Leeds Creative Labs

Collaborations for Academics & Creative Innovators

Author: Tim Waters

Half Way Hajj

Last week all the groups involved with Leeds Creative Labs, together with the organisers and a few other creatives met to recap and share their experiences. I’m working on British Experiences of the Hajj pilgrimage and have introduced the project on this blog earlier. The informal presentations and discussions were really useful, and helped as a form of reflection.


Overall it’s the processes, how people collaborate, what roles do people take, what are the types of ideas, and how do people get there which are more interesting than the concrete results.


Randomness & Play for Creativity

As Imran records,  we noticed that change and randomness was being used in the creative process. I think this is twofold – firstly it’s used as a type of “oblique strategy” – a way to get out of any boxes and encourages creation, and secondly it’s a reflection of free form play, like the form of play children take.  For our project I used chance and randomness in the form of Markov Chains to create new phrases which I’ll outline now.

Markov Chains

With 17 transcripts of British pilgrims interviews, I parsed the text to extract just the voice of the interviewee. I think put this through a markov chain generator and created entirely new, but human sounding sentences.

The way this works is like the following. Take two sentences:

1. “I hope this makes lot of money”

2. “Always hope this makes sense”

Then using groups of 3 words together, it looks at what other words are there and comes up with a new sentence.

{[“I”, “hope”, “this”]  [“makes”], [“hope”, “this”, “makes”]  [“sense”]

3. “I hope this makes sense”

Example generated sentences:

“Mecca from this particular angle you could see that he had a doctors kit with him and did a lot of luggage, and we were just glad that  I have to say, when you just say, you know for me, thats the first one, you should go because youve been on Hajj, its almost like the severing of the apron strings”


“Are you asking for the Umrah there were people in my group didn’t want one each and I said. financial reasons, the level of excitement for all of us to go together but because of sheer numbers and volume of people coming through and having to cope with all these new experiences.”


“Hajj one time, being Hajj in one time is one of the big globalisation taking over and… as in, he is religious, you know, in this country. nothing, no tents and it’s open field.”


The transcripts come from audio files. I looked at a couple of audio / oral history sites, and liked two in particular:

Sounding the Underground

Here the audio is linked by category and place, and allows comparisons between places.  Of particular note is the ability for users to add their own notes, and the curators generate a new interface for these

Sonic Memorial

This has a number of wiggly lines which when clicked on you can hear the audio, and it shows the themes of the clip. Clicking on the themes allows the user to hear other clips around that theme.

For our project I think both could be looked at – they encouraged contribution from users and linked together the material, encouraging users to create their own narratives.

What I’d love to do is to timestamp the transciptions with the audio to create works which  are “supercuts” – so you could have all the audio of just people saying “Hajj”, or even forms of sentences:“[gerund] [determiner] [adjective] [noun]”  “unlocking the human story”


A number of mapping websites were looked at including ESRI Story Maps.

The take home point from here was that a site could be geographical in focus – and have embedded video and audio. Maps could be shown on each section, or be the focus, an aid for navigation etc.

Reflection Apps –  Mappiness

We discussed using mobile apps when on the Hajj. Something like the Mappiness project could easily be done – to encourage people when they are on the pilgrimage to share how they are feeling, where they are, what they are doing etc.   Foursquare also allows people to check into places.

The take home point here is that new technologies could be used to interact with users both on the Hajj and interested in it, with a locational component.

Conclusion & Processes


This was a bit of a reflection upon the discussions and a small set of ideas presented.

In the future we looked at and will look at the following:

1) Augmenting existing digital exhibition on the Hajj for British Museum – with the constraints of working with WordPress within the University.

2) Design process – identification of actors and users.

3) Design mockups of future interfaces and projects

4) Look at feedback  / encouraging interaction of material with users.

Initial steps and ideas around The Hajj

Hello, I’m Tim,  I signed up to take part in Leeds Creative Labs Summer 2014 programme with the hope that it would result in something interesting, something that a techie would never get the opportunity to do normally. It’s certainly exceeded that expectation – it’s been a fascinating enthralling process so far, and I feel honoured to have been selected to participate.

