This is How You Run a Hackathon: Tech Valley Center of Gravity

What’s not to love about a hackathon? The junk food and caffeine that fuel the weekend; the highs that come with success and the lows that come when the blue smoke is released; the desperate search for inspiration as the clock ticks away; nerve-wracking pitches to the judges, hoping against hope that everything works in the demo. Hackathons are the contact sport of the hacker world, bringing in top competitors and eager upstarts, and when done well you just might attract interested “civilians” and other newbies that will catch the hacking bug from what they witness.

Such was the scene at the Tech Valley Center of Gravity in Troy, NY over the last weekend of January. New for 2016, the CoG is hosting a series of four hardware hackathons this year, each with a different theme. This event’s theme was “Internet of Things”, and the call went out to any and all to come compete for bragging rights and over $1,000 in prizes. Incentives to compete included some big name corporate sponsors, like AT&T, and judging and mentoring provided by the likes of SparkFun’s [Jeff Branson]. There was also a steady stream of food and drink, saturation coverage by local media outlets, and your humble Hackaday writer and his son, who made the trip up to Troy with a small passel of Hackaday swag and a curiosity to see how the CoG has fared since our last visit at the grand opening of their glorious new home. We were not disappointed.

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Hacking Education – A Makerspace Experiment

This is an Education hack, and it’s pretty awesome. [Abhijit Sinha] received an Engineering degree and took up a run-of-the mill IT job in Bangalore, considered India’s IT hub. 7 months down the line on Dec 31st, he gave notice to the company and quit his “boring” job. He ended up in Banjarpalya, a village just 30 kms out of Bangalore. But it could well have been 30 years back in time. The people there had never come across computers, and there wasn’t much sign of other modern technology. So he set up Project DEFY – Design Education for You.

He bought a few refurbished laptops, took a room, and put kids and computers together. Except, these kids just knew a smattering of English. They went to the village school, run by the government and staffed by teachers whose training was basic, at best. He told the kids there are games in those boxes for them to play, but they’d have to figure it out on their own, without help from him. Pretty soon, all of them were playing games like they were pros. That’s when [Abhijit] stepped in and told them that they’d created a base line for having fun. Everything else they did from now on had to be more fun than what they had just done. If they were interested, he would show them how.

He had a gaggle of kids waiting to hear him with rapt attention. He showed them how to look online for information. He showed them how they could learn how to build fun projects by looking up websites like Instructables, and then use locally available materials and their own ingenuity to build and modify. Once a project was done, he showed them how to post details about what they had done and learnt so others around the world could learn from them. The kids took to all this like fish to water. They couldn’t wait to get through 5 hours of school each day, and then head over to their makerspace to spend hours tinkering. Check out their Instructable channel – and see if you can give them some guidance and advice.

A year onwards, on Dec 31st again, [Abhijit] gathered the kids, and several adults who had joined in during the year, telling them he had news. He had figured they were independent enough to run the space on their own now, without any help from him. He would still get them the 500 odd Dollars they needed each month to keep it operational. Other than that, they were on their own. He’s been monitoring their progress, and from the looks of it, the hack seems to have worked. More power to [Abhijit] and others like him around the world who are trying to bring the spirit of making to those who probably stand to benefit from it the most. Check out the videos below where they show off their work.

PS : Here’s the latest update from [Abhijit] : “Got back to the Banjarapalya Makerspace after quite a while, and this is what they show me – they built a little plane. Of course it crash lands, and needs a better programming, but I am super impressed that they are ready to fly.
Anyone who wants to help them technically? Financially? With parts and components ?”

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Hackers and Heroes: Rise of the CCC and Hackerspaces

From its roots in phone phreaking to the crackdowns and legal precedents that drove hacking mostly underground (or into business), hacker culture in the United States has seen a lot over the last three decades. Perhaps the biggest standout is the L0pht, a visible 1990s US hackerspace that engaged in open disclosure and was, arguably, the last of the publicly influential US hacker groups.

The details of the American hacker scene were well covered in my article yesterday. It ended on a bit of a down note. The L0pht is long gone, and no other groups that I know of have matched their mix of social responsibility and public visibility. This is a shame because a lot of hacker-relevant issues are getting decided in the USA right now, and largely without our input.

Chaos Computer Club

But let’s turn away from the USA and catch up with Germany. In the early 1980s, in Germany as in America, there were many local computer clubs that were not much more than a monthly evening in a cafeteria or a science museum or (as was the case with the CCC) a newspaper office. Early computer enthusiasts traded know-how, and software, for free. At least in America, nothing was more formally arranged than was necessary to secure a meeting space: we all knew when to show up, so what more needed to be done?

