It’s that time of the year when events season kicks into full gear. The past two weekends I’ve been at two hackdays, and the upcoming ones will be just as busy. I think I’ve got something planned for every weekend up until November! More about those upcoming events in a later post.
Last week I attended Over The Air, a free two day mobile developer conference and 24 hour hack competition, where developers have to “hack” something together. It’s the fourth year the event has been held and each year it’s been great. I’ve been to all the previous three years, sometimes attending the more conferency side of the event, other times actually hacking (and maybe creating rather silly videos). This year there was a change of venue, with the entire event being held at Bletchley Park.
Photo by ahousley
Now, I hadn’t really heard of Bletchley Park before moving to the UK and it’s only recently that I’ve looked into its history. It’s pretty freaking amazing. In short: Bletchley Park was the base of major codebreaking during World War II and was responsible for decrypting the German’s ciphers and codes. Of the 12000 people stationed there during the war over 80% of them were women… it’s most probably the place where a girl like me would have ended up during the war.
So to be there for two days, attending programming talks, learning from each other and working on our own little projects… the atmosphere couldn’t be more perfect. You just couldn’t help but wonder that 60 odd years ago a similar group was gathered together, attending programming talks, learning from each other and working on their own little projects. Although I bet they didn’t complain about the wifi.
As with most hack weekends, Over The Air is an overnight event. Most of the time I just show up with my sleeping bag and mat, and find some quiet corner or beanbag to sleep in. This time around a bunch of us thought this would be the perfect place to actually set up tents and camp outside. So we did. For me, it was my first ever time camping! Surprisingly, I didn’t suck at setting up a tent (although, come to think about it, I shouldn’t have expected me sucking at that, I am awesome at actually reading the freaking manual).
For most of the Friday I spent the day outside in a beanbag, basking in the sun and enjoying the only bit of proper summer I’ve experienced this, well, summer. And working on my own little project, of course (but more about that later). I ended up only attending one talk, but that seems to be my recurring problem at Over The Air; it always turns into a choice between “hacking” and “watching presentations”. Plus, it was also a choice between “sit in a warm room filled with sweaty geeks” or “bask in the sun”. The sun won.
Photo by Tim Whalley
Friday evening brought lovely lasagna and pizza, which were hungrily nommed. After dinner were some Ignite talks; presentations of 5 minutes, 20 slides, 15 seconds per slide. I especially enjoyed Alistair’s talk about his Metro Simulator, and Terence’s talk about QRpedia, QR codes that link to Wikipedia (and can be used in museums and other interesting places). The rest of the evening I spent working on my hack, until I became too tired and needed to sleep.
Saturday morning: more hacking. Until 10:30 that is, when a tour around Bletchley Park started. It was great hearing about the history of the place, and seeing all the code-breaking machines they rebuilt. I loved that the tour guide at a certain moment went “Most of the time at this point in my story, people’s eyes glaze over. But not with you lot!”. I really want to go back again and explore the place more fully (sidenote: Bletchley Park was just awarded a £4.6m grant to restore the place. Awesome, awesome news. I can’t wait to see what they’ll do with it).
Saturday afternoon the hacking ended, and those that wanted to submitted their hack for the presentations. Each team then got 90 seconds to present what they created. Now I guess I should explain what I worked on: MuDo’s! I’ve been living in London for almost 5 years now, and while I’ve been to most of the big well-known museums, there are tons of smaller ones I keep forgetting to go to, and museums I didn’t even know existed. So my idea was to create a To-Do-list/check-list for museums: you login with you Twitter account, select which museums you want on your to-do list, and then can share it with your friends. And you can see what your friends have on their check list. I’m still working on it, but I want to make it live as soon as I can. I know it’s something I’d like to use, and I’ve had people come up to me after the presentations that they’d like to use it too 🙂
So I presented my hack during the presentations and (as usual) I thought I did horrible with the presentation (forgetting parts of what I wanted to say), but most people seemed to like it. There were about 25-30 hacks (I think, I don’t remember exactly) with some really cool ideas. I loved QuickeR, which used a video of a series of QR codes to transfer data. For an entire list of entries, check out the Over The Air blog. Much to my surprise I ended up winning a prize! I wasn’t really expecting to, cause my hack didn’t really fit in any of their categories. My hack won Most Cultural Hack, and I got 3 iOS Programming books. Yay! I wanted to get into iPhone/iPad development, so these books are a perfect place to start.
I know it’s a free event with tons of stuff to be arranged (and I loved the event), but I just wanted to comment on some things that could have gone better. The wifi is an obvious place to start: hackdays depend on wifi a lot. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but it’s super tricky to create something without internet access. Even if you’re working on something not even web related, there will be stuff you’ll want to look up online. For most of the Friday the wifi at Over The Air wasn’t working and the event really suffered from it. There were people who abandoned their hacks because of the lack of wifi, and those who didn’t had to struggle through it.
I know the organizers did their best to get the wifi working. And eventually it did. On some locations. And that brings me to my second point: there wasn’t a real space setup as the “hacking” area. There was a small bit in the mansion, but by the time I got there all spots were taken. All other rooms in the mansion were being used for talks during the day. Then there was a big marquee outside, but that was constantly being set up and broken down for different things (lunch, dinner, talks, etc). It would have been nice to have one area where you could stay and work.
Overall I really loved Over The Air this year. The vibe of Bletchley Park was awesome, the camping outside was a lot of fun, and the general atmosphere was just great. Good hackdays always leave me feeling more inspired and more knowledgable. Kudos to the organising team of Daniel Appelquist, Matthew Cashmore and Margaret Gold for putting this together again!