Hack for the craic: David McKeown on making hackathons fun for everyone

27 Feb 2018402 Views

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Science Hack Day Dublin in action. Image: Sandra Duffy

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What do you get when you create a hackathon with no investors, no cash prizes and no business case? A hell of a lot of fun.

A few years ago, I attended Science Hack Day Dublin as a casual, curious observer. By the end of the weekend, I had tried my hand at soldering, whizzed around on a self-balancing scooter wearing an EEG headset and navigated my way – Crystal Maze-style – through a smoke-filled laser maze.

It was a tremendous 36 hours of fun and I’m excited to return to Science Hack Day as a judge for this year’s event.

‘We aren’t interested in running a tech bro backslapping contest … The more different backgrounds we have, the better it is’
– DAVID MCKEOWN

What struck me about this hackathon is that the only end goal is for people to have a bit of fun and make stuff. There’s no flashy big-ticket prize and no commercial agenda. They’re not looking for start-up pitches or scalable business plans, and there’s no Dragons’ Den interrogation. Just good old-fashioned, high-tech making and mingling.

Rocket scientist, maker and Science Hack Day evangelist David McKeown won’t want to be labelled as the driving force behind Science Hack Day Dublin and is swift to acknowledge the work of the whole team behind the annual event, but he’s an unmistakably crucial cog in the machine. Which is why I cornered him with some questions about “Ireland’s friendliest hackathon”, keeping it real and inclusive, and – most importantly – having fun with science.

What is a Science Hack Day?

It is a community-run hackathon. Over a weekend, we make fun stuff – frivolous or serious, we welcome it all.

We are hacking science, which we take to mean pretty much everything. If it exists, there is science in it.

We really like ambitious ideas, accidental successes, glorious failures, taped-together prototypes and making new friends. We don’t care for business plans.

Why did you devise such a thing?

We started it because we thought Dublin should celebrate all that creative tech goo it has oozing out of it, but we didn’t want an event that felt like working on the weekend.

We ask, what would you build if you had no boss? What would build if you had a shed of tools and a few new friends to help out?

The 2016 Science Hack Day trophies

The 2016 Science Hack Day trophies. Image: Sandra Duffy

We started back in 2012 when there were no other hackathons happening in Ireland. Now there are plenty, which is great in lots of ways but, very commonly, they have a ‘theme’ that happens to correspond to the main sponsor’s business interest. Each to their own, but we think clever folk doing consultancy for pizza is a bit ‘meh’. We know how hard it is for people to free up a weekend so when they do, we want them working on something they care about.

For our part, we focus on trying to run Ireland’s friendliest hackathon. We have no cash prize to offer but we do have wooden medals that say ‘Science Champion’.

What have been some of the most memorable projects from the hackathon’s past?

Yeah, lots of crazy stuff. I have fond memories of smoke-filled laser mazes, augmented reality Pac-Man vacuum cleaning and pancake printers. You never really know what you are going to get.

One really great (and practical) project from last year was a Python script, which would read the templates from old dress-making books and automatically generate the vector art files so you could easily laser-cut the material shapes. Genius.

A lean, green Science Hack Day project

A lean, green, Science Hack Day project. Image: Sandra Duffy

And what kind of ideas have been dreamed up so far for this edition?

A nice mix of ideas have been submitted to our website so far, including a periodic table of cupcakes, a laminar flow water jet and a rubber duck that displays water temperature (there is a Best Use of a Rubber Duck award).

People are also free to pitch projects on Saturday morning without warning. Any project that has at least one person willing to work on it is good with us, but most projects are worked on by teams of three to five people. If you haven’t got your own idea figured out just yet, just join any of the teams that float your boat. They’ll be happy to have you.

Do projects from this hackathon sometimes go on to feature at Dublin Maker?

Yeah, a few have. Dublin Maker is a great chance to show off things which start as quick hacks over a weekend to thousands of people a few months later. A wireless version of the MIDI Irish dancing shoes that won in 2013 went down very well at Dublin Maker. Artist-led projects, in particular, tend to have a life after the event, with projects starting at Science Hack Day being shown around the world.

Who should come along?

‘Everyone’ is too clichéd an answer …

[Pauses]

[Shouts] Everybody!

We really try to be inclusive. It has been a core value of ours from the start. Apart from the constant struggle to keep the event free, we have been offering childcare bursaries and transport bursaries for three years now in an attempt to make sure it is inclusive as possible.

We aren’t interested in running a tech bro backslapping contest, so we have worked hard on steadily improving our gender ratio over our six years. We have 150 people registered so far this year, 40pc of whom are women, up from 20pc in 2012.

As you might imagine, we get a lot of developers, engineers and scientists attending, but we also get a lot of designers, artists, crafters and the occasional philosopher. We have had a poet in residence (Kate Dempsey) the last three years who ‘hacks’ a few poems throughout the event. We find the more different backgrounds we have, the better it is.

What would you say to someone who may be crafty and interested in making, but intimidated about teaming up with experienced hackers and scientists?

We have craft projects every year, we love them. The whole thing is super-relaxed. Most of it is Googling things, learning things and chatting to people while pretending you haven’t hot-glued yourself to something.

The rescheduled Science Hack Day Dublin will take place on 21 and 22 April 2018 at the friendly venue of Tog hackerspace, Dublin 8. You can check out this year’s suggested projects, add your own idea to the mix, apply for a bursary and register for free right now.

Updated, 2.51pm, 14 Mar 2018: This article has been updated to reflect the rescheduled dates for the event.

Elaine Burke is managing editor of Siliconrepublic.com

editorial@siliconrepublic.com