Thought hackers were dangerous people? Think again!

Like some other words in the English language, hacker started out as a benign activity, then got co-opted somewhere along the line to mean something sinister. Here’s how Wikipedia clarifies things:

1) Hacker (computer security) someone who accesses a computer system by circumventing its security system.

2) Hacker (hobbyist), who makes innovative customizations or combinations of retail electronic and computer equipment.

3) Hacker (programmer subculture), who combines excellence, playfulness, cleverness and exploration in performed activities.

At Science Hack Day NYC, we’re combining class 2 and 3 hackers with scientists and a whole bunch of just awesome people, who are neither scientists nor hackers, but want to learn about both these cultures.

A couple of snapshots from yesterday:

A thrilled 11-year old schoolgirl who’d come specially with her dad to meet scientists from CERN, because her school project was the Large Hadron Collider. The CERN scientists are working with local hackers on a project called Test4Theory, which can run simulations of CERN’s Large Hadron Collider on a laptop. Now that girl can be part of pushing the frontiers of particle physics from the comfort of her own home.

A Science Hack Day is a chance to meet, talk to and work with scientists.

A retired English teacher, who’d come to learn programming, and how to build her own electronics. With no prior knowledge. At first, she was a bit upset that there was no one who had time to give her a course on these things. But gradually, sitting around with the scientists and hackers, she began to realize that she had something special to contribute to the projects herself. She was good at asking questions and making the scientists – not renowned for their communication skills – explain things simply and clearly. She’s going to be writing summaries of some of the hacks on Sunday.

The hacking continues today. Hacks include making a project on ipads that teaches chemistry in a hands-on way. A project that gets people to sort tweets from disaster zones like the Oklahoma tornadoes, to help figure out where the worst damage is. A dog collar with embedded sensors to check your mutt is getting enough exercise. And many, many more – you can see the full list here.

The event has workshops interspersed, too. One today about balloon mapping by the amazing activists from Public Labs and one on the darling of the open-source hardware movement, the Arduino microcontroller, by none other than Arduino co-founder and NYU faculty, Tom Igoe.

At 8pm, distinguished researchers from NYU will judge the final results of the hack. And in true hacker style, the crowd will get to vote, too. If you don’t have time for anything else, come along for that – we’ll let people in even if they didn’t register. But arrive a bit before 8pm, to get a seat!


This weekend, New York will have its first Science Hack Day. It will take place at ITP, NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Programme, in collaboration with CUSP, NYU’s new Center for Urban Science and Progress. How did this event – a completely novel format for World Science Festival – come about?

Three years ago, I had never heard of the term hackfest. I was a scientist. I went to conferences, workshops and symposia. But never hackfests. Then something happened. I got a Fellowship from the Shuttleworth Foundation.

That Fellowship opened up my mind to new ways of developing technology. I met with other Fellows who were putting open source software to novel uses in education and government. And what I heard from these people was talk of hackfests, hackathons, bar camps, code sprints and un-conferences. Of people spontaneously meeting up, sometimes just a few, sometimes dozens, and working together, rather than lecturing each other. Building useful things, rather than just talking about them. It seemed bewildering: how can people just spontaneously figure out what to do? Don’t you need detailed agendas? Keynote speakers? Panel sessions? Chairpersons? Speaker bios?

Apparently not. If the theme is interesting enough – and on the Internet, there’s always someone out there interested in what you want to do – then people will come and make neat stuff together. Ok, a little promotion helps. But it’s surprising how powerful word-of-mouth can be on the Web. And although the concept of hackfest – a couple of intense days working on making some code better – comes from Silicon Valley and the culture of software developers, turns out it can be used for science, too, with just a few slight tweaks.

Over the last three years, thanks to my Shuttleworth Fellowship, I’ve helped organized a dozen science hackfests. In places as exotic as Rio de Janeiro, Beijing, Cape Town, Geneva, London and yes, even in New York. But this is the first Science Hack Day I’m involved in, a model of hackfest developed by San Francisco based science-hacker Ariel Waldman, which is geared for an altogether larger scale than anything I’ve experienced before.

Over 200 have signed up so far for the event (there may still be a few last-minute free tickets online!). So it is with some trepidation that I look forward to seeing who turns up on Saturday morning, when ITP’s Clay Shirky kicks off the event with a “pitching session” where anyone with a good idea – not just our invited crew – can shout out about it and try to get a science hack going.

Budding scientists getting ready for Science Hack Day NYC – future Galileos, perhaps?

Whatever happens – if only twenty come, or if all 200 turn up – we’ll be ready. Thanks in part to the Shuttleworth Foundation, we’ve been able to invite an impressive line-up of scientists who have some great ideas for hacks they can do. Everything from genetics to particle physics. And we’ve got lots of food and caffeinated drinks to keep everyone hacking along through the entire event – though we’ll break for a little sleep Saturday night.

Since a strong theme of the event is “citizen science”, participants don’t need to be geeky software developers to help. (Although we’re counting on a fair number of those turning up!) Citizen science needs lots of skills: writers, designers, people to test out stuff, to comment on the clarity of explanations so that other citizens will be able to contribute. Above all, though participants need is a passion for science, and a willingness to roll up your sleeves and help. Oh, and a laptop will come in handy, too! No need to stick to one topic all weekend, and there will be several “pop-up workshops” to entertain and instruct participants in technologies like 3D printing and balloon mapping.

What will come out of the event? We have a panel of distinguished judges – Beth Noveck, head of Govlab; ITP’s Tom Igoe, co-founder of Arduino; Steve Koonin, director of CUSP – who will review the results of the hacks and give out prizes to the teams that have shown the most creativity in a number of dimensions: science, technology, design, social impact. And of course, the crowd will get to vote for a winner, too.

That’s the end of the event. But with the help of CUSP, ITP and WSF, I certainly hope that this will not be the end of some of the projects, and that this first Science Hack Day will stimulate a new wave of citizen scientists in New York.

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