There were so many ways for Art Hackathon to go wrong, but more ways for it to go right than I realised too. Failure seemed so vivid in my mind’s eye, non-failure seemed so unlikely – at each step I couldn’t believe it all worked out.

Having vaguely committed to help Theo, Tom and Catherine put on a hackday about creativity and hardware (art?) I went on holiday for two weeks. I came back and discovered that tickets were going to be £20, and assumed this would be catastrophic or even fatal, but it wasn’t, and tickets sold. In fact they sold out. I was completely wrong to assume they had to be free, that was win number one.

Free because I knew we were going to have to promote it a lot, and as soon as people think you are making money they start mentally putting you in the spam category, which, I can say from experience, is incredibly disheartening. When I read this very touching blog about Hack Circus I instantly recalled the difficulties of promoting The Thing Is, a student magazine I helped run. We’d spend hours working to produce it, and then people would assign the most malign motives to us when we tried to get the word out. Forums (and hackspace mailing lists…) are incredibly hostile to people promoting things, even things that are highly relevant and not-for-profit.  Twitter, which didn’t exist when we did TTI, is fine with you promoting your projects. If you don’t like it, you can unfollow. Similarly, university internal mailing lists are very supportive.

For the record, we made no money and did not intend to. All of us, especially Theo and Tom, spent many many days on it.

Museum of Lies won the popular vote for best hack

Win number two was sponsorship. Theo got Ravensbourne Uni to sponsor us, effectively providing us with an amazing space for free. Unexpected lesson: open-plan office accoutrements are great for hacking. We were in the auditorium, but we were able to borrow big TV screens on wheels and also office dividers from around the Uni. Office dividers turned out to be great for making ad hoc structures for people’s hacks. Big TVs make hacking at scale possible.

Screen Shot 2015-05-19 at 00.37.21

Bare Conductive gave us conductive paint and it was a hit with hackers. Tessel were incredibly generous with us, gave us amazing hardware, and ended up hand delivering it from the US, because they are lovely (they were coming over anyway…)

Having seen these two bits go right, I started to worry that the dynamic on the day would be wrong. I imagined us finishing the talks, explaining all the hardware then saying “GO!” to the audience and them all just staring at each other, not knowing what to do. I got so paranoid about it that I caused an entirely pointless argument with Theo about the exact location of the chairs and tables, which I thought violated some kind of hacking feng shui, an entirely spurious concern.

We asked people to propose projects in our forum before the event, but very few people did. This only heightened my concerns. I should have had more faith, when we asked people to come to the front and pitch ideas about half of the participants did. There were too many ideas, not too few – fortunately teams were able to consolidate out of similar pitches and we ended up with a manageable number.

People at the front pitching ideas
People at the front pitching ideas

I can’t say if we could rely on that happening again, but it does make me think of a weird paradox in the way that I allocate time to the hackdays that I’ve been to. When I get emails from hack organisers I think “Don’t have time for this!”, and I never go and do whatever they want me to on their forum / google doc / IRC etc. Which makes absolutely no sense because I’m about to devote a whole weekend to the hack. In my mental accounting the hackday has to be boxed into a weekend timeline, otherwise I somehow feel it’s making an unreasonable demand on me. Perhaps other people feel like this.

And then at the end of it all people produced amazing hacks, hopefully we’ll have a proper video up soon. I wanted to use this space to record lessons learned, and the biggest one is that stepping out of your IT comfort zone is massively time consuming.

The winners (Scott Wooden and Chris Brown), who made a (highly addictive) web game, had an almost production ready app with animated transitions and beautiful graphics. Both of the team were using a language they use professionally (javascript), presumably using the tooling they use everyday at work. For them the hack was a chance to push what they already knew in a new direction, which they did very successfully.

Get The Banana, jury prize winner
Get The Banana, jury prize winner

Contrast that with a hack that starts with borrowing a Raspberry Pi from our hardware library. Even if you know Raspberry Pis a bit, there’s hours of flashing SD cards (if you want your preferred OS), finding out IP addresses, turning on SSH, discovering passwords before you can start. Wait, this is a Raspberry Pi 2? Does this library work with it? And so on…

I could do another post on the hostility of the Raspberry Pi as a platform, some of which I think is wilful, but there are two things I’d do differently if there was another chance and more resource. Two things other than sort out Raspberry Pi.

