Looking forward to Newcastle's CultureCode hack event

WE'VE all got data lying around, but are we really making the most out of it?

Artist Kelly Richardson (right) talks to Codeworks CEO Herb Kim at the CultureCode Boutique event

IT’S like being given a lorryload of cheese, and only using it to make cheese on toast. Pretty much every organisation is sitting on data, from the amount of electricity it uses to the number of people that visit each week.

It’s highly valued in its own way, but it’s only rarely used to make anything really exciting. Frankly, your tastebuds deserve better.

The CultureCode initiative was set up to build better relationships between the cultural and digital communities in the North East. Sometimes it’s obvious where they can help each other out, from re-developing websites to improving how people play with art online and in exhibitions.

But you don’t get anywhere in either of these worlds by just doing the same old things again and again. So how do you encourage people to create something a little different?

This is where the concept of the “hack day” comes into its own. The idea is that you squish a group of people with different skills into a room, give them a challenge, and see what they can create with a bit of freedom, a lot of imagination and a swimming pool-sized dose of coffee and adrenalin.

Hacks have been around for a while, in bedrooms and small spaces across the world. In recent years, they’ve achieved a bit of mainstream acceptance, and the doors of venues such as the Houses of Parliament and the Royal Opera House have been thrown open to the brave and the curious.

The CultureCode initiative closes with a hack day of its own in the Tyneside Cinema on March 24. Between noon on Saturday and noon on Sunday, developers, designers, artists and representatives from cultural organisations will gather to pick through the data and media on offer. Maybe they’ll hack away at a problem faced by an organisation, or mash together some data into an artistic or useful app.

Whatever emerges from those 24 hours, organisations such as Centre for Life, Tyneside Cinema, Theatre Royal and The Sage have got involved because they know that great things come from rubbing shoulders with other creative people.

“It’s possible that through this process the cultural professionals and artists who attend the event will start to look at their data in a different way, and will experience a new way of working with technologists”, says Joeli Brearley, the head of sector development for organisers Codeworks.

“The process of developing something together, as a digital and cultural team, also has the effect of starting conversations and potentially developing effective and sustainable relationships that will go on to have a positive impact on both parties as their businesses develop.”

Codeworks is organising CultureCode on behalf of NewcastleGateshead Cultural Venues, and the project has also been backed by Arts Council England.

Developers have already been briefed on the possibilities at the CultureCode Encounter, while the CultureCode Boutique attracted cultural folk from around the region. The CultureCode Salon on March 15 will bring the two groups together for drink and dialogue at the Town Wall pub in Newcastle before the ideas are slapped down on the table at the hack. For a list of events go to http://www.culturecode.co.uk/events

The Encounter and Boutique events were peppered with speakers who could inject the necessary inspiration into wavering participants. For example, Raphaëlle Heaf stepped up to the stage to talk about Artspotter, an app which allows smartphone users to discover and interact with art around the world.

Digital artist and designer Jer Thorp talked about work such as the Cascade project for the New York Times, which visualises how and where a story is shared through social media.

Thorp also helped design an algorithm for the placement of names on New York’s 9/11 memorial, and believes “research that happens under the guise of art is often a lot more forward-thinking than that which is done under the guise of industry”.

The event also featured Canadian-born artist Kelly Richardson, whose work involves melding real footage with digital elements, such as combining a billowing factory with beautiful Mammatus clouds. She’s currently working on a project for the Northern Gallery of Contemporary Art, commissioned by Pixel Palace.

Rain Ashford intrigued crowds with fun examples of what can emerge when you mix fashion and electronics. Using a sewable microcontroller board called the LilyPad Arduino, the former BBC Learning senior producer creates items such as an LED jacket to protect cyclists from road users that stray too close. An LED heart sewn into the jacket reacts to nearby motorists using a proximity sensor, flashing green if they’re a safe distance away, amber if they’re getting closer and red if they need to back off.

She says: “What I do is an iterative process of idea, build, test, fiddle, tinker, test and finally hallelujah. The ideas hardly ever reach the end exactly the same as I imagined them, and I always learn something along the way. I really love exploring the disciplines of art and technology together. They’ve each got their own little foibles and challenges.”

OK, so data might not seem quite as eye-catching as flashing lights or colourful clothing. But, as North East-based “approachable geek” and hack veteran Oli Wood can tell you, it’s possible to make something really exciting with even the most seemingly commonplace data.