Things are a little different in the German soul. Peer inside and you’ll find the “Vereinsmentalität” — a “club-mentality”. Most any hobby or sport that you can do in Germany has an associated club that you can join. Winter biathlon, bee-keeping, watercolor painting, or hacking: when Germans do fun stuff, they like to get organized and do fun stuff together.

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Arch Reactor Hackerspace Is Moving!

What happens when your hackerspace grows too big for its building? Well — you can either take over the other units in your building — or move to a bigger building altogether!

We toured Arch Reactor almost three years ago, which is located in St. Louis, Missouri. The present facility is 2400sqft, which over the past few years has gotten a bit cramped. They’re moving to a new building at 2215 Scott Avenue, which is over twice the size of the current facility at a whopping 5100sqft!

As you can imagine, it’s not an easy task to move a hackerspace of this size to a new building, but their community is strong and they’re still hacking away, even during the move! If your hackerspace has a move in its not-so-distant-future, you might want to take note and follow along on their blog for some lessons learned.

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SparkFun, AT&T to Sponsor Hackathon at Troy’s TVCoG

Big-name corporate sponsors, top-notch judges and mentoring, 36 hours to play in a huge new hackerspace, and all the Cheetos and Red Bull you need to stoke the creative fires. Sounds like a hackathon, and it’ll roll into The Tech Valley Center of Gravity in Troy, New York next month. And from the look of it, it’s going to be a big deal. You should be there.

_DSC0140You might recall the TVCoG from a story we did this summer on the grand opening of their amazing newly renovated space in downtown Troy. Occupying an entire city block in a historic department store building and housing not only a huge hackerspace but a tech company incubator with manufacturing capabilities and a STEM outreach space, the CoG now has the room to reach out into the community and host big events. The hackathon scheduled for January 30 and 31 and is only the first of four events planned for 2016. This one has the theme “Internet of Things” and will feature SparkFun’s Jeff Branson as mentor and judge.

Here’s a call to arms for Hackaday readers in the northeast: let’s pack this hackathon and make it huge. There’s already a bunch of Jolly Wrencher stickers scattered all over from our last visit, so you’ll feel right at home. Head over to the TVCoG site and sign up for this one. We’d really like to see HaD take home bragging rights. And you can be sure we’ll be covering the event and bringing some swag of our own.

[Thanks to Duncan Crary for the tip!]

Maker Barn Organizer Creates Makerspace Access Control System

The MakerBarn is a new makerspace between The Woodlands and Tomball, TX (north of Houston). [George Carlson], one of the founders and a retired design engineer, wanted to make sure only members certified on a machine could use it. He worked with [Kolja Windeler] to create the MACS or Makerspace Access Control System. He has one video explaining MACS and, after the break, another explaining the browser based user interface for the system.

20151205_181615A control box, [George] calls them stations, controls the power to a machine. Member badges have an RFID tag that is read when inserted into the station’s reader. If the member is authorized to use the machine, the power is enabled. For safety, the member’s badge must remain in the reader to maintain power. The reader uses a Photon board from Particle with a WiFi link to a Raspberry Pi server.

[Kolja] developed a Pi system to maintain a database of member numbers and the machines they can use. The list is sent to the stations periodically or when updates occur. The user interface is browser based on the MakerBarn’s LAN so it can be maintained by a computer or smartphone in the space. Presently 21 MACS modules have been built with some going to Hanover University in Germany for their auto hobby shop.

Not only did [George] lead the effort on creating MACS but has been key to getting the construction done inside a pole barn to make the MakerBarn a reality.

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Hacking Chinese State Media

A while ago, a few journalists from China visited the Metalab hackerspace in Vienna. They wanted to do a story on ‘fablabs’ and ‘makerspaces’, despite the objections to the residents of the Metalab hackerspace. Apparently, mentioning ‘hacking’ on China Central Television (yes, it’s called CCTV) is a big no-no.

hacking-chinese-state-mediaWanting to send a message to at least a few people in China, the members of the hackerspace had to think laterally. Metalab member [amir] came up with a way to encode data that could be printed on t-shirts. These bright, colorful squares featured in all of the interviews with Metalab members carried messages like, “free tibet!”, “remember tian’anmen 1989” and “question the government. dont trust the propaganda”

All the videos are available in this playlist, and [amir]’s code to generate the colorful rectangles of political activism can be found here.

In a related note, we’d like to say ‘hi’ to our one reader in North Korea. Yes, according to the stats and analytics, we have one reader in North Korea.

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