Over The Air prepares for a Very British hack weekend

It’s nearly 70 years since England’s Bletchley Park first played host to a gaggle of coders, when a team including computing pioneer Alan Turing got together to crack critical Nazi ciphers in a move that was pivotal in winning the Second World War.

But this weekend the estate is welcoming another horde of programmers, as the Over The Air hack festival arrives once again.

Now in its fifth year, more than 600 people are expected to turn up for the free-to-attend event, which focuses on 36 hours of mobile hacking, building and talks. This year’s speakers have a scientific bent, with Ariel Waldman of Spacehack and Shuttleworth Foundation Fellow Francois Grey discussing citizen science.

“We’re now Europe’s biggest mobile hack event, in a big way,” says co-founder Matthew Cashmore, who — alongside friends Daniel Appelquist and Margaret Gold — organizes the event in his spare time.

Not everybody is keen on hack weekends, though: just last week one prominent U.K. entrepreneur accused hack events of treating coders like “monkeys in a cage”. But the organizers say that they are focused on getting people together for exciting, fun projects — not profit. In fact, they say, some sponsors even use the event as a recruiting ground to hire developer talent — not simply lift their work or ideas.

“It’s all about science hacking and what people can do with publicly available data from space probes and telescopes,” says Cashmore. “We always try to balance practical sessions with inspirational ones.”

Staging the event at Bletchley, which houses the U.K’s National Museum of Computing, started last year. And, given that it’s staged over the Queen’s Jubilee celebration weekend, it all seems a very genteel approach to the idea of the hack weekend — connecting a nation of tinkerers with new technology and teaching, a long way from the mercenary approach critics decry.

But while attendees are more likely to come away with free bean bags than bellies full of cream tea, the setting of a venerable estate steeped in such history makes it a very British event indeed.

“Somebody said it to me last year,” says Cashmore. “When do you reckon was the last time there were this many geeks at Bletchley Park?”

Photograph of Bletchley Park used under Creative Commons license courtesy of Flickr user draco2008