Hacking your input and outputs

Hacked... Learn, Build, Share

I had the pleasure of supporting and attending Hacked.io which was a hackday in the most traditional sense of the word. Run by the Geeks of London for 02 Labs, it couldn’t have been more fitting to hold it at the 02 arena (the old millennium dome). Now I knew the plans ahead of most people but I didn’t really think that I might have been a good part of the inspiration for the event.

Melinda broke it down for Ankur Oberoi at 5am.

“Ian use to run Geekdinners which we use to go to. Then went on to run BarCampLondon 1, 2 and 3. After which he ran the first hackday and over the air. Most of the Geeks of London went to the events and once Ian moved on, he passed on geekdinners to me and Cristiano. So we did that and formed the geeks of London. Then we took over Barcamplondon. Now I guess we are taking over hackday. Taking it back to the original idea of sharing ideas and knowledge” (power phrased of course)

On the walk back to the hotel at 5:30am I thought about this… Not only am I delighted to be a inspiration but I’m also over the moon that they have given these events a level of professionalism and sustainability which I could not. No matter what I say about hacked.io, I was blown away by the little things and the ultimate aim of open sharing.

I’m kind of gutted I didn’t hack something myself, but talking to people I learned a bunch of things and some of those things I’m following up with.

Hacked.io promised a lot and deliver much back many things…

Very long queue outside Hacked.io

Of course this is the same team which mainly wrote the controversial hackday manifesto. So it would make sense to compare Hacked.io against there own thoughts…

Announcing the event
Once you know when and how your event will take place, you’ll want to tell the world about it. At a bare minimum, you should decide on a canonical place where all public information about the event lives – this might be a dedicated web site, an event on an existing event online service or some other place which is publicly accessible.

Once you’ve decided where that location is, use tools like Twitter and Facebook to make people aware of the event, and also consider which Google Groups and mailing lists developers relevant to your event may be hanging out. Don’t spam them, though – nobody enjoys that.

On Announcing everything seemed perfect. Everything you needed to know was at hacked.io and the almanac seemed to have all FAQs ready to go. I also felt they hit the right level of communication. Not too much and not too little. Maybe from a supporter side a tiny bit more might not have gone a miss. But generally it was all good.

Registration was cool but my allergy information did get post in the mix. And I did feel sorry for those who were waiting in the massive line for a long while.

The venue should be relatively easy for people from outside of town to locate, with good public transport links. If it’s difficult to reach, try to provide alternative means of transportation, such as coaches to/from local transport hubs throughout the event. Provide a full address, and if necessary, additional instructions to all attendees well in advance of the event.

Include instructions/contacts/getting in arrangements, too (i.e., what to do at reception/security desks).

Print big signs that will guide your attendees to the venue (and in some case inside the venue).

Hacked.io starts

The venue was top class and a dream to be able to use. The transport links to the 02 are great and I do remember the first time Cristiano and Kevin told me they were looking to use the 02. I was gob smacked. How on earth did they pull that one off?  I had looked at the 02 when we were working on Hackday but it was far too expensive. Transport wise its got plenty going for it and heck its easy on the tube. Many signs and even billboards pointed people in the right direction. There were even helpers guiding people to the right place. Of course getting back was easy even at 5:30am due to the 24hour buses which run to central London when the tube stops.

Of course the venue was accessible with lifts and what not, maybe the stage needed a lift too? And I found the security staff quite firm but nice. I think they were a little bemused by the whole event.

Date clashes. One of the most frustrating things for attendees to see is two similar events on the same day in the same area. To avoid this, check places like Lanyrd, Eventbrite, Meetup, and ask on Twitter “is anything going on in X on X?”. Remember that people may be travelling long distances for hack days, so even if an event is a few hundred miles away, you are still diluting your potential audience.

Always a hard one to solve but they got it out there early enough and the only clash I saw was with Mozilla’s Party Hack which I believe was cancelled when the clash came to light.

If attendees are staying overnight, then a separate (dark, quiet) area should be available away from the hacking should people decide to sleep. If possible, this should be several areas potentially including dedicated areas, for example male/female/mixed, minors (+chaperones?), snorer/non-snorer, night-owls/early birds.

I didn’t check out the sleeping arrangements because I stayed up till 5:30am then walked to my hotel in Greenwich. I noticed there were areas upstairs for sleeping and I assume they were separated or whatever. While downstairs was a place for hacking all night. Of course some people fell a sleep at their computers.