Firstly, I’d start out with hardware in functioning setups. Want a servo running off a Pi? Here’s one that we know works. Hack it if you want, but you can see it working now, so if it stops working you can probably work out why. If you really screw up, we could just flash you a new SD and rescue you.

Secondly, you can’t help teams very much when you are organising. I’d love to have spent more time helping hack, but I was too busy wrestling with an industrial scale coffee percolator or running the hardware library. There’s no solution to this except to have more people helping.

The hack was a laboratory too, we had two ethnographers looking at it, I was graphing the Twitter network around the event and there will be a follow up survey. Hopefully that will allow us to prove the value of the event to future sponsors, and also help us improve the next one, if anyone ever has enough energy to do one again.

A final lesson learned was the the output was so good that it was very sad to take it all apart after the show and tell – we could easily run an exhbition of the work which allowed more people to see what had been achieved. Next time…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ve been to a lot of hack days, hacks for the Houses of Parliament, for charity in general and for local government come to mind. I go because because it’s a way to help out a good cause, because it’s fun to try and get a working prototype of something done over a weekend, and because you meet interesting people.

Last Friday I went to another hackday and realised they don’t, in fact, help out the institutions that sponsor them. I know I’m not alone in feeling that this method of driving innovation is not working well as it might, and I know lots of other people are starting to wonder about it too. Of all the hackdays I’ve been to, not one has spawned a successful project. As far as I know, givey.com is the only example in the UK (I tweeted asking for more examples, apparently bufferapp.com almost came from a hack) This is an exceedingly low success rate.

I’m not a historian of the Hackday, but I believe the concept originates with a bunch geeky friends, friends of friends and colleagues bashing out code quickly – in essence techies that already know each other. In this scenario it works well. Certainly Google 20% time seems to be a productive version of this.

There is so much I could say about the hackdays – for example the problems when they become a part of a “corporate social responsibility” agenda rather than a way of getting things done. To keep this short, I’m going to focus on the misapplication of “Open Source” ideas and the obsession with Open Data.

Hackdays have been adopted by all kinds of institutions seeking digital innovation. These organisations are lost in the unfamiliar world of tech, as such they are empty vessels into which nerd ideology can be poured. Companies doing hackdays want to demonstrate how down with digital they are – often to the point of sycophancy. As a result Open Data and Open Source have become mantras whose precise meaning and relevance is lost – they become more important than actually getting something built.

Hackdays and the Open Source approach
In hack-land, the community driven nature of Open Source has translated into the idea that teams are liquid and that any attempt to define the project is anti-democratic. Exactly contrary to the Do One Thing Better Than Anyone Else, have-a-single-clear-offer approach that I take to be pretty much key to a successful project.

This conception of Open Source isn’t appropriate or relevant to hackdays. In any case, most open source projects seem to work by having a tiny kernel of people, perhaps just a single person, articulate a clear goal and demonstrate a significant ability to deliver that goal. Then a community of people who share that goal forms around it.

The “Open Source” mood at  Hackdays means the reverse – you get a bunch of people who are not really connected at all and hope they can find a common objective between them. On more than one occasion I’ve worked into the night to deliver a working prototype only to demo it and retrigger an infinitely looping conversation about what the purpose of the project is.

Alternatively, in a follow up meeting a month after the hackday, someone will suggest something that fundamentally changes the project (for example: “Perhaps we shouldn’t be doing this as a website?”). The atmosphere will be the same as a brainstorm that should have finished after the first day: no idea is out of scope. In this situation it’s very hard to do any concrete work.

Magic Mashups – Open Data at hackdays
The tech world has evangelised about this for a long time and with good reason. There are important philosophical and moral reasons why data, especially gathered at public expense, should be publicly available, and also great reasons why it should be kept in non-proprietary formats.

However, if you go to a hackday this is not what you’ll hear about. At a hackday, you’ll hear that Open Data enables “mashups”, where combinations of disparate data sets unleash some world-shaping potential. The long-term architectural benefits of Open principles have morphed into a desire to have a data-based “mashup” in the App Store – whether it’s useful or not.

“We made primary school catchment areas and adventure playground coordinates available, what do you think you could build with it?”

The answer is, of course, an interactive map of primary school catchment areas and adventure playgrounds. Let use Open Street Map rather than Google Maps – high five! Usually the map will pique the curiosity and have little long-lasting value.