Tim Waters and Jo Merrygold

Jo Merrygold and Tim Waters

I’m  the designated “technologist” who is in partnership with Dr Seán McLoughlin and Jo Merrygold on this project around The Hajj and British Muslims.  Usually I tend to do geospatial collaborative and open data projects, although I’m also a member of the Leeds group of Psychogeographers. Psychogeography is intentionally vague to describe but one definition is that it’s about the feelings and effects of space and place on people. It’s also about a critique of space – a way to see how modern day consumerism/capitalism is changing how our spaces are, and by definition how we in these spaces behave.

We had our first meeting last week – it was a “show and tell” by Seán and Jo to share some of the ideas, research, themes and topics that could be of relevance to what we will be doing. 

Show and tell

Seán, from the School of Philosophy, Religion and The History of Science introduced his research  on Islam and Muslim culture, politics and society in contexts of contemporary migration, diaspora and transnationalism.  In particular his work has been around and with South Asian heritage British Muslim communities.  The current focus of his work, and the primary subject of this project is about researching British Muslim pilgrims’ experiences of the Hajj.   

The main resources are audio interviews, transcripts and on-line questionnaires from a number of different sources such as pilgrims of all ages and backgrounds, other people related to the Hajj “industry” such as tour operators and charities.

Towards the end of the year are a few set days for the Hajj – a once in a lifetime pilgrimage to the holy Saudi Arabian city of Mecca.  You have probably seen similar photos such as this where thousands of pilgrims circle the Kaaba – the sacred cuboid house right in the centre of the most sacred Muslim mosque.


It’s literally the most sacred point in Islam. It’s the focal point for prayers and thoughts. Muslims orient themselves towards this building when praying. The place is thought about everywhere – for example, people may have paintings with this building in their homes in the UK, and they may bring back souvenirs of their Hajj pilgrimage . You can see that the psychogeography of space and place on the emotions and thoughts of people could be very applicable here!

And yet the Hajj itself is more than just about the Kaaba – it’s a number of activities around the area. Here’s a map!

The Hajj

These activities, all with their own days and particular ways of doing them are literally meant to be in the footsteps of key religious figures in the past.   I will let the interested reader to discover for themselves, but there’s a number of fascinating issues surrounding the Hajj for British Muslims with Seán outlined.

Here’s a small example of some of these themes:

  • Organising the Hajj (tour operators, travel etc).
  • What the personal experiences of the pilgrims were.
  • How Mecca has changed, and how the Hajj has changed.
  • The commercial, the profane, the everyday and the transcendent and the sacred.
  • How this particular location and event works over time and space.
  • What are the differences and similarity of people and cultures, and possible experiences of poverty.
  • “Hajj is not a holiday” and Hajj Ratings.
  • Differences in approach of modern British Muslims to going to the Hajj (compared to say their grandparents).
  • Returning home and the meaning and expectations of returnees (called Hajjis).

What we did and didn’t do

We didn’t rush to define our project outputs – but we all agreed that we wanted to produce something!

Echoing Maria’s post earlier  we are trying to leave the options open for what we hope to do. Allowing our imaginations to run and to explore options. I think this justice to the concept of experimentation and collaboration, and should help us be more creative. I think that we can see which spark our imaginations, what address the issues better – what examples and existing things are out there that can be re-appropriated or borrowed, and which things point us in the right direction.

What I did after

So after the show and tell my mind was spinning with new ideas and concepts. It took me a few days to go over the material and do some research of my own, and see what sorts of things I might be able to contribute to. It’s certainly sparked my curiosity!

I was to prepare for a show and tell (an ideas brain-dump) for the next meeting. The examples I prepared included things from cut and paste transcriptions, 3D maps, FourSquare and social media, to story maps, to interactive audio presentations and oral history applications. I also gave a few indications as to possible uses of psychogeography with the themes. I hope to use this blog to share some of these ideas in later posts.

Initially I mentioned the difference between a “hacker” approach and the straight client and consultant way of doing development. For example encouraging collaborative play and exploration rather than hands off development. Allowing things to remain open.  The further steps  would be crystallizing some of these ideas – finding better examples and working out what we want to look at or devote more time to. We’d then be able to focus on some aims and requirements for a creative interesting project.

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