We've all got data lying around, but are we really making the most out of it? John Hill finds out more about how hack days can help to spruce up old data, and how organisations can try it out for themselves at Newcastle's upcoming CultureCode hack.
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.”