And Magic is in limited supply. If you have data about primary schools and adventure playgrounds then the resulting mashup is probably going to be about those two things. There is often an expectation that it will somehow be possible to draw out information that isn’t there – as if the median age of vulnerable immigrants can be coaxed from data on disabled parking spaces or similar.

The truth is that there are only a limited number of mashups that really bring something new. For the most part I think Open Data is going to have to be intermediated by journalists who dig out the stories in the data, it’s not a big public-facing thing.

Incentives – please, please be honest
The worst thing about doing hackdays is the feeling you sometimes get that the sponsoring organisation is doing it so someone can say “we did a hackday”. It just adds a ring of dynamism and sends a message that you’re down with all this digital stuff. A box successfully ticked – especially since there were no other ideas on how do digital innovation.

But when you aren’t paying the participants of a hackday the £600 a day you pay for agency work inevitably one’s eye wonders from the ball. Hackday briefs could often be so much better, and no time is allocated to evaluate the projects that come from the hackday.

The absolute worst thing though is the failure to say “No”. If you aren’t paying for someone’s time there is no reason to tell them that their project isn’t going anywhere. In fact, these people just did two days of free work for you, so turning round and saying “sorry, that’s not for us” seems rude.

Say: “Thanks guys, but we know our customers really well, and we don’t think they’d be into this”, or “Our board really needs to see something using the Open Data we’ve spent so much money on – your project doesn’t do that so can never be commissioned”. I might be disappointed, but now I can work on something else. Instead hackday projects are left to gradually loose energy and die a slow death, with no one having the balls to admit that the idea isn’t quite right.

When I first came across the idea of the hack I thought it was uplifting – people coming together to do work because they believed in it. I still think that, but that belief in the work is absolutely underpinned by the idea that it might go somewhere. It can never be a) Your startup, b) A project that does good in the world, then why bother?

Every hack is different, but I’ve been to a wide variety, and all the permutations of the model that I’ve experienced are failing to deliver.

This weekend Good For Nothing held an event called WildThing for documenatary makers Green Lions. Green Lions are working on a film in the mold of Hugh Fearnley (autocorrects to furtively) Whittingstall’s Fish Fight and Chicken Run: campaign TV about bringing kids back to nature. “Do our children have Nature Deficit Disorder?” asks the protagonist, David Bond, in the teaser video on their website. Good For Nothing provided Tea, a tent and about 40 people to try and crack the problem of marketing nature to kids.

I wanted to go, but illness prevented me. I did manage to make it along to the presentation at the end to see what the teams came up with. As ever the amount of work that had been put in was incredible, as ever if you’d wanted to hire the people that willingly volunteered their time on their freelance rate it would have cost a fortune. In two days apps had been published, treehouses built, and amazing “sizzle” tapes for ideas had been shot and edited.

Having never been to a hack day except as a participant, looking in on proceedings was enlightening and not in a wholly good way. I say this as someone who wants to give up my weekends to good causes and frequently bangs the drum for hack days: there was a sense that the process was, ultimately, more about the participants than the kids they were ostensibly trying to help. The hackday format is an amazing thing, but it still seems to me there is _something_ missing which might help it convert from conceptual into concrete more effectively. Discussing this with the participants they felt the same: is it about the culture clash between introvert developers and extrovert ideas people? Or is it a case of getting the skills mix right? Or about refining the briefs?

The whole thing was had a strangely anachronistic New Labour flavor to it. Fitting since we were in walking distance of the Granita Restaurant. We even had a debate about about hunting – was skinning a rabbit all part of the countryside experience, or an aberration in our utopian bucolic past? And the debate about whether competition is ok – should the game apps have competition as an element, or is everyone a winner?

Most of all though, I was uncertain of the premise. David Bond has notionally appointed himself the Marketing Executive of Nature, and briefed the Good For Nothing crew to rebrand the countryside to make it accessible. What could be more Blair era than approaching the untamed wilderness from a marketing perspective?

I like to think of nature as something that sticks two fingers up at human aspirations, particularly ones as flimsy as marketing. The whole point of the outdoors is it’s implacable indifference to what you might want it to be. The more distance we can put between the email, excel and meetings and the great outdoors the better.

In fairness to the teams, most of them addressed this point, and there were plenty of behavioral insights deeper than my idle thoughts.

