I spoke at Responsive Field Day here in Portland on Friday. It was an excellent event. All the talks were top notch.
The day flew by, with each talk clocking in at just 20 minutes, in batches of three followed by a quick panel discussion. It was a great format …but I knew it would be. See, Responsive Field Day was basically Responsive Day Out relocated to Portland.
Jason told me last year how inspired he was by the podcast recordings from Responsive Day Out and how much he and Lyza wanted to do a Responsive Day Out in Portland. I said “Go for it!” although I advised changing to the name to something a bit more American (having a “day out” at the seaside feels very British—a “field day” works perfectly as the US equivalent). Well, Jason, Lyza, and everyone at Cloud Four should feel very proud of their Responsive Field Day—it was wonderful.
As the day unfolded on Friday, I found myself being quite moved. It was genuinely touching to see my conference template replicated not only in format, but also in spirit. It was affordable (“Every expense spared!” was my motto), inclusive, diverse, and fast-paced. It was a lovely, lovely feeling to think that I had, in some small way, provided some inspiration for such a great event.
Jessica pointed out that isn’t the first time I’ve set up an event template for others to follow. When I organised the first Science Hack Day in London a few years ago, I never could have predicted how amazingly far Ariel would take the event. Fifty Science Hack Days in multiple countries—fifty! I am in awe of Ariel’s dedication. And every time I see pictures or video from a Science Hack Day in some far-flung location I’ve never been to, and I see the logo festooning the venue …I get such a warm fuzzy glow.
Y’know, when you’re making something—whether it’s an event, a website, a book, or anything else—it’s hard to imagine what kind of lifespan it might have. It’s probably just as well. I think it would be paralysing and overwhelming to even contemplate in advance. But in retrospect …it sure feels nice.
I was so close to bringing my ancient copy of DOM Scripting to @rfdpdx for @adactio to sign.
This was the fifth Science Hack Day in San Francisco and the 40th worldwide. That’s truly incredible. I mean, I literally can’t believe it. When I organised the very first Science Hack Day back in 2010, I had no idea how far it would go. But Ariel has been indefatigable in making it a truly global event. She is amazing. And at this year’s San Francisco event, she outdid herself in putting together a fantastic cross-section of scientists, designers, and developers: paleontology, marine biology, geology, astronomy, particle physics, and many, many more disciplines were represented in the truly diverse attendees.
After an inspiring set of lightning talks on the first day, ideas started getting bounced around and the hacking began to take shape. I had a vague idea for—yetanother—space-related hack. What clinched it was picking the brains of NASA’s Keri Bean. She’d help me get hold of the dataset I needed for my silly little hack.
I wanted to make that idea approachable, so I thought about the kinds of people we might want to have living with us on the interior shell of a rotating hollowed-out asteroid. How about the people you follow on Twitter?
The only question that remains then is: which asteroid is the right one for you and your Twitter friends? Keri tracked down the motherlode of asteroid data and I started hacking the simplest of mashups—Twitter meets space rocks.
Give it your Twitter username and it will tell you exactly which one of the asteroids in the main belt is right for you (I considered adding an enterprise option that would tell you where you could store your social network in the cloud …the Oort cloud, that is).
Be default, your asteroid will have the population density of Earth, which is quite generously. But if you want a more sparsely-populated habitat—say, the population density of Australia—or a more densely-populated world—with something like the population density of Japan—then you will be assigned a larger or smaller asteroid accordingly.
You’ll also be told by how much you should increase or decrease the rotation of the asteroid to get one gee of centrifugal force on the interior. Figuring out the equations for calculating centrifugal force almost broke me, but luckily I had help from a rocket scientist and a particle physicist …I’m not even kidding. And I should point out that the calculations take some liberties—I’m assuming a spherical body, which is quite a stretch, given the lumpy nature of most asteroids.
It was An Event Apart that took me to my second destination: Austin, Texas. The conference was great, as always. But was really nice was having some time afterwards to explore the town. Being in Austin when it’s not South by Southwest is an enjoyable experience that I can heartily recommend.
