Saturday, 7 November 2015

Humans are pretty cool: 2015 Science Hack Day San Francisco

I was recently lucky enough to be invited to attend the 2015 Science Hack Day in San Francisco. At first I honestly thought that the invitation had been sent to me accidentally (because I have imposter syndrome like everyone else), but once the organizer Ariel Waldman followed up, I happily accepted. A big reason I decided to go was the location: I grew up in the Bay Area, and the bulk of my family and my in-laws are scattered around the region. This meant that I could bring the little ones along (R, 4 years old and A, 3 months), and the grandparents could help take care of them while I was busy science-ing.

As the date approached, I became a bit more nervous than anticipated. My role, as I understood, was: (1) to give a quick talk about coral reefs and in doing so help spark ideas for people to work on during the weekend, and (2) to bring a particular perspective and expertise to the arena that might be useful and (3) to observe and report on the event. The concept of Science Hack Day was still a little muddy to me, though I watched the explanatory video and read some blog posts previous Science Ambassadors had written. In these, it was explained that teams of people would form organically to chose and work on a topic for 24 hours, and then present the results of this “hack” to the entire Hack Day crowd when the time was up.

My lingering worries fell into two camps: (1) sciency-types, myself included, are not legendary for smooth social skills; how will we form groups spontaneously if we are too shy to interact? and (2) how will people decide what to work on, and how will they physically do so? I had also invited my dad to join me at the event as a participant. He designs new and refurbished labs for researchers at Stanford, has patented several inventions, designed and built multiple houses, and is to me the epitome of someone who can come up with clever solutions to problems. He also articulated another worry as we read through rough ideas that participants entered into a shared Google doc ahead of the event: (3) what if all of this potentially amazing collective energy and expertise is wasted on trivial projects?

The Friday before the event, the other ambassadors, the event organizers, and I met for lunch at the waterfront in San Francisco. My mom entertained my littles nearby while I enjoyed interesting and uninterrupted discussions about science with other grownups, and got to eat with both hands. Thrilling! 

Giving my talk in the Oval Office. I love to gesticulate.
On Saturday morning, I left my 4 year old again with my mom, and headed back to The City (as Bay Area folk call San Francisco). Science Hack Day was hosted at the headquarters of GitHub. The space was, to put it mildly, amazing. If you could take all of the coolest things you could think of – a DJ booth, full bar, catering kitchen, pool and foosball tables, a replica of the Oval Office, etc. – and put them all into one architecturally beautiful building, this would be it. Oh, also throw in an on-site daycare to be even more awesome. I don’t even fully understand what GitHub is, but the building made me want to work there.

The first hour of the morning consisted of enjoying breakfast at large wooden tables reminiscent of movie versions of Oktoberfest. Participants donned decorated name-tags and began meeting one another during this time, exploring the work area and gadgets that were on hand. A small CNC milling machine and two 3D printers were staged on one table, along with a collection of powertools and electronics equipment for making circuits and the like. A lot of people were already typing away on computers at the tables, or scattered around on beanbags and swiveling captain’s chairs.

Next, the organizers kicked things off with some opening remarks. Some of this spoke directly to my fears: we shouldn’t worry if it takes us a while to find a team, and the lab-coated organizers could help if we were feeling like a fish out of water and didn’t know how or where to join in. They also explained that nine upcoming lightning talks – in three concurrent sessions around the space – would be followed by time devoted to anyone who wanted to do so making a 42-second pitch for their Hack Day project. Both of these points calmed my fears a bit, but I still wondered how things would actually fall into place.

My lightning talk followed an audio-visually stunning and content-rich talk by a planetary astronomer, Alex Parker, who had a knack for explaining his science in a straightforward and digestible manner (and who was also super nice). I was both totally impressed and happy to learn from his talk, while also terrified about having to go up next. My talk was decidedly less visually arresting and, I worried, perhaps both too simple and too overwhelming. I explained what corals are, the main things that make them unhappy (hot water due to climate change that causes coral bleaching, overfishing, and polluted runoff), and ended with some quick ideas for “hacks” that I thought might be possible and rewarding to work on during the weekend*. Originally, I had planned to just put baby A in a carrier and give the talk with her, but my dad offered to hold her instead – helpful as she decided to throw a fit a few minutes into the presentation.

