Evening Activity/Workshop: Stan Openshaw in Hyperspace – Spinning Electric Yarns

Becky Alexis-Martin, Andy Turner, Simon Popple, Rachel Proudfoot.


In a conversational culture, we learn through stories. Beyond our innate nature, we learn through experience, and with language we communicate understanding and develop collective wisdom through development and telling of stories. Before there was writing, the verbal sharing of stories was the most important way of communicating knowledge about our world and the people in it. We are naturally wired to learn with stories and this is a key distinction that can be used to separate us from the animal kingdom. As yet we know of no storytelling in the animal world beyond us humans. The importance of stories and storytelling cannot be underestimated. Now we can develop stories in multimedia forms and these help us preserve knowledge and facets of our lives in myriad forms. One of these ways is using a storytelling toolkit called Yarn to link multimedia content on the internet and link and develop collection of stories.

Biographical work is currently being undertaken to explore and honour the life of the eminent computational geographer and artist, Professor Stan Openshaw. In this celebratory year, it seems only fitting that we reflect on the origin of the discipline through one of the originators of the conference series. There is already a fantastic legacy of his academic work. We know that he wrote and published over 120 papers and authored nine books, his teaching was an inspiration, and the legacy and relevance of his work permeates and perpetuates contemporary work in geocomputation, nuclear geography, artificial intelligence and beyond. However, there is still so much for others to learn about Stan as a man. We want to facilitate this discovery, to share his experiences, and connect with the perceptions and stories of others in academia. Universities are intensely collaborative places, both within and across departments, and there are doubtless many who knew him and worked with him, who have not so far been included within the Stan conversation. In his professional career, Stan met and nurtured relationships with many that regard him a friend, and many more that simply collaborated with him and perhaps knew him only professionally without a strong friendship connection

Stan was known as a futurologist, eagerly adopting new technologies at their advent - as such he pioneered and innovated the use of new computational methods in geography with a number of other key individuals. Stan developed his own code base and borrowed and used Fortran subroutines galore. Here, we build upon the legacy provided by the Festschrift of GISRUK 2012, and reignite discussion of his life and work through a new digital medium. To do this, we are experientially harnessing a novel digital community storytelling tool, aptly named Yarn, to document Stan’s life. Yarn (https://yarncommunity.org/) is the main product of the Pararchive Project, a project that enables open-access community storytelling through digital archives. Perhaps the best way to capture the essence of Stan is through harnessing new storytelling technologies, to create a set of connected and shared stories. This evening event at GeoComputation 2017 provides impetus for this process. Please come along, get connected and help us weave our stories together.


There are many reasons why we divulge stories with others. As humans, it provides us with the opportunity for recognition of our experiences, and to empathise with those who share these experiences with us. It gives us the capacity to impart advice, and to provide practical guidance for the future. In an oral culture, we learn through stories (Lambert, 2013).

However, in our digital culture, we can create almost infinite archives in the cloud, which we think is a fitting term for a text on one of Leed’s premier blue sky thinkers. Whilst the individual memory bank is overloaded and constrained by a mere lifetime, we have a selective ability to make sense of our experience which is where stories can emerge. We can therefore corroborate, authenticate and expand upon our individual snippets of personal knowledge to create something greater than ourselves. The idea of the digital story is not new, with a substantive legacy of over twenty years. In fact, the digital evolution of storytelling, from forums and facebook, to fanfic, is perhaps one of the most interesting developments of the internet age (Burgess, 2006).

In a way, the process of writing a biography is as indebted to story as it is fact, as anecdotes and reminiscences merge. There is a distinct geography of biographical storytelling, as it is firmly centred in space, place and time. It is reliant upon communication, the exploration of personal communities, and an understanding of the interactions of this institution within and across a network that spans a lifetime. Therefore, the creation of a biography could be seen as an ethnographic process, and is definitely rooted in both qualitative and spatiotemporal geography. The purpose of this workshop is therefore to socially and sociably map and explore connections and shared recollections of the academic community.

Digital biographies

Whilst Geocomputation is traditionally focused around quantitative geographical methods, developments in technologies such as digital storytelling and the internet of things mean that geocomputation could also include a more qualitative element.

