How DIY communities are pushing the frontiers of science

Lucy Patterson reports back from Science Hack Day Berlin
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By Lucy Patterson

Last month, 80 scientists, artists, designers and developers gathered together to take over the workshops of the Technical University of Berlin for a whole weekend of creative collaboration and weird science. The occasion was the 5th edition of Science Hack Day Berlin – an annual volunteer-organised hackathon that we have been running since 2013. This year we were fortunate enough to join forces with eLife Innovation as a sponsor, helping us keep our hackers fuelled with coffee, Club-Mate, snacks, electronics and Wi-Fi as they worked late into the night on their projects.

What is a science hack day?

The word ‘hacking’ has a complicated reputation. It conjures up images of hoodie-wearing criminals hacking secure systems and stealing passwords, or maybe whistleblowing hacktivists leaking the secrets of the powerful. But hacker culture is much broader than this. To hack is to understand and creatively overcome the limits of a system: improving, re-appropriating or subverting it beyond the original intentions of its creator.

Science Hack Day is about applying this principle to science and does so in a number of different ways. It is a global project, started in 2010 by Ariel Waldman a designer and, at the time, NASA intern. She saw that so much amazing scientific data and research was being made open, but few people outside of the institutions were using it. Realising that 'open' is not the same as 'accessible', she wanted to do something about it. Along with Jeremy Keith she came up with the basic design of Science Hack Day, hosting the first editions in London and San Francisco, and published open-source instructions so that others could reproduce it in their own cities. Since then there have been 95 (and counting) Science Hack Days in 45 cities in 29 countries around the world.

Embedded tweet about event with photo of people assembled in room
Science Hack Day kicks-off with a round of idea pitches, then team-building and planning for the weekend ahead. Source: Twitter.

The basic formula creates a safe and playful space where scientists, designers, developers, artists, architects, lawyers, gardeners, writers and anyone enthusiastic to get involved can get together over one weekend to build collaborative projects. The intensity of a good hackathon creates a special kind of chemistry. Sitting alongside someone from a different background and struggling over the same problems gives you a glimpse of how that person's brain works. It can be a great way to bring different disciplines together, forging the relationships needed for interdisciplinary collaboration.

Over the shoulder shot of a group of people taking notes
Rapid prototyping is not about being tidy.

In building interdisciplinary communities, projects like Science Hack Day are hacking the way that scientific knowledge is disseminated, used and even created. They break down the barriers to involvement in science of those outside of scientific institutions: hacking the scientific community by opening it up to a greater diversity of people, perspectives and ideas.

This year’s projects

As a result, the kind of projects that come out reflect that diversity. This year's Science Hack Day Berlin collection included DIY scientific equipment that would make a great addition to any kitchen molecular biology lab, and an ambitious attempt to build a new experimental flight propulsion system, showing that you don’t need to have access to formal research facilities to do pretty sophisticated science.

A person uses a custom-made fluorometer with the result displayed on a tablet
DIY Fluorometer for measuring the concentration of DNA – a handy way to avoid wasting precious biohacker time and money on poor quality samples. Source: Flickr.

Several projects showed what happens when scientific phenomena or approaches are applied in new contexts, including a sound-controlled stroboscope that makes live analog visuals to music using the phenomenon of persistence of vision and a data analysis project to survey the most significant human experiences.

Video: VJing with physical objects (sound controlled stroboscope). Video credit: lab:present.

And some teams used their outsider perspective to criticise or even improve science: a satirical medical algorithm for self-diagnosis that tries to sell you things and a chatbot for lab journaling to improve life in the lab. The latter came from a mixed team of developers and wet-lab scientists and focussed on developing a routine for a PCR protocol. In the short time available, they managed to gather a lot of valuable user requirements and constraints by surveying scientists attending the hackathon and began to fuse them with lessons learned from the worlds of software development and project management.

Left: a man reads a flipboard of notes and a woman in the background presents something on a laptop; right: screenshot of chatbot
No need to pray to the voodoo gods of PCR – Humbot, the lab book chatbot, is here to hold your hand.

As always the projects were documented online. This year we started using discourse, a widely used open-source community forum tool, hosted by our partners Open Tech School, so that the teams can independently continue to document further developments, get feedback from the community and connect with potential collaborators. Our plan is to use this platform also to document ongoing projects in our regular monthly meetups (science hacking is for life, not just for Science Hack Day!). We're looking forward to seeing where this will take our community.

The benefit of engaging DIY communities

What does all this have to do with the problem of improving scholarly communications? As a values-driven organisation we think it's crucial that science is as open as possible. The world is facing serious problems and the best we can do is to make sure that science is accessible as a tool for anyone to use.

Open science practices that make academic science more transparent are a huge part of that. Additionally initiatives like the Global Open Scientific Hardware movement are creating tools to make the practice of science more equitable and more accessible. We feel that building local ‘DIY Science’ communities around the practice of appropriating science for civic and cultural purposes is also an important part of the mix. Such communities are big consumers of scholarly communication (potentially also contributors to it) and important stakeholders in open science.

On top of that, communities like ours can offer innovative perspectives on what open scholarly communication could look like. The rise of hacker, maker, and DIY communities, along with the free and open source software movement, hackerspaces and the like, is a relatively young post-internet phenomenon. DIY science communities like ours are figuring out from scratch how to collaborate and share knowledge without any long tradition of offline communication to overcome. We're looking forward to be part of the conversation!

Thank you to eLife Innovation for the support!

Group of people celebrating
The Science Hack Day Berlin 2017 organising team says thank you!.

Lucy Patterson is a science hacker, freelance community manager, former molecular biologist, and member of the fantastically interdisciplinary Science Hack Day Berlin family.

Find Lucy or connect with the Science Hack Day Berlin community on Twitter.

Do you have an idea or innovation to share? Register your interest to participate in the eLife Innovation Sprint (May 2018) or send a short outline for a Labs blogpost to innovation [at] elifesciences [dot] org.

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