Inspirational AR experience iCreateDigital scoops Tyk Side Project Fund prize

Tyk was born of a desire to make things better. We couldn’t find the right API management solution to meet our needs, so we set out to make a difference and make one ourselves! As a result, Tyk now supports businesses around the world to be the best that they can be. Now, we help businesses to make, create and build things better, no matter which industry they work in or where in the world they’re based.

Most recently, we’ve launched the Tyk Side Project Fund, to help even the smallest and newest businesses to create and grow. We were delighted, then, to be able to award funding recently through the Side Project Fund to Olivia Festy of iCreateDigital.

Olivia is a fellow change-maker who has a vision of ensuring that the digital revolution leaves nobody behind. Her ‘Tech for Good’ approach is aiming to provide free digital skills training to young people aged 16-24 through the use of virtual and augmented reality. The project called StARt Digital has a goal of co-creating an augmented reality (AR) experience with young people for use by the general public and local businesses in North London.

We caught up with Olivia recently to check out the latest progress with iCreateDigital and find out how she is turning her side project vision into a reality.

Tyk: What’s your background? What led you to start this side project in the first place?

Olivia: I’m not a techie – I have a PhD in biophysics and worked in clinical research and business development for some time, first with Queen Mary University of London, and the National Institute of Health Research. The majority of my experience has centred around health tech and pharma.

My health background meant I got to work with Genomic Englands to develop our future healthcare system using genomics. And the Nesta Charity, with a focus on empowerment and it’s impact on health outcomes. This provided a whole new perspective on the kind of work I was doing, especially, around digital ethics and artificial intelligence (AI) bias.

This was a turning point for me. I was made aware of the problems our current educational system faced, such as the lack of resources and expertise to fully engage young people in the latest digital education. That young people are often put off computing because they believe it to be boring and that they need to have knowledge about coding. We already know that our digital workforce is struggling with a lack of diversity.

This pandemic has highlighted the digital divide, contrast between rich & poor in ability to access work, food , education. Digital exclusion means being silenced. Using play, I want to help young people learn digital skills they need to meet the industry digital skills gap, and succeed in their digital lives and career. Digital empowerment means giving everybody the knowledge to shape their relationship with tech creating a better world for themselves and others.

Tyk: Please can you tell us a little about your project, iCreateDigital?

Olivia: The social enterprise focuses on the use of immersive technology to digitally empower young people through digital skills training and mentorship. I’ve had support from various organisations and schools to enable me to try and develop the training for young people.

The idea of digital empowerment is to get disadvantaged young people into tech in an inclusive way. To provide the training they need to meet the industry skills gap and address the lack of women and people from diverse backgrounds, who are typically left behind in the digital sector.

After the basic digital training, the young people will work with experts to design immersive ‘Tech for Good’ experiences to be used in their local area, linking in with both the community and local businesses. Once the young people have completed the training, they will have the skills, knowledge and confidence to pursue further training, education or careers, as well as continue to be digital peer mentors for the other young people coming onboard the programme.

I did a showcase in March to try the idea, at a local youth centre. Young people played with the Oculus Rift VR and built their own google cardboard. They also tried 3D designing & 3D printing. They loved the experience of learning through play and feedback showed that 91% of participants were interested in learning immersive digital skills such as creating immersive experiences, as well as business & design skills. This is 5-10 times more engagement in digital skills learning than you would get at a typical school.

From the work I’ve been doing with schools, there’s a lack of people engaging with computer science education. Because it’s seen as boring and inaccessible, young people don’t think of it as an option. That’s why I want to show them that it can be interesting and exciting. It doesn’t have to be about coding – there are plenty of digital roles, like UX and product design, which young people can consider as career choices.

When I talk about digital empowerment, it’s not just about knowledge and skills but, giving young people a better understanding of some of the issues they’re going to be dealing with in the future. For example, do they understand issues of data privacy in terms of the apps that they use? We focus on the ideas of tech for good and digital ethics to give them insights via the course. Ultimately, even if their aspirations are not to work in the digital space, they should still gain a deeper understanding of what it means in terms of their lives and the use of tech in the world around them.

The idea of pitching to the 16-25 age group is to provide greater choice when it comes to options around college, careers and getting into debt in order to pursue further education. We ask our young people to make huge, life-impacting choices on these topics when they’ve not had a lot of exposure to anything, so I want to be able to use the course to expose them to the digital world and help them to think about things differently. For example, Who are the providers for free options to learn coding? How would you create tech for people like yourselves?

Tyk: What are the challenges that you’ve faced in working on this as a side project?

Olivia: Up until last week I was still working full time, so I’ve felt quite overwhelmed for the last few months. With the COVID lockdown time has been a real challenge – I’ve been home-schooling two children and working a fulltime job, as well as teaching yoga and antenatal/pregnancy, and being a doula. So finding side project time was tough.

My challenge now is to understand how to structure my offer, and find mentors to work with who know the tech and are passionate about growing our new young talent.

Tyk: What are the values that drive you?

Olivia: Empowerment and inclusion. I see a lot of young people with smartphones, which make them seem tech-savvy, but many of those I’m meeting don’t even have a look in when it comes to the digital future that’s being created around them. And that’s really sad.

It’s wonderful to get a headset onto them and start them thinking about all the potential areas of study and employment in the digital space, while also showing them how fun it can be.

For me, when I first tried a VR headset on, I found it to be a transformative experience. It takes you to a completely different place. This is what I want to do for young disadvantaged people so that they can reimagine their future.

Tyk: How will the Tyk Side Project Fund help your side project to grow?

Olivia: I’m a start-up working on a shoestring, and starting to build up my network, so it will make a big difference.

Funding is usually available for personnel and venue-related elements of projects but much less for hardware and for the software that the young people will use. I’m testing as much as possible on free platforms, like Unity, but there are some things like art games for VR headsets that all have a cost attached. I plan to use the Tyk funding to part-fund hardware and software costs to move things forward.

Being part of a tech community would be helpful as it will allow me to offer the young people on the training course a wider exposure to different roles in the digital sector.  I would be keen to invite the Tyk community companies interested in accessing interns or apprenticeships to get involved.

Tyk: What tips would you give to someone looking to start a side project?

Olivia: It’s really hard between COVID and just general life to carve out time for a side project and to use that time well. For me, it’s a case of trying to stay super-focused with the time that I do have and to stay motivated to keep myself going.

I use a variety of online tools to keep my motivation up. It reminds me why it’s important to put time and resources into finding solutions for this space.

Tyk: Thank you Olivia – and good luck! 

For more details on iCreateDigital or if you’re keen to get involved as a mentor, visit icreate for more info. You can also find out more about the Tyk Side Project Fund here.