Monday, May 07, 2012

Reflections on Space Apps

Firstly -  thanks to everyone who has said nice things about the Space Apps Challenge "hack-day" at the Met Office Exeter.  Yes, now it's over I think it's safe to use the hack word.

I should also thank those who have said unpleasant things, though fortunately any criticism has been private and constructive.  One day I'll write a blog post about "constructive criticism" as it's, yet another, topic on which I have a slightly non-standard position.

Secondly I should mention that the Space Apps Challenge isn't really over.  This week sees the start of global judging including a "peoples' choice" category, so expect to see lots of social media plugs for the nominated solutions.

Right now for my reflections on the event, which if nothing else might just serve as a reminder to me next time I do something like this.

Back in January I was thinking seriously about organising an internal hack-day at the Met Office; that hasn't happened yet because in mid-January I was asked if the Met Office would like to host NASA's Space Apps Challenge in Europe.  Which was extremely cool, not expected, and created all sorts of interesting things to deal with.   Fortunately I have, nearly, enough slack in my work and a willingness to work late and weekends for no pay to do interesting stuff.  So here was an opportunity to do something fun with like-minded people.

Before the event could go ahead I needed to get support and funding from the Met Office - NASA weren't going to pay for dozens of events around the world.  Fortunately hack-days aren't expensive to run, a few thousand pounds.  One of the things I did learn from the global teleconferences as  planning progressed is that there's a fair range of hack-day cultures around the globe.  Some places it's usual to pay an entrance fee,  others there's vetting to ensure participants are real coders - not just using events for networking.  Would I want to apply some kind of test?  Probably not, but time will tell,  as it was we had a few no-shows though a couple of these were people who knew me and so were good enough to let me know they couldn't make it.

At this rate this post is going to be very, very long....   Short version of remaining thoughts.

The are some useful resources on how to run hack days, e.g.
These are NOT religious texts, so I reckon it's important to break some hack-day rules.  For example we did have bands playing.  I think this worked well for us,  as there are no other distractions locally and a little distraction is healthy,  as is standing up to eat if you're otherwise sitting for an entire day ( a tip for other organisers there maybe).

Also hackers, please give some thought as to what the host and sponsors are expecting from the event.  Chances are they're not expecting you to come up with a brilliant idea that will change the world.  Large organisations in particular would rather the world didn't change.  They just want to look good.  Right now hack days are "cool" and they want it.  The social media attention these events get is already seen as important by some, and chances are that will grow.

Therefore getting sponsors ought to be easy,  but it isn't. By the time the Space Apps Challenge was announced it was already too late to get sponsorship from most large organisations.  Yes I had some very nice people from some outrageously big organisations telling me they would love to help next time.   Seems marketing departments haven't gone "agile" yet.  Also I get the feeling that for most big organisations the marketing dept is small, probably not as well funded as it once was, and not familiar with these sorts of events.  Shame really, because a few freebies is all it would take -  oh,  thanks Red Bull!!  

I really am going to have to write a long version of this,  but here are a few closing thank you remarks -

To Exeter Girl Geeks and my female colleagues for believing that hack-days don't need to be all male, and making sure it wasn't.

To the Met Office senior management for their quiet support.  It was really great not having them there on the day, and not having government ministers or MPs, or other stuff that actually just gets in the way.  I'm sorry you didn't get to join in with the fun, but now we all understand better how to do this I reckon we can fix that next time.

To the judges - you were better than any prizes could have been.

To everyone who came.

To my Met Office colleagues who did their stuff behind the scenes, food, security, networks...

To the NASA Open Government team for believing it would work.

Thank you!