On a final note, I grew up in the country side and had a field at the bottom of my garden and I was bloody envious of people who didn’t. There was only one person of a similar age to me within walking distance and we didn’t get on. I did have endless fun building rope slides and driving a knackered car round the field, and my experiences have given me a practical understanding of mechanics and electrics that I deeply value. If you live in the countryside there is nothing to do apart from disassemble every electrical item in the house.

I also got very lonely and longed for other kids to play with, and later a pub that wasn’t a 20 minute drive away. There’s a reason the countryside causes incest. In one primary school near me all the children were ginger. Let’s keep this in perspective, for every Islington Dad promising to teach his kids the different types of bird song there is a 14 year old kid disassembling shotgun cartridges and inhaling deodorant out of a sock because there’s bugger all else to do. As they say, the grass is always greener….

 

This weekend I went to a “think/hack/do” event organised by Good For Nothing. The objective of the event was to help Lambeth Borough Council in its ambition to become a “cooperative council” – one that seeks deeper cooperation with residents.

In local government there seems to be quite a lot of apologising. There are shared assumptions, held by council workers and the public alike, that a) The council is the most inefficient organisation imaginable b) Every decision it makes will be the wrong one, in at least nearly everyone’s opinion c) They have absolutely no idea about technology, and should abandon all of their intuitions and listen to certified geeks as soon as they touch a computer. Everything you say has to be preceded by excoriating yourself for having the temerity to be white, middle class and literate. But Lambeth Council doesn’t have so much to apologise for – the more that I learned about what the council does the more respect I had for it – it does a lot.

I was part of a team that took on a brief to make all parks work as well as the best ones (ie. Brockwell Park  – whose major advantage is a very active community group). The first thing we did was gather some opinions, including  interviewing people on the streets and leaving marker pen and board at four locations overnight.

What I took from our research was this: local government is completely paradoxical. Councils are genuinely deeply motivated to make life great for residents, and have an admirable commitment to inclusivity . They have money, power, control over infrastructure and time.  Despite this residents frequently regard them as malign, and the decisions taken do sometimes look perverse.

This is one little gem we turned up: a turfed public space that the council had spent money digging up and making lumpy to prevent kids playing football. Sounds stupid, but it seems it was done at the residents’ request – apparently windows were getting broken by flying footballs.  No doubt the locals reserved the right to blame the council for the lack of facilities for young people.

Another seemingly trifling concern which preoccupies the council is ensuring there is no surface that a homeless person might use to comfortably sleep on. Our entire urban landscape is designed not for our amenity, but to “design out” a vulnerable demographic. On the other hand, mitigating the impact of street drinking and rough sleeping on the community is obviously a connected issue – and one frequently mentioned to councilors.

I spoke to a 70 year old man in a cafe and gave him my laptop to do a survey on (who was instantly two finger scrolling his way around the page – he obviously owned a Mac, confounding expectations).  At the time we were exploring the idea that parks are seen as hostile because of the amount special regulation around them – every park in Lambeth has a board with 45 by-laws at its entrance. However, we soon found that a lot of people wanted the regulations – that’s why they got there in first place.

What’s I found fascinating about the challenge the council faces was that it isn’t, at least exclusively, a lack of money.  The problem is one of finding out what the community wants – all of the community – not the “sharp-elbowed middle classes”, as we unfairly referred to them.

Three disposable thoughts that came to me during the process:

  • This is not rational ignorance. Unlike national politics, in local debate there is a good chance your voice will be heard. Moreover, rather than abstract national politics you will be changing actual things that really affect you – traffic, crime etc.
  • However, it’s also the case that although many people would benefit from interacting more with their council, they don’t in fact have time to get informed and communicate their views. As previously mentioned, only those sharp-elbowed middle class have the time and skills to do this.  Deliberative democracy, where randomly selected representative groups of citizens are paid to spend time thinking through problems could be an answer. Jury service for the local council essentially.
  • Publicly funded organsiations often seem reticent about promoting themselves. When I was at the BBC, there was a constant refrain that we should “do less and promote more”, but we still found ourselves building brilliant web products that no one ever heard of because the budget for marketing didn’t exist.  All of us at the hack day were pretty clued into what happens in Lambeth, but we were constantly saying  “What about x” only to have the Ian from the parks department say that it already existed.Hackney Council did an advertising campaign at bus stops a while back – but it was completely generic “We’ve refurbished 20 playgrounds this year” etc. Perhaps they could do adverts asking the public about the three issues closest to that bus stop – with a number to text.My limited experience of council-culture gave the impression they aren’t naturally going to bang their own drum.

