Southampton Chancellor Ruby Wax hails Web's importance for mental health during COVID-19 pandemic
University of Southampton Chancellor Ruby Wax has highlighted the impact of Web technologies in keeping people together during the global pandemic at the ACM Web Science Conference (#WebSci20).
Speaking to Electronics and Computer Sciences Professor Dame Wendy Hall at the international conference, the actor, writer and mental health campaigner discussed how web scientists could enable more online support for people with mental health problems.
More than 270 people from around the world gathered this month to explore new directions in the Web and artificial intelligence (AI).
Conference hosts - Southampton's Web Science Institute (WSI) - had to rapidly transform the event from a physical conference to a virtual conference due to the restrictions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, the online event proved even more popular with world leaders in Web Science research, technology, industry and policy-making, coming together with Web Science students, to take part in keynote speeches, presentations of new research, panel debates and a PhD symposium.
The conference was launched by ACM President Gabriele Kotsis, followed by WSI Executive Director Professor Dame Wendy Hall 'In Conversation' with Ruby Wax. The pair explored the potential impact of the pandemic on mental health and how technology such as the Web could help bring people together in these uncertain times.
Ruby is the founder of the Frazzled Cafes charity which has been hosting peer support meetings online since lockdown.
Talking about the important role technology has played during the pandemic, Ruby said: "I had always thought that the passing of the bonding chemical oxytocin could only happen in person. I was really wrong, as I have never felt this kind of connection before. Now we are using this technology for the good, in an unbelievable way, which is crossing different ethnicities and ages."
Wendy added: "At the moment there are no barriers to talking to people around the world on this technology, we have the potential for global reach. Our Web Science research is about how people and technology work together, and that is one of the issues we have discussed at the conference - how people react to technology from a mental health perspective.
"As Web Scientists we are beholden to help, and I would like to work with Ruby in the future to benefit the Frazzled Cafes. My plea to the research community is to look at how our lives online are changing and what life is going to be like post-COVID-19."
Throughout the five-day event, delegates from as far afield as Africa and Australia participated in panel debates and paper sessions exploring the future of the Web, particularly in the age of COVID-19.
One of the highlights of the week was the reformation of the Web Science Research Initiative founders - an initiative that was set up in 2006 between Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Southampton to coordinate and support the study of the World Wide Web. Former members, including Wendy, Southampton Visiting Professor Sir Nigel Shadbolt and WSI Honorary Professor Sir Tim Berners-Lee recalled their memories of that exciting time.
Summing up the conference, Wendy said: "The conference was a great success and because it was online it enabled more speakers and delegates to be able to access it. I strongly believe that is the way forward for future conferences."
To find out more about the conference visit https://websci20.webscience.org/