What was your first computer? A Mac? A Dell? Perhaps even a PDA, tablet, or smartphone? In 1977, mine was a KIM-2, short for Keyboard Input Monitor, from MOS Technology. I built it from a kit that required me to solder the chips to the board. In the mid-1970s, hobbyists were fascinated by this new technology, and small groups of enthusiasts met to talk about, trade parts, and build computers. The most famous was probably the Homebrew Computer Club in Menlo Park, Calif., which counted Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, along with other personal computer pioneers, among its members.
Similarly, the spreadsheet program VisiCalc, created by Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston, became known as the “killer app” for the computer industry. Its open structure actively encouraged users—called “hackers” before this became a negative term—to actively work with the software to improve its functionality and features. Again, this was a precursor to today’s adoption of open source software, which itself is a reaction to corporations’ closed codes, along with their reliance on copyright, patent, and other intellectual property protections.
In those early days, development was often a group effort; small communities formed to experiment, share, and support one another. The goal was to find new ways to use emerging technology for the good of the whole—and everyone shared those ways openly and freely. Sound familiar? Today’s codeathons, hackfests, and Maker Faires share the same ethos.
Codeathons, hackfests, and Maker Faires herald a new era of creativity and openness that holds promise for a new future of collaboration, open development, and technological and social advances. These events and movements show some of the same energy, hope, and creativity that marked that earlier movement.
SolvING Societal Programs
Codeathons, hackfests, codefests, hackathons—the terminology is evolving—are different varieties of the share/build movement. Codeathons usually deal with programming or data analysis, while hackathons concentrate more on physical objects, such as making computers. You’ll find codeathons as organized events or competitions where computer programmers and other enthusiasts collaborate to share their ideas and programming skills and address a problem or issue. Hackathons are intensive, often lasting several 24-hour days. They can be incorporated into library conferences, such as DPLAFest 2015 in Indianapolis (dp.la) and AALL 2015 in Philadelphia (aallnet.org).
Bill Bushey, co-organizer for the Open Twin Cities code fests (opentwincities.org), told me he sees “three common motivations or expectations of people who come to Open Twin Cities events. One is the desire to volunteer their skills for some positive impact on the communities they live in. Connecting with government is another common motivation, especially with local government. Civic tech tends to develop relationships with various government bodies, which draws in people who either want to work with their governments in some way (a bit like voluntarism) or, to a lesser extent, want to advocate for some change. Finally, a lot of people want to learn and meet others.”
One reason for the rise of codeathons is due to the web’s transformation of information publishing. The widespread availability of open access tools and open software (such as UNIX and Linux) and content platforms in all areas of GIS/data management fueled this transformation. However, the energy that makes codeathons work comes from the passionate participation of the coders—reminiscent of the hackers of the early PC era. Their motives are altruistic; their goals are to achieve some improvement in data access or solving some societal goal. Their satisfaction comes from their success and proving their worth in the results of their work. However, without the open access movement, codeathons wouldn’t be the blockbuster movement they are today.
Although the hacker community loves codeathons, the appeal is not limited to hackers. You also find enthusiastic, dedicated, talented individuals or groups working together to create unique, meaningful statistical applications or information to inform, challenge, or amuse. You will also see representatives of many corporations (which also often sponsor or participate in these events) walking the halls, watching, and trying to learn more about these events, the participants, and their products. They may be looking for ideas, potential employees, or even new products to acquire.
A healthy sign, but during the hacking era of the 1980s, companies began to acquire or adopt many of the innovations and ideas being developed. They patented them or otherwise closed off data and software—sometimes leading to the vilification of “hackers” as potentially dangerous outsiders trying to “steal” or corrupt assets (which were often, at this point, developed and refined due to the free work of these technology aficionados). Eventually the term “hacker” came to be used to describe criminal actions to break into governmental or corporate databases with felonious intent. Many came to prefer the term “hobbyist” to avoid the negative connotations. With the development of open source software and the readily available data and information available across the globe, let’s hope nothing like that happens this time around.
Technology Revitalizes Home-Brewed Hobbyist Movement
Codeathons aren’t the only major innovation producing seismic changes in innovation. Today, anyone can own sophisticated open source computer hardware. Manufacturers sell kits for building digital gadgets that can be programmed or operated interactively to control or gather sensory data on the world around them.
Our ubiquitous web environment has created an “everything connected to everything culture.” With the internet as a sales platform, everything and everyone are now connected to the global marketplace, able to compare and locate needed components—as well as sources for support, user groups, and other forms of support. The rise of Asian manufacturing dominance has allowed for greater capacity, lower costs, and a truly global source for sophisticated chips, sensors, boards, and other components that employ miniaturized multifunction capabilities for almost any application.
With an abundant supply of cheap sensors, 3D printers, “labs-on-a-chip,” robotics, photonics, and practically anything else you might need, the barriers to becoming a computer hobbyist are close to nonexistent. You can buy a chip-level device kit for as little as $12; $30 gets you a ready-to-run, out-of-the-box single-board computer. For less than $100, you can now get 8-bit to 32-bit processors or microcontrollers that can interface to expansion boards or circuits and support open source languages such as C and C++ to create a computer.
One of the companies making these products is the Italian company Arduino (arduino.cc), which released its first board product in 2005 and now sells hundreds of thousands of these units each year. As is fitting in this open environment, Arduino began as a project for students at an Italian design institute and eventually became the company’s first product. The very idea of being able to buy a complete (though limited) computer on a single board is something that would have been impossible just 10 years ago.
