink, a participatively designed and custom built networked database supporting a consortium of local Information, Advice and Advocacy organisations to deliver local services collaboratively. The consortium is lead by Real, a non-profit run by disabled people, for disabled people, working together to give disabled people the same choices and opportunities as everyone else. The consortium bid successfully for a Local Authority contract and this work is now supported by the live database.
Whilst obviously nothing is 100% secure, the design of both databases foregrounds user control and data privacy. Hublink is used to record sensitive information about vulnerable users and is designed to ensure that data about a service user can only be accessed by the caseworker assigned to a case and cannot be accessed through collusion by external companies or agencies without the knowledge of its actual owners and operators. Reporting data is anonymised.
Technology and Social Action was a collaborative research project to foster dialogue and collaboration between activists in social movements, voluntary and community organisations and technology designers. It was funded under the Designing for the 21st Centuryinitiative of the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the Engineering and Physical Science Research Council.
A follow-on 2-year project Practical Design for Social Action (PRADSA) was funded under the second round of the Designing for the 21st Century call for proposals, and began in March 2007.
Fossbox worked strategically with arts and community organisations to advocate and support the use of Free and Open Source Software for positive technological transformation. At one point, we explored the possibility of creating a custom Ubuntu-based ‘distro’ to provide an ‘out of box’ operating system for struggling community and arts organisations – and hence our name FOSSBox.
We worked with a wide range of groups including Counterpoints Arts, Centred LGBTQ Charity, and Furtherfield Galleries membership management support. Furtherfield supports a consortium of small arts organisations reaching diverse communities and audiences but lacking resources to develop and grow. Fossbox worked with Furtherfield to build fundraising capacity by providing networked access to a collaborative membership database based on CiviCRM.