Digital storytelling is an established approach within communication studies and creative writing. However, its potential and relevance expands far beyond this, and into many other fields including history, business, planning and beyond (McLellan, 2007). The possibilities and applications of digital storytelling methods in cultural and social geography are almost limitless, from collection of qualitative data and participatory research, to the creation of archives and educational resources. It is therefore unsurprising that scholarly interest in digital methods, those that rely upon digital technologies to create and share research, has been blooming across the humanities, social sciences and geography (Brown and Tucker, 2017). There has been a recent call for geographers to engage in storytelling practices, for the improved understanding of geographies of health (De Leeuw et. al. 2017). Here, we extend the network of this call for the use of digital storytelling, by implementing digital methods for biographical geography research.

Event Approach and Author Biographies

The Spinning Electric Yarns biographical workshop will be led by Becky Alexis-Martin, Simon Popple and Andy Turner. Becky is a human geographer with experience of both geocomputational and ethnographic approaches, and an interest in the ways that these extremes of quantitative and qualitative methodology can intersect and be combined. Andy is a geographer specialising in CG and deputy director of the Centre for Computational Geography (CCG), the interdisciplinary research centre founded by Stan at the University of Leeds in 1992. Andy and Becky are currently collaboratively and connectedly co-writing a multimedia biography of Stan Openshaw, who the original protagonist of computational geography (CG). Andy was originally a consultant on geographical linked data working on the Pararchive project with Simon, but became more like a co-investigator on the project. Simon was Principal Investigator on the Pararchive project that developed the Yarn storytelling toolkit, which moved out of a beta testing phase at the end of 2016 and since has had some feature upgrades which allow for not only Yarns built from story block to be formed and stories on Yarn to connect, but this now also supports projects. In spirit with the pioneering nature of Stan, who instigated and was a key organiser of GeoComputation 1996 - the original and first GeoComputation conference in Leeds, the Stan Openshaw Biography project is project number 1. Simon is Deputy Director of Research and Innovation and Senior Lecturer in Photography and Digital Culture based in the School of Media and Communications at the University of Leeds. Simon has an ongoing interest in archival resources, the role they play in the creation of power and knowledge.


Lambert, J., 2013. Digital storytelling: Capturing lives, creating community. Routledge.

Hartley, J. and McWilliam, K. eds., 2009. Story circle: Digital storytelling around the world. John Wiley & Sons.

Burgess, J., 2006. Hearing ordinary voices: Cultural studies, vernacular creativity and digital storytelling. Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies, 20(2), pp.201-214.

Geissler, C., 2010. Pix or it didn’t happen: Social networking, digital memory, and the future of biography. The MPub reader, pp.135-141.

Nicholson, T., 2016. A Biography of Story, A Brief History of Humanity. Troubador Publishing Ltd.

McLellan, H., 2007. Digital storytelling in higher education. Journal of Computing in Higher Education, 19(1), pp.65-79.

De Leeuw, S., Parkes, M.W., Morgan, V.S., Christensen, J., Lindsay, N., Mitchell-Foster, K. and Russell Jozkow, J., 2017. Going unscripted: A call to critically engage storytelling methods and methodologies in geography and the medical-health sciences. The Canadian Geographer/Le Géographe canadien.

Brown, M. and Tucker, K., 2017. Unconsented Sterilisation, Participatory Storytelling, and Digital Counter-Memory in Peru. Antipode.


This workshop will introduce the digital capture of narratives using Yarn; it will also use Yarn to capture a social history of GeoComputation and Computational Geography, centred on one of the founding figures of the discipline.

Aims and objectives:

1) Introduce event participants to Yarn and Stan.

2) Provide links to existing materials and archives, current story nodes and potential lead-ins.

3) Illustrate and explain the network approach to storytelling, the biography so far, and explore where each of the workshop individuals fit into this story.

4) Organise live Yarn updates, to share and expand the story network in real time, and collect further anecdotal information for biography – Link to Twitter and other mediums #Stan #StanInHyperspace #ElectricYarns.

5) Explore the meaning of storytelling about and for geographers, and other interesting and relevant potential uses of Yarn within the discipline.