Christopher and Ari took me out to Lockhart to experience Smitty’s barbecue—a place with a convoluted family drama and really, really excellent smoked meat. I never really “got” Texas BBQ until now. I always thought I liked the sauced-based variety, but now I understand: if the BBQ is good enough, you don’t need the sauce.
For the rest of my stay, Sam was an excellent host, showing me around her town until it was time for me to take off for New York city.
To start with, I was in Manhattan. I was going to be speaking at Future Of Web Design right downtown on 42nd street, and I showed up a few days early to rendezvous with Jessica and do some touristing.
We perfected the cheapskate’s guide to Manhattan, exploring the New York Public Library, having Tiff show us around the New York Times, and wrangling a tour of the MoMA from Ben Fino-Radin, who’s doing some fascinating work with the digital collection.
I gave my FOWD talk, which went fine once the technical glitches were sorted out (I went through three microphones in five minutes). The conference was in a cinema, which meant my slides were giganormous. That was nice, but the event had an odd kind of vibe. Maybe it was the venue, or maybe it was the two-track format …I really don’t like two-track conferences; I constantly feel like I’m missing out on something.
I skipped out on the second day of the conference to make my way over the bridge to Brooklyn in time for my third trip to Brooklyn Beta.
This year, they tried something quite different. For the first two days, there was a regular Brooklyn Beta: 300 lovely people gathered together at the Invisible Dog, ostensibly to listen to talks but in reality to hang out and chat. It was joyous.
Then on the third and final day, those 300 people decamped to Brooklyn’s Navy Yard to join a further 1000 people. There we heard more talks and had more chats.
Alas, the acoustics in the hangar-like space battled against the speakers. That’s why I made sure to grab a seat near the front for the afternoon talks. I found myself with a front-row seat for a series of startup stories and app tales. Then, without warning, the tech talks were replaced with stand-up comics. The comedians were very, very good (Reggie Watts!) …but I found it hard to pay attention because I realised I was in a living nightmare: somehow I was in the front-row seat of a stand-up comedy show. I spent the entire time thinking “Please don’t pick on me, please don’t pick on me, please don’t…” I couldn’t sneak out either, because that would’ve only drawn attention to myself.
But apart from confronting me with my worst fears, Brooklyn Beta was great …I’m just not sure it scales well from 300 to 1300.
And with that, my American sojourn came to an end. I’m glad that the stars aligned in such a way that I was able to hit up four events in my 16 day trip:
I wanted to build a visualisation based on Matt’s brilliant light cone idea, but I found it far too daunting to try to find data in a usable format and come up with a way of drawing a customisable geocentric starmap of our corner of the galaxy. So I put that idea on the back burner…
At this year’s San Francisco Science Hack Day, I came back to that idea. I wanted some kind of mashup that demonstrated the connection between the time that light has travelled from distant stars, and the events that would have been happening on this planet at that moment. So, for example, a star would be labelled with “the battle of Hastings” or “the sack of Rome” or “Columbus’s voyage to America”. To do that, I’d need two datasets; the distance of stars, and the dates of historical events (leaving aside any Gregorian/Julian fuzziness).
For wont of a better hack, Chloe agreed to help me out. We set to work finding a good dataset of stellar objects. It turned out that a lot of the best datasets from NASA were either about our local solar neighbourhood, or else really distant galaxies and stars that are emitting prehistoric light.
The best dataset we could find was the Near Star Catalogue from Uranometria but the most distant star in that collection was only 70 or 80 light years away. That meant that we could only mash it up with historical events from the twentieth century. We figured we could maybe choose important scientific dates from the past 70 or 80 years, but to be honest, we really weren’t feeling it.
We had reached this impasse when it was time for the Science Hack Day planetarium show. It was terrific: we were treated to a panoramic tour of space, beginning with low Earth orbit and expanding all the way out to the cosmic microwave background radiation. At one point, the presenter outlined the reach of Earth’s radiosphere. That’s the distance that ionosphere-penetrating radio and television signals from Earth, travelling at the speed of light, have reached. “It extends about 70 light years out”, said the presenter.
This was perfect! That was exactly the dataset of stars that we had. It was a time for a pivot. Instead of the lofty goal of mapping historical events to the night sky, what if we tried to do something more trivial and fun? We could demonstrate how far classic television shows have travelled. Has Star Trek reached Altair? Is Sirius receiving I Love Lucy yet?