The groups and individuals who created the computer components making this new renaissance possible are equally committed to making computer technology more affordable and accessible. As Raspberry Pi (raspberrypi.org) describes its passion, “We felt that we could try to do something about the situation where computers had become so expensive and arcane that programming experimentation on them had to be forbidden by parents; and to find a platform that, like those old home computers, could boot into a programming environment.” These Cambridge scientists believed that “by 2008, processors designed for mobile devices were becoming more affordable, and powerful enough to provide excellent multimedia, a feature we felt would make the board desirable to kids who wouldn’t initially be interested in a purely programming-oriented device.”
The company’s founders continue, “We don’t think that the Raspberry Pi is a fix to all of the world’s computing issues,” adding “[w]e do believe that we can be a catalyst. We want to see affordable, programmable computers everywhere. We want to break the paradigm where without spending hundreds of pounds on a PC, families can’t use the internet. We want owning a truly personal computer to be normal for children, and we’re looking forward to what the future has in store.”
The rise of single-board computers created the basis for extraordinary user-level innovation and experimentation. Maker-fests of various sorts are demonstrating a level of interest in engineering and other STEM fields that we haven’t seen before. Communities of practice have arisen for each of the board systems available today, with everyone open to sharing their ideas, expertise, time, and effort for the good of the whole.
In addition to single-board computers, 3D printing has been key to many home-brewed projects. These printers can take Computer-Aided Design (CAD) creations and turn them into objects by using additive processes, turning the files into very thin slices of a desired object, and then creating the final 3D item by laying down the object, layer by layer, until the design is complete, making 3D solid objects from a digital file.
Clearly, the advances in board- and chip-level technology are key. Just as codeathons require access to code or data, this new maker environment is bringing together talented budding programmers and analysts, allowing hardware designers to dream and create products that never would have been possible without these cheap and miniature board-level improvements.
IEEE Spectrum writer Steven Cass told me, “It wasn’t until the last few years that we really [have seen] tremendous flexibility with the rise of really cheap hardware. Hardware is so cheap that you can think of it as disposable or breakable which is what software needs to have for experimentation at this level.” As he sees it, “Today I can buy a $50 clone—a price that is so low that it doesn’t make any difference if I fry the chip in production or experimentation. It makes people more experimental and they’re much more willing to build more complicated things without the fear of cost of failure.”
BlinkTag (blinktag.com) is a San Francisco-based company that works with city and transportation planners as “a collective of experienced practitioners that embrace collaboration, consensus-making, and skill-sharing.” Principal Brendan Nee—an experienced and talented programmer and hackathon veteran—also sees the pivotal role of “the improvement in open source tools, services and frameworks.” Fifteen years ago, according to Nee, it would have taken a team of 10 people months to put together a basic website, whereas now one skilled hacker can do this in under a day. Why the incredible turnaround? “Frameworks to help get started quickly, debug and deploy sites in seconds remove the need for lots of things that used to be time consuming and required years of experience. These tools, services and frameworks are what allow a small team of people to build a full prototype in a weekend, without these, hackathons would not be feasible (or would just be idea-generating events with no actual coding).”
Much of the energy at these maker gatherings is also due to the passionate participation of the inventors. There is a new breed of folks out there—reminiscent of the hackers of the early PC era in the 1970-’80s.
Make magazine (makezine.com) and MAKER Magazine (maker-magazine.com) are the two core publications for these enthusiastic developers. MAKER is an annual publication which, according to its website, focuses on “shedding light on the creative mind and spirit, articulating the often unexplored, more personal projects and perspectives of contemporary artists. Artists work in collaboration with MAKER to interpret and shape the theme of each issue through their unique points of view. We encourage contributors to utilize pages as a blank canvas examining the creators as a work of art themselves —peeking past the curtain to explore the enigmatic mind and the innovation behind it.”
Make magazine, founded in 2005, is more of a trade publication. Its website describes it as “[a] global platform for connecting makers with each other, with products and services, and with our partners. Through media, events and ecommerce, Maker Media serves a growing community of makers who bring a DIY mindset to technology. Whether as hobbyists or professionals, makers are creative, resourceful and curious, developing projects that demonstrate how they can interact with the world around them.” The magazine has trademarked the Maker Faires now held across the globe.
Studies of the participants in Maker Faires provide an interesting profile of this community:
- 70% are male.
- 46.5 is the median age.
- $130,000 is the median household income.
- 87% are college graduates (some with postgraduate studying).
- 43% have postgraduate degrees.
“The first and second software waves in the 1970s, when the first microcomputers came out,” Cass reflects, “the famous Homebrew Computer Club was dominated with boys and men, even through the whole first wave of commercial home computers in the 1980s,” But, he notes, it’s different this time around. “You can see a more conscious effort to include underrepresented groups. There is much more emphasis and broadening and you see this in the types of products and the academic underpinnings that lie under this.” Cass IDs the MIT Lab and New York University as being among the places where people are really starting to think about what technology means and says, “We are seeing innovation because of the diversity. Wearable technologies, clothing and fashion costumes and other things … weren’t thought about last time around, but now that the new infrastructure has been built, there is much more effort to integrate into a larger movement.” He says, “Today, we can really call it a movement rather than just a bunch of hobbyists doing a few things—something we couldn’t say before.”