Fear and loathing in Bab-Vegas

I recently found myself back in familiar Newcastle  territory with fellow LiSC folks Shaun, Conor and Sanne for the ‘Food for Thought’ workshop at the DIS2012 conference. The workshop involved the ethnographic study of drinking large quantities of beer and eating nasty kebabs on the edgy streets of Newcastle, a somewhat unusual workshop activity but a necessary one! To find out more about DIS2012 follow the #dis2012 hashtag for the latest tweets as the main conference is running at the time of this post.


Myself and Shaun arrived in Newcastle early Sunday evening, promptly dumped our bags at the hotel and winged it to Brewdog’s swish bar which was just a few minutes’ walk away. A few staple Punk’s were demanded and supped as we contemplated how we might be able to stay there for the rest of the night in true #brownbottle style…….Sanity prevailed and we met up with workshop organisers Jaz Choi, Rob Comber and Conor Linhean along with a few other workshop attendees and undertook a 30 minute mini-tour of the local drinking and kebab ghettos. This was to get a real feel for Newcastle’s infamous ‘party town’ culture, which includes a combo of booze, semi-nakedness and fast-food, not necessarily in that order either.

When in Rome……..So, the usual suspects went out for some beer and the notion of procuring a kebab at some point in the night. I did quite well at the drinking part, culminating in drinking some Hardcore IPA at Brewdog, of which Shaun & Conor also had a try, along with a few pints of Dead Pony to tick the session over. While heading back to the hotel, we went on a mission to find a kebab house but failed – have to say I was bitterly disappointed. This was especially so when we bumped into a few clearly inebriated chaps in the hotel foyer, bouncing off each other like pinballs in a tiny hotel lift, but happened to be laden with swag in the form of pizzas and kebabs. These were high-value ethnographic subjects. In the end I settled for the last bag of steak McCoys from the vending machine, whilst Shaun looked on in utter dismay.


Next morning the treacherous hill was negotiated to the main Newcastle campus, then picked up our gigantic conference badges (which incidentally had tracking sensors embedded in them??) and setup shop at the workshop. In the morning we were treated to some great presentations from researchers and students, including @uniLincoln student Chris Borrowdale and ex-LiSC intern Sanne Verbaan who have both worked on food-related projects at LiSC. Sanne is currently working on a satellite project of the large Eat, Cook, Grow project, a collaborative effort managed by the Australian Urban Informatics group with LiSC a research partner, more info here.

Other work presented included ‘towards interactive recipe instructions’ by Lucy Buykx which was nice research in unpicking recipe interactions to understand how to improve their design. Chris Borrowdale presented on using social media platforms and photographic diaries to offer better reflection on one’s diet over time. Another interesting project presented was #FoodMood, a sentiment analysis engine and visualisation tool for measuring and gauging global food sentiment.

In the afternoon we had further presentations and discussion and finished the day off with an interactive activity that looked at the main challenges around designing healthy food interventions and potential solutions to address them. In true LiSC tradition we jumped on developing our usual inexcusable puns and came up with a few playful concepts:

FatNav:A recommender app that analyses your location checkins and offers ‘healthier’ alternatives, FatNav buys into the ‘serendipitous discovery’ concept from another LiSC project – GetLostBot – by Ben Kirman.

FaceBab: Bab or not? How much do you resemble a kebab? A photo app that encourages the concept of ‘you are what you eat’.

Ale-I: Using our intelligent Ale-I (AI) algorithm and app you can comfortably track your drinking habits whilst on a night out – no longer do you have to remember how many pints you had.

On a more serious note we had thoughts around the physical and interaction design space inside fast-food outlets, and how we could potentially introduce healthier eating habits around unhealthy food. This involved a adopting a ‘rating’ system for junk food that had local authority buy-in. Basically you *could* buy a 5* kebab, depending on the recommended guidelines the fast-food outlet has implemented. For instance guidelines could include the food tray being compartmentalised to 3 divisions, colour coded food portions would be on offer with the more unhealthier options in red, with healthier options in orange and green. If you went for 3 ‘reds’ then your food tray would be coloured red, making your unhealthy food choice highly visibleand  introducing peer feedback, you could also gain healthy/unhealthy points through a loyalty scheme. This was just one a few ideas produced at the workshop that worked towards addressing the headline food intervention challenges below:

  • (In)visibility of tradition, production, and consumption (inc. personal consumption)
  • Culinary diversity and marketing including more mobile food / non-alcoholic drinks outlets (licensing)
  • Space provision for small groups and resting in urban environments (town planning / urban design)

Designing food interventions is an extremely challenging area of research, and has many parallels in the research of completely different interventions such as reducing domestic energy. Having a deeper understanding of negative lifestyle practices through critical reflection is an encouraging design approach and I’m sure will open up new innovation in the design space.



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