You know from reading this blog that we have been running and attending collaborative making events, or hacks, for quite some time now. We’ve put someone into space, we’ve been at Unbox Festival in India, we’ve run open news hacks with Mozilla and we’ve told you all about how much we love making data physical at SXSW. We’ve hacked with conductive ink, with trousers and under canvas.. All have been amazing, have led to incredible new things and introduced us to amazing new people. But all our events have been behind closed doors. The public have remained where they are – in public – while we’ve been locked in a room or atrium. So when Irini Papadimitriou and Michael Saunby wanted to hold a public hack-jam we jumped at the chance.
We were hacking with our friends Justin Marshall and Ollie Hatfield, who worked on the winning design that harvested museums as accidental data sources for climate change. In their work they built an idea that in the V&A there are images on fabrics, objects and in prints that may have flora and fauna that is specific to that climate on them. They posed the question of how this might looked very different if there was a 4C rise in temperature.
WHAT DID WE LEARN?
Hacking in public is hard
It’s really hard. You are just about to reach the end of debugging a particularly nasty servo motor problem and are just about to test what has taken up the best part of the last hour when “What’s that do?” asks a 7 year. ‘That’ being a 3D printer in the middle of a two hour print job for a completely revolutionary new approach to dress fastenings. The 7 year old is joined by 29 nine of his friends and you have to stop and explain everything about a 3D printer (yes of course you mention That Gun because if you don’t they will). And just when their parents have moved them onto the next group and you’re about to crack the final line of the bug… “What does that do” says a bright eyed 9 year old girl with her slightly harassed looking dad…
You have to know your story
You’re going to get asked what you are doing. A lot. You need to work on that story. The public are interested and want to find out more but they don’t want to hear about your 1500 lines of code and the trouble you’re having with stack overflow. They’re on a fun day out and you’re there to entertain. So think of great things to tell people. Connecting this to popular news stories relating to your tech and ideas worked well for us (the 3D printed gun story is always a winner).
Come prepared with interesting demos.
Bring some working examples. Our amazing hacker friend James Thomas is wearing his mini starlight broach to explain how star data can be modelled on lights. When he tells people he’s wearing a datafeed from a far off star they stop and listen to what he has to say.
Have someone greeting and steering the public
You really need a front-of-house person. They need to be able to tell the bigger story of the event – what you’re doign and why. They need to be able to do this in less than 15 seconds and know who to take them to in the hack to continue the story. Find out what the person/people who are visiting is interested in and connect them to the amazing hackers in the room.
Hacking in public is accountable
We were hacking for climate change. We had a lot of people talking about climate change. The fantastic thing was that we were sharing the room with the world’s leading scientists. When someone from the public attempted to deny climate change – we were able to point them to the scientists with hard data up their sleeve. Don’t mess with the Met Office – they KNOW their data. But there’s a bigger picture here. It’s a picture of being able to justify what you’re doing. To talk about your idea, take critism and adapt what you’re doing based on the conversations you are having with the people visiting. If you can respond to 15,000 people asking you why and how – and you adapt to what they’re saying – you’re going to have a pretty robust idea that stands up to future development. You’ve done the market research and public impact during the development. I’m not sure that there are many development processes that can say they do that.
So what happens next? We’d like to explore this new way of hacking. Maybe it’s not new – maybe you have done this and want to shout – ‘hey, we did that first’ – or ‘we did that before you were born’… please do, we would love to hear your stories. Our feeling is that this is something really quite new and that it could change how hack-events are run in the future. So…. have your flu shot, get trained in public liaisons, get a safety cage for your soldering iron and be prepared to find, play, make and talk. Maybe we’ll see you in the public gallery of the Houses of Parliament collaboratively finding new ways to be more accountable and more democratic. You up for that?