No, not TV shows …music! Now we were onto something. We would show how far the songs of planet Earth had travelled through space and which stars were currently receiving which hits.
Meanwhile, I was putting together the logic. Our list of stars had the distances in parsecs. So I needed to convert the date of a number one hit song into the number of parsecs that song had travelled, and then find the last star that it has passed.
By the end of the first day, the functionality was in place: you could enter a date, and find out what was number one on that date, and which star is just now receiving that song.
After the sleepover (more like a wakeover) in the aquarium, we started to style the interface. I say “we” …Chloe wrote the CSS while I made unhelpful remarks.
For the icing on the cake, Chloe used her previous experience with the Rdio API to add playback of short snippets of each song (when it’s available).
When I organised the first ever Science Hack Day in London in 2010, I made sure to write about how I organised the event. That’s because I wanted to encourage other people to organise their own Science Hack Days:
If I can do it, anyone can. And anyone should.
Later that year, Ariel organised a Science Hack Day in Palo Alto at the Institute For The Future. It was magnificent. Since then, Ariel has become a tireless champion and global instigator of Science Hack Day, spreading the idea, encouraging new events all over the world, and where possible, travelling to them. I just got the ball rolling—she has really run with it.
She organised another Science Hack Day in San Francisco for last weekend and I was lucky enough to attend—it coincided nicely with my travel plans to the States for An Event Apart in Austin. Once again, it was absolutely brilliant. There were tons of ingenious hacks, and the attendees were a wonderfully diverse bunch: some developers and designers, but also plenty of scientists and students, many (perhaps most) from out of town.
But best of all was the venue: The California Academy of Sciences. It’s a fantastic museum, and after 5pm—when the public left—we had the place to ourselves. Penguins, crocodiles, a rainforest, an aquarium …it’s got it all. I didn’t get a chance to do all of the activities that were provided—I was too busy hacking or helping out—like stargazing on the roof, or getting a tour of the archives. But I did make it to the private planetarium show, which was wonderful.
The Science Hackers spent the night, unrolling their sleeping bags in all the nooks and crannies of the aquarium and the African hall. It was like being a big kid. Mind you, the fun of sleeping over in such a great venue was somewhat tempered by the fact that trying to sleep in a sleeping bag on just a yoga mat on a hard floor is pretty uncomfortable. I was quite exhausted by day two of the event, but I powered through on the wave of infectious enthusiasm exhibited by all the attendees.
Then when it came time to demo all the hacks …well, I was blown away. So much cool stuff.
Ariel and her team really outdid themselves. I’m so happy I was able to make it to the event. If you get the chance to attend a Science Hack Day, take it. And if there isn’t one happening near you, why not organise one? Ariel has put together a handy checklist to get you started so you can get excited and make things with science.
I’m still quite amazed that this was the 24th Science Hack Day! When I organised the first one three years ago, I had no idea that it could spread so far, but thanks to Ariel, it has become a truly special phenomenon.
If you want to help make a Science Hack Day happen in San Diego, get in touch with biologist Jun Yin—the science hacker behind wearable DNA.
It looks like there’s quite a lot of interest in organising a Science Hack Day in Dublin to coincide with the Dublin City Of Science event in 2012. Get in touch with Ellen Byrne if you want to be involved.
Thanks to this generous support, 10 people interested in organizing a Science Hack Day from around the world will be selected to win a scholarship for a trip to Science Hack Day San Francisco, occurring November 12-13, 2011, where they’ll experience first-hand how Science Hack Day works and connect with a global community of organizers. This Science Hack Day Ambassador Program will award individuals who are motivated and planning to organize a Science Hack Day in their city.
To apply, start organising a Science Hack Day in your city and then fill in the application form. The scholarship will cover airfare, four nights in a hotel and $300 for expenses. Ten lucky ambassadors will be winging their way to the bay area this November.
It’s time to get excited and make things with science in your corner of this pale blue dot.
