Science, Tech & Environment

Science Hack Day promotes creative collaboration through hacking

This story is a part of

Human Needs

This story is a part of

Human Needs

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San Francisco Science Hack Day participants in Oct. 2012 await presentations. (Photo by Mitch Altman via flickr).

For 48 hours, designers, developers, scientists, web geeks and visionaries gathered to create what might become the next best thing.

They’ve gathered for Science Hack Day, a two-day all-night collaboration held in cities all over the world.

Ariel Waldman, the global coordinator of Science Hack Day, says the idea began when she and a few others were speaking at a conference about the idea of open science.

"We were talking about how frustrated we were, not that people aren't opening up science, but that people weren't really doing anything interesting with the open science that's out there," Waldman said.

There's a lot of unique things you can do with freely shared scientific data and scientific projects, Waldman said.

But also sitting in the audience was Jeremy Keith, who was inspired by the idea of open science, and decided to create Science Hack Day to address the problem.

The first science hack day was in London in June 2010. After seeing the success of the event, Waldman hosted a Science Hack Day in San Francisco that November. 

"It's just this really great event where you get scientists, designers, and developers and all different types of people together in the same physical space for a weekend and see what they can rapidly prototype in 24 consecutive hours," she said.

Because there are no limits to creativity, the event allows people to create anything they want, while working with different types of people they wouldn't normally work with.

Collaboration is a big part of Science Hack Day and oftentimes inspiration can come from another person's idea.

When Matt Bellis, particle physicist and assistant professor at Siena College, attended a San Francisco hack day, one of the attendees was creating a device that would detect when he needed to shave — using simple code, a microscope that plugs into a USB and an open source library.

"He said 'I've got this very simple software that I run it over my face, it looks for the contrast between light and dark and it picks out my beard stubble and if there's a lot of stubble it says you've got to shave,'" Bellis recalled.

What struck Bellis about this hack was its similarity to some of the early particle physics experiments with cloud chambers. Instead of using pictures to record the data, he could use the original code from the beard detector and an open source library.

"In 2012, I wrote a small proposal to the American Physical Society, to make cloud chambers for schools and use webcams to record the data," he said. "I never would've even considered this or known that these tools were out there if I hadn't shown up at this science hack day."

The groups really try to have a fun environment where people are building whatever they want and sometimes those things go on to actually change how science is done, Waldman said.

The feedback and inspiration Bellis says he gets from Science Hack Day have helped him in his own research.

"Most of us are so busy that we're grateful for the opportunity to carve out a weekend to do something that might not turn into anything, and there's no onus for it to turn into anything," he said. 

One of Waldman's goals for Science Hack Day is it gains enough momentum to happen on it's own.

"We are seeing that science hack day is expanding to all these different cities around the world and it's really awesome to watch because each city has it's own flavor and puts their own spin on it," Waldman said.

Though the event has spread to Mexico, Africa, and throughout Europe, Waldman says the program will add an ambassador program in the near future. The program will bring selected people from around the world to Science Hack Day in San Francisco, with hopes that they'll host similar events where they live.