Finally, isn’t this a lovely example of online conversation around a shared space? The design of the Clapham Common Skate Park was discussed extensively on Facebook, on page set up by the council. It’s still a busy page with lots of people chatting about it.

http://www.facebook.com/pages/Clapham-Common-Skate-Park/144717115599888

 

 

 

 

 

This weekend I went to a course at Engineers Without Borders, an organisation for helping engineering students and recent graduates lend assistance in the third world. We built a Hexayurt (a hexagonal shelter), built some furniture, added some solar panels to the Hexayurt’s roof and got some low power computing going inside. It’s actually thrilling watching a computer powered by nothing but the sun. Thrilling in a quiet way; we didn’t light cigars or open champagne – that would be unsustainable – more like the ‘free energy’ frisson you get from wind surfing or sailing.

It’s probably overused, and it’s certainly not particularly beautiful, but the following Thomas Jefferson quote expresses the idea at the heart of all technological utopianism, and, I think, the spirit of the weekend:

“He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.”

70 years after Thomas Jefferson died the modern standard barer for this concept was born: Buckminster Fuller. In a world of finite resources (‘Spaceship Earth’ as Bucky put it) he believed that the only way to satisfy human wants was to be very smart about how we use our resources. Buckminster Fuller himself contributed some gems to our stock of ideas for making efficient use of the little we have.

Perhaps his two most successful additions were the octet truss and the geodesic dome. The octet truss is a design pattern that we see holding up roofs and the like all around us, while the geodesic dome has become a symbol of modernity.

Vinay Gupta, designer of the Hexayurt, is a child of Buckminster Fuller in two senses. Firstly, he apparently contributed a tiny correction to Bucky’s specification of the geodesic dome after a counter-cultural community invited him to have a look at why their domes always came out a bit wonky. An error in the 4th decimal place of a measurement was the culprit. Geodesic domes are very sensitive to small errors, it’s a testament to their symbolic power that they continue to be built – I’m told they frequently leak if not put together with 4th decimal place accuracy.

Vinay has a more conceptual link with Bucky in the hexayurt project: the desire to share a design idea which makes people’s lives better. Hexayurts are a cunning design pattern which describes a way to take 12 standard 8 x 4 sheets of plywood (or another material) and turn it into a waterproof hut with no waste. It’s a direct response to another draw back with the geodesic dome – manufacturing it from rectangular sheets of timber always wastes at least 20% of the material.

It’s intellectually appealing to come up with a design that requires only 6 cuts to turn 12 standard sheets of timber into a shelter. However, In a third world disaster context, which I think is the primary intend use of the Hexayurt, I’m not sure that this imperative to minimise waste is actually a primary concern. As one of the other participants in the course pointed out to me, in such a scenario there is never any kind of waste – any material not used in the shelter itself would be put to use elsewhere, or burned as fuel.
Perhaps this is one of the potential pitfalls of conceptually beautiful design; it’s easy to fall in love an elegant solution and lose sight of the messiness of the real world. If Buckminster Fuller’s frequent failures can be summarised, this is problem I would point to. I hope the Hexayurt doesn’t inherit this property from its forebares.

Aside from the Yurt itself we built the furniture using a system called Grid Beam, went to a talk about logistics in remote places and learned about thin client computing with Aptivate.

It’s interesting to on reflect how complimentary each of these things is. For example, it’s easy to dismiss (as Bill Gates has) the desire to get computing into developing countries. However, as Thomas Jefferson points out, any vector for ideas can have profound, cost-free impact on standards of living. A great example of this is the Literacy Bridge project in Ghana, which gives users access to information about effective farming techniques. The Hexayurt, as a design pattern, can be spread at any scale for free to anyone who has Internet access. Again, Grid Beam is another “open source” design pattern that can be used by anyone who has a means to find out about it. In both cases the designs are such that it they are agnostic about the material used to make them and can be adapted to suit local needs.

It’s an optimistic picture, and perhaps one that should be tempered with a knowlege of how hard development actually is, and particularly with Africa’s obstinate stagnation despite a surfeit of good intentions.

If the weekend was anything to go by the do it yourself, open source, low energy, sustainable approach has massive appeal in the west – so whatever it’s fate in the developing world at least among nerds their will be lots of home made furniture made in solar powered sheds.