The CultureCode initiative launched this year with a dream of bringing the digital and cultural sectors closer together. Last weekend, the two teamed up to make amazing things out of data. John Hill peers over their shoulders to find out more.
BY the time the 55 pizzas and 10 boxes of garlic bread turned up at the Tyneside Cinema on Saturday night, developers were already tucking in to a feast of data.
It was hour 10 of CultureCode’s hack, in which participants were given a day to fashion interesting prototypes out of bits of data.
Hastily-assembled teams were elbow-deep in a pile of numbers, images, documents and postcodes, rummaging through to find things they could polish up or mash together.
“I came in here knowing exactly what I wanted to do, but there’s so much more data than I was expecting”, said Peter Bull, a developer at Newcastle firm Screenreach.
“There are so many things you can work with.”
The CultureCode initiative was commissioned by Newcastle Gateshead Cultural Venues – with funding from the Arts Council – and was designed to nudge the digital and cultural sectors closer together.
In the weeks leading up to the hack, organiser Codeworks had played Cupid with presentations and informal drinks events, allowing the two groups to discover the many ways they could create something special together.
By the time last weekend rolled around, both sides were ready to give it a go. Cultural groups had raided their archives, offering up library borrowing stats, tidal data, visitor information, child poverty data, and even samples of the Lindisfarne Gospels.
In total, 34 cultural organisations provided 120 datasets, made up of 439 files totaling 528MB.
On the surface, this may seem like a dry, technical exercise. But the nine prototypes that came out of it certainly didn’t fit that description.
For a start, Mike Hurst took the railway data from the National Railway Museum and turned it into soothing piano music.
Newcastle’s library data was used in two separate hacks, spread out in a new way using Google Earth. The list of blue plaques around the country were collected in an iPhone app, allowing users to listen to facts and stories as they approached a plaque and maybe add their own.
Designer Bettina Nissen even took the tidal data from new Tyneside musical machine Flow, and used it to create a range of 3D vases.
“It all went better than I’d hoped, and I had very high hopes”, says Joeli Brearley of organiser Codeworks, the organisation representing the North East digital industry.
The concept of the hack was simple, but challenging.
At noon on Saturday, cultural organisations revealed what data they brought, and by noon on Sunday groups stepped up on stage in a fog of caffeine and adrenaline to reveal how they’d used it all.
However, it wasn’t just a case of cultural folk dropping off their data with digital experts and leaving like parents at a nursery.
Coder Paul King led “coding for beginners” workshops to offer a glimpse into what was going on in rooms around the theatre, and a range of presentations were held to get cultural professionals thinking about interesting digital opportunities and challenges.
In some cases, cultural professionals even rolled up their sleeves and got involved.
Amy Golding is a theatre director who has worked with young people in local communities. She’s recently started up her own theatre company called Theatre Auracaria, but hadn’t really dipped her toe into the digital waters before.
“I’m not really a digital person, and in some cases I’m actually a little bit afraid of technology”, she said. “However, when I went to one of the earlier presentations I saw that what was being done was really artistic and creative, and I was tempted to go to the hack to see what would happen.”
Golding brought along some photos and statistics relating to child poverty, which she’d previously used as part of a theatre project with young people in partnership with Live Theatre, Helix Arts and Children North East.
“We’d already created a character called Hope, and written a play about a day in the life, looking at poverty through a child’s eyes.
“I didn’t know whether the data was what they were looking for, but then I talked to James Rutherford and Jeremiah Alexander and they were really keen to build something around it.”
In the hours that followed, Golding helped to create Hopebook, a programme which told the story of Hope through the medium of Facebook updates and included mini-games that helped to build the atmosphere. The project can be seen at www.adayofhope.co.uk
“It was a bit weird at times to be surrounded by people on laptops talking about things I didn’t really understand. But they were all really creative, and it was wonderful to develop the project together.
“It’s introduced me to a group of people I wouldn’t have considered working with before, and it’s really opened my eyes.”