My sojourn up the western seaboard of the United States has come to an end. It began in San Diego with the final An Event Apart of the year, which was superb as always. From there, I travelled up to San Francisco for Cindy and Matt’s wedding celebration, followed by a few days in Seattle. The whole trip was rounded out back in California at the wonderfully titled Institute For The Future in Palo Alto. For that was the location of Science Hack Day San Francisco.
It was an amazing event. Ariel did a fantastic job—she put so much effort into making sure that everything was just right. I suspected it was going to be a lot of fun, but once again, I was blown away by the levels of ingenuity, enthusiasm and sheer brilliance on display.
In just 24 hours, the ingenious science hackers had created particle wind chime which converts particle collisions into music that Brian Eno would be proud of, grassroots aerial mapping with balloons which produced astonishing results (including an iPad app), as well as robots and LEDs a-plenty. The list of hacks is on the wiki.
My own hack was modest in scope. Initially, I wanted to build a visualisation based on Matt’s brilliant light cone idea, but I found it far too daunting to try to find data in a usable format and come up with a way of drawing a customisable geocentric starmap of our corner of the galaxy. So I put that idea on the back burner and decided to build something around my favourite piece of not-yet-existing technology: the space elevator.
Spacelift compares the cost efficiency of getting payloads into geosynchronous orbit using a space elevator compared to traditional rocketry. Basically, it’s a table. But I’ve tried to make it a pretty table with a bit of data visualisation to show at a glance how much more efficient a space elevator would be.
So, for example, while you could get a TIE-fighter into the Clarke belt using a single Atlas V, two Ariane 5s, or three space shuttles, it would cost considerably more than using a space elevator, where you’re basically just paying for the electricity.
If you click on the dollar amount for each transport mechanism, you’ll see the price calculated as a tower of pennies. Using a Falcon 9, for example, will cost you a tower of pennies 22 times larger than a space elevator, assuming a space elevator is at least 38,000 kilometres tall/long. Using a space elevator, on the other hand, requires spending a tower of pennies about the same height as itself. I don’t even bother trying to visualise the relative height differences for getting anything bigger than the Tantive IV into orbit as it would require close to infinite scrolling.
Having such smart, helpful people around made the whole exercise a joy. It was quite a pleasure to walk over to a group of hackers, ask Is anyone here a rocket scientist? and have at least one person raise their hand. The constant presence of Cosmos playing on a loop just added to the atmosphere of exploration and fun.
I’ve put the code on GitHub, ‘cause that’s what a real hacker would do. It’s my first GitHub repository. Be gentle with me.
There’s CSS3 and HTML5 a-plenty. I deliberately don’t use the IE shim to enable styling of HTML5 structural elements in lesser versions of Internet Explorer; there wouldn’t be much point delivering RGBa, opacity and text-shadow styles to a browser that can’t handle ‘em.
Round about the 43 minute mark—when Natalie Villalobos is talking about all the fantastic APIs and datasets that are out there—is the moment when I leaned over and whispered to Riccardo:
We should have a Science Hack Day.
Three months later, on the 19th and 20th of June, Science Hack Day happened. I still can’t quite believe it.
The event was a great success, and more importantly, it was a lot of fun. But you can read all about that on the website, on Twitter and elsewhere. What I want to talk about is how Science Hack Day came together.
The first thing I did was to set up a wiki to get people brainstorming. Many of the proposed venues were places that had previously hosted BarCamps or other geek gatherings requiring plentiful bandwidth and/or sleepover capability. The Guardian offices came up quite early on. I hadn’t been there myself but I knew that it had been the venue for BarCamp London 6.
I got in touch with Matt McAlister at The Guardian who, in a previous life, helped organise the first ever UK Hack Day. He gave the green light and in no time at all, I was talking to Alex Hazell, Events Executive at The Guardian. Her experience in organising previous events was invaluable in figuring out how to approach potential sponsors.
Here’s what you need for a hack day:
physical space for two days,
bandwidth for a large number of developers,
food and drink,
The first two were taken care of. The second two require money. The prizes are less of a priority but food and drink is essential hack fuel. That’s where the sponsors come in.
Lunches and breakfasts could be provided by The Guardian catering staff but that requires paying for staffing costs as well as food. All in all, it’s about £2.5K for the number of people expected at Science Hack Day. That still left Saturday evening food. Pizza is the traditional dish of choice. £500 ought to cover it. Throw in another few hundred quid for prizes and that comes to about £3000.
