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  • Katy Pallister

Maths and Computing Awardee 2020: Professor Yvonne Rogers

“When I got to university it just all lit up for me”

Professor Yvonne Rogers is a pioneer of ubiquitous computing, a field in human-computer interaction (HCI) concerned with technology that operates away from a desktop setting, such as mobile devices, wearable tech and public displays. Throughout her career, Rogers has investigated how we can use this technology in ways that inspire and encourage different groups; from children to the elderly. Rogers’ illustrious career has resulted in over 300 publications and an incredibly successful textbook on interaction design, but at the heart of it all is the desire to creatively bring together different disciplines to fuel enjoyment from technology.

Some of the foundations of Rogers’ work, such as fun and interdisciplinary thinking, have been a part of her life since she was a child. “When I was about eight years old, we went to Minehead for a school project - it was a week by the seaside on a biology field-trip. I went to a joke shop and bought a plastic fried egg and put that on the plate of my teacher. I'm very mischievous.”

“Further into my school career, I wanted to be an architect. I always saw myself as a polymath, as being many different things and having many different influences. But I went to a tough school and I left at 16 because I knew I wasn't going to go far. I discovered that I loved learning but I didn't know quite how to do it. Then when I got to university it just all lit up for me.”

“We have a book launch party like nothing else”

After studying for an undergraduate degree in psychology, and a master’s degree in ergonomics, Rogers continued down the ‘polymath’ route and completed a PhD in Human Computer Interaction. A few years later, Rogers became a Professor of Cognitive and Computing Sciences at Sussex University, where she wrote widely on different methodologies and theories of HCI. Ultimately, this led Rogers to co-author the textbook ‘Interaction Design: Beyond Human Computer Interaction’ with two of her close colleagues, Professor Jenny Preece and Professor Helen Sharp, which has sold over 250,000 copies and has been translated into six different languages.

“The first edition came out 20 years ago in 2001, and we're now on to our fifth edition. Every time it's published we have a book launch party like nothing else. They have become legendary as to how we sign the books; how many kisses I give a person depends on how many glasses of wine I’ve had! I give keynotes all over the world and I get students and instructors coming up to me saying ‘your book is so accessible and I really have learned from it.’ It’s something I'm very proud of - I'm not just doing my own research, I'm really thinking of the field and writing it in a way that makes it accessible.”

Whilst the textbook is a particular highlight of Rogers’ career, shortly after the publication of the first edition she faced one of the hardest challenges of her life. “My partner died suddenly and it really knocked me for six. We worked very closely together at Sussex University, and I realised I couldn't stay there. At that time, I had a really thriving group, loads of grants and projects, and was at the peak of my career. So, I stayed for a year and then I went to the States, and I got a job there as a chair in HCI in the Midwest. I literally arrived with a suitcase and started from scratch again. That was a huge challenge, and, although it took a while, I worked out how to get through it. I started with nothing and then I built up this HCI group, as well as a masters and PhD program. When I came back to the UK, I did the same at the Open University, I built up a group from scratch. Similarly, when I started at UCL, the group was quite small, and now we're three times as big. I have a way of just taking on these challenges to grow something special and that sort of stemmed from that tragedy in my life.”

“I've always loved collaborating and have always, where possible, had sabbaticals”

Now the director of the UCL Interaction Centre, Rogers has a catalogue of projects and papers that are at the forefront of ubiquitous computing; from the ‘ambient wood project’ that took 10–14-year-olds on field trips to use sensing tools ‘in the wild’, to a project with the English National Opera that used augmented reality to allow children to become characters on stage. “I've always loved collaborating and have always, where possible, had sabbaticals,” Rogers said. “I just think in doing so you come up different ideas and different things are possible than just working by yourself.”

One impactful collaboration has been with Professor Julie McCann of Imperial College London, who nominated Rogers for the Suffrage Science Award. “I met Julie at Number 10 Downing Street to sign a contract for a 10-million-dollar grant, funded by Intel, to look at sustainable connected cities. We worked together to do this amazing research thinking about ‘Internet of Things’ technology that could empower and allow communities to voice their opinions and technology that they could use to measure things about their environment. One particular project was called Roam-io where we wanted to collect data about tourism and how it's affecting the island of Madeira. Instead of just using automated tracking we designed tangible robots that people could come up to and answer questions. It was a very different way of thinking about data collection that is transparent, that is explainable, and that people are engaged with and curious about.”

Rogers and McCann outside 10 Downing Street.

“You can go incredibly far in academia but still have fun”

As well as collaborating with others, Rogers has been inspired by figures in academia, such as Professor Dame Celia Hoyles, Professor Dame Wendy Hall and Professor Uta Frith. “I mention those three because they have shown you can go incredibly far in academia but still have fun. I think it’s really important to remember that you don't have to emulate the male sort of approach, you can be yourself, you can have fun, and find a way to go far and inspire people.”

This element of fun is something which Rogers believes can also inspire the next generation, whether that be through smaller workshops or more visible role models. “Throughout my career I've always tried to show kids that technology and coding isn't boring. We always have loads of kids come to our lab where we've got all sorts of weird and wonderful devices and wearable technologies and they just love it, it's like Aladdin's cave for them. Just before lockdown we were part of a workshop with a choreographer, dancer, and a GCSE maths teacher, where the boys were learning to dance, whilst the girls were learning how to program. We designed some novel wearable technologies to encourage this cross fertilisation and it was so enjoyable seeing kids from quite a tough area of South London just enjoying the technology, exploring dance movements, and then learning a bit about coding.”

“I think that we also need some younger dynamic role models, like Dr Hannah Fry, to help inspire. Read her book ‘Hello World’, listen to her lectures and podcasts. It would be great to have someone like her supported a bit more to become as famous as Brian Cox, because I think that might go a long way to encourage girls in particular, to want to take up STEM or computer science.”

The Suffrage Science Maths and Computing Awards 2020 were held on Friday 6th November, 2020. You can find out more, and watch a recording of the event, here.

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