I didn’t feel confident enough to try to lead a group towards a particular hack, so didn’t pitch a specific idea. Instead, I listened and then cruised around for the first part of the day to see what kinds of projects got started. Indeed, though my initial worries were centered on how people would find groups and decide on projects, it did seem to work out. I should have probably realized that if groups of organisms like ants can end up with coordinated behaviors, then surely humans can, even if only due to emergence.

After a while, I found and joined a group that aimed to make a game to teach kids about human threats to coral reefs; perfect! But, we took quite some time to actually decide on how the game should work and to then make it – in fact, by the time I left that night to get A and myself off to bed at a hotel nearby, we had very few solid ideas of how the game would work.
Our game prototype.
Our group didn’t work through the night like some others did; we had good sleeps and a relatively leisurely breakfast back at GitHub, then realized we really needed to step it up as we only had a few hours left to complete our hack, and had nothing yet to show. We quickly started brainstorming and making decisions on what direction to follow, and who should work on what tasks. We managed to complete the game and even had time to do a run-through, and it seemed to work. Our game, which we called iSea Life, was a cooperative, timed game with the goal to build a coral reef that had more colorful (healthy) pieces than white (bleached or dead) pieces. Some of my teammates are continuing to revise the game, and the final version will eventually be up here, so check it out!

At 1 pm on Sunday, everyone finished hacking and gathered to see presentations of everyone’s projects. First, Heather from GitHub gave a nice speech where she showed that although some of the projects that people have worked on during previous Science Hack Days may have at the time seemed trivial, some of them led to real and useful solutions to problems. Indeed, jiving off of other people and applying their thoughts to another problem is a great way to come up with new ideas. Case in point: I came up with my PhD research project by chance during coffee with a friend. Although Science Hack Day could be perhaps used to bring folks together to solve pre-determined “real” problems facing the world, in many ways the design seems perfect for stimulating creativity in a sort of random-walk approach. Even if the presented projects don’t immediately seem useful, maybe they can be further refined in the future or applied to known problems.

Since I’m an environmentalist, the projects I liked the best were those that had some obvious application towards environmental problems. These included “smogify,” a filter to make photos visually reflect the air quality at the time and place they were taken; an extension to Google maps to quantify the carbon footprint of various transit modes on calculated routes; and an application that would redirect someone from a dubious website to a trusted source after they searched for something “sciency” like “climate change.”

In the end, I really enjoyed my time at Science Hack Day and found it to be a highly rewarding experience that I will think back on often.
Another cool hack: a bias-meter for news articles.


*Here is a brief rundown of my ideas for coral-reef hacks, most of which were not exactly feasible to work on in such a limited time and space (GitHub being rather dry, after all):

Three biggest problems for corals:
1.     Climate Change à causes coral bleaching and increases disease susceptibility
a.     Suck greenhouse gases out of atmosphere (this was not actually a suggested hack, but something that needs to be figured out)
b.     Improved suctioning device to combat black band disease (one of a large number of coral diseases, this would perhaps not have a large impact but is somewhat manageable)
c.     Shading devices
d.     How to mix up deep, cool water
e.     More zooplankton?
f.      Genetic engineering?
g.     Map potential poleward expansion?
2.     Overfishing à one consequence is algal overgrowth
a.     Underwater chicken tractor, to enclose herbivorous fish and get them to clean off macroalgae on a particular part of the reef?
3.     Polluted runoff à many causes and consequences
a.     Minimalist sewage treatment
b.     Runoff reduction ideas
c.     Water cleanup?

1 comment:

  1. I LOVE the idea for an underwater chicken tractor, put those fish to work!