Rather than approaching companies to sponsor the whole amount, Alex recommended that I try asking for around £500 from each company I got in touch with. That’s a good amount of money but it’s small enough that people might be able to approve it without having to go through lots of bureaucratic procedures within their companies.
That turned out to be a good policy and before long, quite a few companies had agreed to sponsor the event. Fortunately for me, The Guardian’s events team were able to bill them individually which meant I didn’t have to deal with that side of things. The Wellcome Trust, Nature, Thoughtworks, LCGOT and Elsevier were all invoiced separately for their contributions to the fund for canteen food and prizes.
The pizza money came from YDN. As Christian was going to be there anyway, it was convenient for him to pay for the pizza with his company card rather than chasing the paper trail of Yahoo’s invoicing system.
In retrospect, I probably could have got the lunches and breakfasts more cheaply by just getting sandwiches and pastries delivered but then I would have either needed sponsors that were capable of paying on the spot or I would have needed to pay for it myself and then reclaim it by invoicing sponsors.
Unrelated to Science Hack Day, my pal Murray from Global Radio got in touch to ask if I would come in to chat to his team about HTML5. I said I’d love to …if Global Radio fancied sponsoring Science Hack Day. I’m devious like that.
Murray got company approval and I left him to organise the booze for the event—£500 worth of booze. I thought that would be just about right. But I was thinking back to previous BarCamps, not hack days. It turns out that while beer is definitely required for lubricating late night games of Werewolf, it’s actually not all that important to hacking.
It seems obvious in hindsight, but what hackers need are stimulants, not depressants. Fortunately, there was plenty of tea and coffee on hand. By the end of the event, there was also a massive surplus of beer.
Ah well, you live and learn.
The final sponsor was BERG. Their contribution wasn’t as large as the others but it had the advantage of being given in cash. That meant I had a petty cash fund throughout the day for repeat trips to the nearest supermarket for crisps, chocolate, and fruit. The latter food group was important because it was one that I had overlooked.
So two valuable lessons learned were:
Less beer, more juice and caffeine.
Less junk food, more fruit.
But those are relatively minor points. On the whole, everything went incredibly well.
The total cost was around £4,000 but I reckon it would be possible to organise a two-day event like this for half that much by removing the staffing costs (and the drink costs) if you’re okay with sandwiches for lunch and you don’t mind not having many shiny prizes—we had Lego Mindstorms and telescopes for the winners.
About 120 people signed up on the wiki. Another 20 or so listed themselves as “maybe.” I figured there would be the usual drop-out rate so I was expecting 80 or 90 people to make it on the day. That turned out to be a fairly accurate assessment. By Sunday, the numbers were down to around 75 because of non-returners: people who went home, rather than sleeping over, and then didn’t come back in the next day. A lot of those people couldn’t make it back because of family commitments—Sunday was Father’s Day.
In the run-up to Science Hack Day, I wasn’t sure whether or not to create an EventBrite listing to manage attendance. But the wiki seemed to be working pretty well so I just stuck with that. Instead of emailing people, I used the Science Hack Day website and Twitter account to keep everyone up to date and to get some pre-event excitement going.
I had a lot of help and support. Jessica helped out for the duration of Science Hack Day—I couldn’t have done it without her. In the weeks and months before the event, Matt Locke made some valuable introductions Natalie Villalobos went above and beyond the call of duty in putting me in touch with potential sponsors. Through her connections, I had the unbelievable honour of playing a specially recorded message at Science Hack Day from SETI’s Jill Tarter—the real-life inspiration for Ellie Arroway in Carl Sagan’s Contact:
I’m still pinching myself about that. In fact, I’m still pinching myself about the whole event. How did I end up organising something like this?
I’m so glad that, straight after being inspired by the Open Science panel at South by Southwest, I blogged my crazy idea to create a Science Hack Day. By planting a flag in the sand like that, it stopped being just another bit of wishful thinking and starting to become real.
If I can do it, anyone can. And anyone should. There’s already a wiki page for other cities where Science Hack Days might be organised. You can help put one of those events together.