“I really enjoy taking an idea, thrashing it out and building something that’s roughly ready in a very short time”, he says. “It’s basically going through data like a bull in a china shop and making something cool. I’ve learned a lot at hack days as a coder, and it’s great to have people to bounce ideas off.”

For example, during a “parliament hack” organised by Rewired State, Wood took the data from the register of interests of House of Lords members, and turned it into a database called Oh Lordy, which can be searched by both member and interest. However, he’s also often happy to spend a couple of hours adapting the data from files such as pdfs so that it can be used by others.

“It’s often a good technical challenge, and it creates something that someone else can use for something cool. I’ve spent a couple of hours in the past taking footfall data off a massive spreadsheet and putting it into a database.”

Often, the data may not seem particularly exciting to the naked eye. That is, until you see the finished hack in action. Yann Seznec and Jonathan Brodsky of Lucky Frame won the Most Beautiful award at Culture Hack Scotland by using footfall data to create an atmospheric piece of art. The pair took Edinburgh City Council data of footfall in 19 different locations during a single year, and converted it into a video and sound installation, with bass drum hits marking the passage of a week.

Another example is Govspark, which was developed by 16-year-old Isabell Long during the 2010 Young Rewired State challenge.

Long took seemingly-dry energy consumption data for each Government department and allowed users to compare them. Long ended up being invited to meet senior civil servants, and GovSpark ended up inspiring the departments themselves to really push themselves to beat the folk down the hallway.

“It seemed like really dull data, but what she made ended up having more of an effect than most of the other stuff the Government had been doing to reduce its energy usage”, says Emma Mulqueeny, who runs both Rewired State and Young Rewired State.

Rewired State has run hack days both for commercial clients and charities close to the organisation’s heart. It sometimes pays developers to go in and create using company data, but it’s also all about giving a helping hand to charities such as Refugees United, which brings refugees back in touch with their families.

Mulqueeny is a big advocate of initiatives that help young people cultivate coding skills. That’s why Young Rewired State was created – to seek out talented young people, mentor them for a week with the help of businesses and volunteers, and then send them down to the National Museum of Computing in Bletchley Park to meet up and code over pizza.

After this, they become a part of a nationwide network of developers, and some of their hack ideas turn into businesses. Mulqueeny is determined to keep the event free for the young people, and runs Young Rewired State with the help of sponsors and volunteers.

She’s currently looking to raise between £20,000 and £50,000 for this year’s event, which will take place from August 6 to 11. You can contribute to the total at http://www.peoplefund.it/young-rewired-state/

“They’re not able to learn this sort of thing in mainstream schools yet”, says Mulqueeny. “But it gives them some level of independence. They can be doing a completely different job if they want, but they’re also able to go home and build apps, and develop stuff that’s really useful.”

Mulqueeny says hacks have become increasingly popular in recent years, as they’re a good way to do speedy and comparatively low-cost research and development.

“It’s a way to do R&D in a weekend rather than spend six months bringing all sorts of consultants in. Hacks started in cellars and people’s houses, and then they got a bigger profile. That was great for a while, but you do get the problem that developer apathy sets in. That’s why it’s important to reward people with fantastic prizes, or maybe amazing data, or even a beautiful venue that wouldn’t normally be open to developers.

“We hear from a few people and organisations who don’t necessarily know if their data will be of any use in a hack. Those are the perfect people; the ones we really want to get involved. They’re the ones that walk out re-invigorated, with a completely fresh sense of how to look at their business.”

The initial CultureCode events have already inspired attendees to create things. For example, Adrian Park created a visualisation of tweets featuring the #culturecode hashtag, with different colours for different topics, and lines linking people who discussed certain themes. See http://stuff.adrianpark.com/topicaliser/

It’s very tempting to speculate on what might emerge from the CultureCode Hack itself, from useful apps to awesome pieces of art. But according to the Centre for Life’s special projects manager Andy Lloyd, it’s not just about having something tangible to show off at the end of it.

“A lot of people and organisations don’t realise the data they have is useful for anything other than why it was originally collected. This sort of initiative can help them to realise there’s more that can be done with it, and allows them to meet other creative people who might be able to work with them on exciting future projects.”


David Whetstone
Culture Editor
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Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
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