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The Network. Hack days have special requirements: don’t just trust anyone who tells you that “it’ll be fine”. Think about the networking issues, and verify that they work for the kind of capacity you are going to have. People from the venue or their commercial partner will tell you all sorts of things you want to hear but keep in the back of your mind that they may not have any clue what they are talking about. Given the importance of network access, if you are operating a commercial event consider requiring network performance as part of your contract with venues and suppliers.

One of the bug bears of almost any hackday event. Unfortunately hacked.io was effected pretty badly by 2.4ghz wireless problems. There was a figure banded around estimating 4 devices for every single person in the room. That means supplying wireless for 2000 devices! When we did hackday we estimated roughly 2 devices per person. There seems to be plenty of bandwidth in the backend pipe, because once plugged into a switches (the solution to most of the problems) it was fast and reliable. I had to download the JDK and I blinked and it was downloaded.

So what was the problem? Seems some device was spitting out packets into the 2.4ghz space and disrupting the network at the same time. I have some experience of this when the Nimba virus was prevalent and daily Ravensbourne IT staff would have to go find the suspect before they switched to 802.11x authentication. Nimba would just consume the network and all its resources, before you knew it. All spare 802.11 space was crammed with packets

They had the best guys involved in the networking and wireless. Nexus Global networking battled away till most of the machines were on wired network but it was a black eye on a perfectly run event.

Power wasn’t a problem thankfully, lots of spare power sockets all over the place.

Food & Drink…Not everyone in the technical community is hypercarnivorous. Be sure to check with your attendees for dietary requirements: food allergies, vegetarians, vegans and people with dietary restrictions. Make provisions to ensure they are provided for equally. If you’re on a budget, prioritise allergies and vegan alternatives; the vegan alternative will satisfy most non-allergy based requirements. Common food allergies include milk, eggs, nuts, fish, shellfish, soya, and wheat (gluten).

Food was good (mainly salad pots) and there was pizza as a midnight surprise. The dinner was good because there was tickets for 4 different restaurants in the dome. But most people said the portions were quite small and seeked out more food elsewhere. For example my work friends were lucky to get the thai silk tickets which I gather were in high demand. GBK seemed to be 2nd. Last place was dinner at the 02 lounge Which I got stuck with. The last thing I really wanted to eat was mash potatoes and sausages. Weirdly I couldn’t mix the food according to the lady serving!

For the midnight surprise Pizza hut delivered Pizzas but the word didn’t quite get out so quickly so most of the meat ones were gone and we were left with cold pizza. That will teach me to sit and chat upstairs.

There was some confusion over alcohol too but it worked it self out. There was plenty of Fruit and Chocolate, Crisps, Soda and Water around all day and night too.

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APIs and Datasets was a interesting angle because unlike other hackathons, there was no set API or datasets to play with. You could use what ever you liked but there were challenges for those who couldn’t think of something themselves or needed to be challenged.

Hacked.io demos

Anyone who hacks should be a allowed to Demo at the end of the event, regardless of the quality or completeness.

Each demo should be given a fixed time limit, standard times are 60, 90, 180, and 300 seconds. Tell presenters ahead of time, let them know how much time remains (either half time cards or an on-screen count down), and don’t let them run over.

Try and communicate clear expectations for the demos to all attendees from the beginning of the event. Some attendees will become frustrated when they see others demo-ing paper prototypes or Photoshop mockups when they believed a working implementation was required. If hacks do not meet these base requirements, they should not be able to win a prize.

The demos were by the book. I was very impressed by the use of Hackerleague. Never used it before but I like it a lot. Now if Lanyrd and Hackerleague could connect together… 90 secs was about right for each hack. The only down side was being split up from the hackers presenting but honestly it was for a short time only.

I was really impressed with the range of hacks, I wrote some down which I’d like to follow up on from a BBC point of view and of course hackerleague makes it nice and easy to follow up.

Hacked.io demos

The amount of Philips Hue hacks was impressive and makes sense because I think a lot of people thought it was a totally closed system which was tied to Apple. The amount clearly points the fact Hacked.io was comfortable. People were willing to take more risks and actually learn something new. That makes hacked.io a success right? A return to the learn, build and share ethics of hackers.

I’d also like to say it was amazing all the extra effort the team put in. There was a theme of dogs over cats, be more curious, plus fun and fake facts in the toilets, magically boxes on the tables, the tag line everywhere and finally the first 100 through the door got a prize! Talk about attention to detail! Now thats how you run a hackday!

Massive thanks to the Geeks of London, 02 and everyone who attended and made it a great event. Like everyone asked me after hackday, so whens the next one?

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Author: Ianforrester

Senior firestarter at BBC R&D, emergent technology expert and serial social geek event organiser.