Running A Successful Hacker Camp In A Pandemic: BornHack 2020

You could say 2020 is The Year That Didn’t Happen, or perhaps even The Year That Everything Happened Online. All the international cons and camps have been cancelled, and we’ve spent our time instead seeing our friends in Jitsi, or Zoom.

But there was one camp that wasn’t cancelled. The yearly Danish hacker camp BornHack has gone ahead this year with significantly reduced numbers and amid social distancing, turning it from what is normally one of the smaller and more intimate events into the only real-world event of 2020.

I bought my ticket early in the year and long before COVID-19 became a global pandemic, so on a sunny day in August I found myself in my car with my friend Dani from FizzPop hackerspace in Birmingham taking the ferry for the long drive through the Netherlands and Germany to Denmark.

Have Fun, Don’t Spread The Virus

The first thought of anyone traveling in 2020 is of the pandemic, and while we’d prefer to take you straight into the usual cool stuff from our community it’s best to dive into this, the thing that whether we like it or not had the biggest influence on the whole event.

Most obviously in the event itself, this was a much smaller gathering than usual, limited by Danish Government rules as an outdoor event to only 150 attendees rather than the usual greater numbers. Last year they had about 450 people and the site has room for more, so the various parts were much more sparsely populated than the hacker camps we’re used to. Hylkedam scout camp makes a great venue in a normal year, but in 2020 its spread-out terrain was a bonus for social distancing.

Meanwhile the pandemic brought all the rules we’ve all come to expect. Spaced all around the site were had washing and sanitising stations — the BornHack 2020 logo reflects this, with a “Make clean” tagline and icons of hand sanitiser and hand washing. Communal areas were social distanced, masks were advised indoors, and the speaker’s tent was reduced to a much smaller audience spaced out across its rows. It was reassuring that both the orga and participants took the whole thing seriously.

There was a report of one visitor who came to the camp for a day during which they received a positive result to an earlier test. So far we’re unaware of any camp-related infections following the event. This is why it’s so important that everyone was strictly observing all of these precautions.

A Strange Kind Of Hacker Camp

Oddly for the only hacker camp of the year, there wasn’t as much in the way of hacks as you might expect. When 150 people spent the year amid lockdown restrictions and have a single week of normal summer, it’s hardly surprising that their minds turn more towards having a holiday in the sunshine of a Danish forest in August than to what we’d expect in a normal year.

So the atmosphere was simultaneously more festive as everyone had a chance to let their hair down, and quieter as they recharged a little from the stresses of the preceding months. This is not to say that there were not plenty of the usual hacker camp activities such as the token hunt game, the CTF, or the Hacker Jeopardy quiz, but the allure of lying in a hammock under the trees with a Club-Mate or driving the short distance to the beach on a hot day was strong. The well-stocked bar and excellent local Danish street food from the on-site food van kept us all happily sated, and I can truthfully say that never has a hacker camp hit the spot for me at the time I needed it in quite the same way as this one.

Plenty Still To Get Your Teeth Into

I’ll write in detail about the badge in a separate piece, suffice to say that it’s a very well-executed LED array with an ARM Cortex M0+ microcontroller running Circuit Python. The event had a full programme of speakers which thanks to their very efficient video system they were able to put up on YouTube very quickly, so it’s worth taking a browse through some of the offerings. There seemed to be more infosec/software talks than hardware ones and some of them are in Danish so may be less accessible to an international audience, but there are still a few I’d like to bring to your attention. They’re auto-generated from live streams and some of them start a few minutes into the clip, so our links will jump in as the talk begins.

If you’ve ever been to a festival or hacker camp and used the WiFi or other IT services then you may be interested by a talk from Lasse Leegaard, giving us a fascinating view from the trenches of the IT infrastructure for the Roskilde Festival. The challenges of providing connectivity for 100k music fans make even the largest hacker camps pale into insignificance. Meanwhile a BornHack regular, Mike Mikjær Christensen returns to his specialist theme of retrocomputing with ‘Made In Denmark‘, a run through his research into the Danish microcomputer industry in the 1970s and 1980s that features some fascinating and very rare hardware.

Tickling both retrogaming and reverse engineering fancies was Ramón Soto Mathiesen, whose talk on manipulating PKF files was in fact a fascinating primer on file format reverse engineering using a Spanish PC football game from the 1990s as an example. Finishing up with a satisfying bit of RF tech I was witness during the camp to someone asking to borrow the microwave oven from the food preparation area for use as an RF interference source in a talk. That was Mark-Jan Bast who is examining the potential impact of Galileo satellite navigation on 23cm amateur radio users. This talk provides a fascinating introduction to how satellite positioning systems work, as well as some of the differences between the various systems.

A week is longer than most camps, and this time due to the pandemic there was little opportunity for trips out such as last year’s visit to LegoLand and Lego House. But the extra time led as always to a camp with much more opportunity to get to know our fellow attendees, and to take a holiday after a year of lockdown and pandemic-related restrictions. The forest surrounding the Hylkedam camp was an ideal place to unwind, and a lucky week of good weather meant it was every bit as good as any more conventional sunshine holiday.

I’m now stuck inside writing this during the two-week quarantine period imposed by the UK government while the camp was under way for travelers returning via the Netherlands, but that I see it as a small price to pay for what I consider to have been the opportunity of the year. I will return next year for what I hope will be a more conventional BornHack, but meanwhile I’ll always have the memories from this year: our only international hacker camp.

10 thoughts on “Running A Successful Hacker Camp In A Pandemic: BornHack 2020

  1. I had a great camp. It was really nice to see everyone again.

    Last year was cool and wet, this year was baking and sunny.
    I got loads more done last year – partly because of the heat, but also, as Jenny describes, because of the social angle seemed so much more attractive this year.

  2. Bornhack was once again a truly great experience that I would have not want to miss out.
    As always it was a pleasure having you on-site.
    Shame on you though for wanting to put Marmite on our beloved stroopwafels ;)
    Take care and see you all on MCH2021.

    1. Muahaha, I met with its Australian relative (Vegemite) when I was there in a Hostel. I thought it was Nutella so I went all. Everybody was just looking at me like I was a mad man (*) but nobody told me what it was. I mean, first bite and I was like WTF and everybody smiled. But given I was raised to never throw out food, I finished the toast like a champ xD

      And yes, great Camp this year (reminded me of the first one in BornHolm due to the limited size) and really good post about the experience. I’m going to use this blog post to get people to give talks and hopefully I can get some sponsors as well. So thank you very much Jenny for this.

      (*) – Usually what happens when I go in “Spanish mode” xD

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