Science Hack Day: Bridging the gap between coders and chemists

At SXSW in 2010, Ariel Waldman was on a panel talking about making science more open to average citizens and hackers, but soon the discussion changed course.

“The discussion was that, there actually is a lot of science that’s actually open, but we’re frusterated that no one’s doing anything interesting with it.”

From 2011 Hack Day: A group created a mask to simulate synesthesia, a condition where the senses are mixed up, in an effort to allow the face to feel vibrations associated with sight detected on a webcam.

From that discussion, the idea of a Science Hack Day was born, with the first event taking place in London in June 2010 and Waldman, currently a freelance designer and researcher at the Institute for the Future, bringing a second one to San Francisco shortly after.

The idea quickly became about more than doing cool things with science data, and turned into an exploration of a broader question: Could a hack day bring together scientists, technologists, and designers — three groups that have traditionally been a bit wary of each other — and get them to learn from each other and collaborate?

“We have the tech and science industries right here and they’re enamored with each other, but they feel like completely separate industries,” Waldman said. “People who work at NASA, when they get to visit Google, they think it’s so cool, and vice versa. You have this infatuation from afar but no interactions.”

Science Hack Day San Francisco 2011 strawberry DNA experiment
From 2011 Hack Day: A group of biohackers decided to investigate whether they could chemically extract DNA and keep the items edible, creating a strawberry daiquiri  or “DNAquiri,” that remained totally edible.

Waldman said she attributes the totally different perspectives on collaboration as indicative of the industries: for most coders, side projects and weekend hacks are seen as natural extensions of a person’s professional and personal development, and the industry seems to recognize that those side projects can roll back into a company and find success. Whereas scientists can be a little warier of these kinds of diversions, she said.

“I think most scientists tend to be a little more unsure of the concept until they attend,” she said.

But the goal of bringing non-scientists in to embrace science is one Waldman is well-positioned to spearhead: while she’s a designer and researcher by trade, she nabbed a job at NASA in 2008 at the company’s CoLab, which was engineered to connect groups inside and outside of NASA and get them to interact.

Quake Canary 2011 Science Hack Day San Francisco iPhone earthquake app detector
From 2011 Hack Day: This group decided to see if they could use smartphone sensors to detect earthquakes, giving areas the ability to detect and send data to the U.S. Geological Survey. Their project was picked up by UC Berkeley and is ongoing.

“When I got this job at NASA a few years ago, I had never expected to do anything space or science-related, and it totally changed my perception of it,” she said. “I realized I want people to feel like they can play with science even if they know nothing about it.”

Science Hack Day San Francisco will hold its third edition this weekend, Nov 3 and 4, at Howard and 2nd. St. The event is completely full, with a waitlist of more than 100 people (although you can still add your name to it), but Waldman said they will soon be announcing next year’s Hack Day, with some pretty cool updates. Interested in attending next year? Check out the group’s Twitter accounts for upcoming details.

All thumbnail and post images of 2011 Science Hack Day courtesy Flickr user Matt Biddulph.