New York’s World Science Festival, in the last week of May, is an amazing series of science-related events. If you want to see stars, and I mean the Hollywood variety, this is the place. Paul Rudd will be playing Einstein. Alan Alda will be handing out Kavli prizes to the great and good of science.
And the great and good are in no short supply. There’s Julie Robinson, chief scientist for the space station, talking about the Right Stuff for research in space. There’s Martin Rees, the UK’s Astronomer Royal, talking about black holes, quantum physics and the Big Bang. There’s Mary-Claire King, the geneticist who discovered the breast cancer gene. There’s even a gaggle of celebrity writers like E. Doctorow, Joyce Carol Oates and Steven Pinker, talking about how they write about science.
It’s great that so many brilliant people are willing to share their wisdom with the crowd. But what about the wisdom of the crowd? Where does that get shared? If all goes to plan, we’ll see some pretty amazing crowdsourced science taking shape at Science Hack Day NYC, the second time this popular global event has happened in the Big Apple, and the first time in downtown Brooklyn. In case you’re wondering what a Science Hack Day is, the short answer is tinkering with neat technology to do cool science. Here’s a longer answer. Anyone can pitch a project, and try to assemble a team to work on it. After 24+ hours of non-stop hacking, teams present their results to judges, and some win awards for their efforts.
I’ve written about the winners of last year’s Science Hack Day in this blog. All prizes went to projects pitched – not by professional scientists – but by students or alums from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. These weren’t ordinary arts students, mind you. They were all part of an amazingly creative Masters programme at the edge of art, design and technology, NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program, ITP. And they had a home field advantage, since the event happened at ITP. But this year, I expect to see some of the winning projects pitched by people who are completely outside of the academic world – real amateurs. That’s what I call upscience: inverting the pyramid of scientific enquiry, atop which brilliant professionals normally stand, so that inspired amateurs can shape scientific agendas that matter to them, their families and communities.
Talking trash cans
My favourite upscientist these days is a guy called Sean Auriti. He and his team turned up at Science and the City – a smaller hackfest I’ve been running for the last couple of years, which focuses on urban science themes. Sean’s team quietly assembled the hardware and software for a fully functional interactive trash can, called eCan, that gives points as rewards for people cleaning up the streets, using the latest Q-code and mobile phone technologies to interact with the users – or more accurately, the players, since this clever device effectively gamifies a major environmental issue.
Now my colleagues and I at CUSP, NYU’s Center for Urban Science and Progress, are helping Sean get eCan beyond just a proof of principle. We’re providing technical feedback and advice about how to turn eCan into an educational tool. We’re also helping Sean make connections to organizations and companies that have a vested interest in seeing this innovative device succeed. But eCan is Sean’s project, not ours. And it will be on display at Science Hack Day, where Sean will be looking to make an even niftier version of it.
That’s upscience to me, and it’s definitely not the usual order of things. Normally scientists are supposed to have the bright ideas, and spin them off with the help of investors and on the back of erudite papers and expensive patents. But when it comes to urban science, at least, the crowd may have the best ideas. After all, you don’t need to be an expert on black holes to see that New York has a trash problem. And you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to have a bright idea for dealing with that problem.
What I like most about eCan is what you see when you lift the lid. A Raspberry Pi, an Arduino, and other assorted low-cost electronics. Typical ingredients of open-source hardware projects being devised in maker spaces all over the US and around the world. (Sean helped start a small makerspace in Brooklyn a few years ago, it turns out.) Now imagine what would happen if more mainstream scientists spent time with makers like Sean, and helped them turn their ideas into practical tools for science, urban or otherwise.
Better still, don’t imagine it. Come to Science Hack Day NYC and you’ll see this happening in practice. Even if you don’t think of yourself as a hacker or a maker, you can participate in the Citizen Science Explorers Program that we’re organizing each afternoon, and learn how to be an active participant in ongoing research, by collecting, analyzing or simulating data on your laptop or your smartphone.
Science Hack Day NYC is possible thanks to many people. Thanks to Ariel Waldman for creating the Science Hack Day meme and sharing it so generously with the world. Thanks to Caroline Gelb for convincing her colleagues at World Science Festival that they needed this kind of hands-on event in their portfolio, and working tirelessly with her team to make the event happen. Thanks to George Agudow and Dan O’Sullivan at ITP, as well as the many students there who have patiently supported my hackfest mania, through hurricanes and snowstorms. Thanks to Dana Karwas and Luke Dubois at NYU’s Media and Games Network MAGNET, for generously sharing their space and their time in order to bring Science Hack Day to Brooklyn. And thanks to my many colleagues at CUSP for embracing an out-of-the-ordinary event: Steve, Ari, Nick, Masoud, Greg, Charlie, Justin, and the CUSP students who are behind a lot of the projects in the Citizen Science Explorers Programme. Thanks to Liz and her colleagues at Public Lab, my fave upscience organization, for their unstinting support of the event. And above all, thanks to the hundreds of New Yorkers who have come to science hackfests, both big and small, that I’ve helped organized over the last couple of years. Your enthusiasm and dedication is what makes these events come alive!