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Online Empathy

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How a team led by The Bartlett Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis digitally connected worshippers in Hackney and Cumbria.

Online Empathy

Digital Prayer Candles.

Credit: All images Andy Hudson-Smith

In 2015, a group of people in the London Borough of Hackney and the Lake District village of Hawkshead came together in an unexpected way.

It began when Andy Hudson-Smith, Professor of Digital Urban Systems at The Bartlett Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis (CASA), was part of a team that won funding for a project to develop ‘online empathy’.

Three weeks later, a vicar contacted Hudson-Smith, having heard about the initiative – entitled Creating and Exploring Digital Empathy (CEDE) – and offered him her London church as a site to run the experiment.

Online Empathy

People could type in prayers to be projected onto the Church wall.

Online Empathy

The team also created an iPad app to enable people to 'wash away their sins'.

A digital prayer system

“I’m not massively religious myself, but I’m interested in how people communicate when times are hard,” Hudson-Smith says. Inspired by the prayers people write by hand in church prayer books, he and his partners at Lancaster University and Sheffield University built a digital prayer system: battery-powered candle-shaped lights were hooked up to WiFi so people could light them remotely, as well as typing in prayers to be projected onto the church wall.

The team also created an iPad app to ‘wash away your sins’. Hudson-Smith explains: “You write your sins, then put your hands on [the app], then your sins appear in words floating around your hand and gradually drift away.”

The next step came when his colleagues at the partner universities said they had a relationship with a church in Cumbria. The team decided to connect the two churches, so prayers and sins could be shared on the walls of both buildings. The result was a refreshing antidote to the conflict and abuse typical of public discourse online today.

The two very different types of congregations – the Hackney church comprising mainly people of Afro-Caribbean origin over the age of 60 and the Cumbrian church with a demographic typical of rural England – connected digitally and then eventually in person, when both travelled to visit each other. The vicar of the Hawkshead church also commented that the project had the added effect of engaging young people – a demographic the church has long been conscious of losing.

A tool for inclusiveness

“We often leave the human, and how we feel, out of these [digital initiatives],” Hudson-Smith says, adding that it was a tool for inclusiveness in several ways. “People who pray sometimes can’t leave the house, so if people could do digital prayers from their home, and see the feedback people leave, it’s almost like creating a new type of social network and making sure they are talked to in their hour of need.”

In what a cynic might point to as a demonstration of the levels of empathy in contemporary society, the Hackney church was broken into and the CEDE equipment was stolen. Nonetheless, Hudson-Smith says they have received requests from other churches to expand the programme.

One might also hope that, in the context of Britain’s current social divisions, it’s a project that might have applications beyond the church. But, as Hudson-Smith sat and watched the prayers appear, feeling like a conduit between the worshipers and wherever their messages end up, he came to think that it’s particularly suited to this context.

“I found them very moving: there were prayers for a child who had died and people with cancer – all sorts of stuff from our darkest hours that are not often shared.”

The Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis is an interdisciplinary research institute focusing on the science of cities, applying it to city planning, policy and architecture in the pursuit of making our cities better places to live in. It is part of The Bartlett, UCL's Faculty of the Built Environment. Find out more: https://ucl.ac.uk/bartlett/casa

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ucl.ac.uk/bartlett


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