This Open Research Reports Hackathon was part of the Semantic Web Applications and Tools for Life Sciences conference. Approaching this from a non-Computer Science perspective, I had no idea what I was in for. Having understood the word ‘hack’ only as meaning an underhanded and illicit way of accessing protected information (apparently ‘crack’ is the correct term for this), it turns out that – in this and similar cases – ‘hack’ means finding elegant solutions to computing problem by sharing ideas and expertise. So, having learnt something new within the first five minutes, and with that as the underpinning aim, we set about sharing interests, problems and ideas, and began by introducing ourselves.
There were programmers, PhD students, open science enthusiasts, and the occasional person who had Life Sciences and / or software technology as a hobby. ‘Lightning talks’ by some attendees presented particular problems or suggestions, including the topics of semantics, data modelling and minimal standards. With breaks to facilitate discussions between people with shared interests, and rewards for enthusiastic networking (a system involving casino chips exchanged for beers), it was a productive evening for mingling and plotting and set the groundwork for day 2.
The next morning people arrived abuzz with fledgling ideas and enthusiasm for Making Things Happen. Groups of like-minded individuals joined forces around proposed subjects, set goals and began hacking… Whereupon developed a hushed and industrious atmosphere and the room became reverently productive. While the groups worked away, I joined Peter Murray-Rust and Mahendra Mahey to record some people talking about what they are up to in general as well as what they were doing at that moment in the Hackathon. This was very interesting as it provided a great explanation of what brings people to events such as this – predominantly, to see what would happen when people with different skills combine ideas to solve a realised problem.
The round-ups shared the groups’ progress, where a spokesperson from each group explained the starting-point or problem, how this was approached and what the outcome or solution was. There were interactive diagrams, existing resources combined and / or adapted, interesting tangents explored and proposals for further research suggested. They included great ideas and demonstrations such as how to build collections of relevant research article metadata quickly, filtering drug information for patients by side-effects and availability etc, and using natural language to populate forms designed for capturing metadata (follow link at the end of this post to read about the outcomes in more detail). Reports were received with enthusiasm and encouragement, and prompted cross-group collaboration and further exploration of emerging ideas even as we were being herded out of the door.
My overview of this, my first Hackathon, is that I thought it was an excellent way of developing ways of improving problems common to science and technology and fostering interdisciplinary collaboration. I was impressed that tangible solutions had been developed to the level of sophistication presented, and I am keen on the suggestion to revisit these solutions in 6 months or so to establish how the projects develop.
Many thanks to Mahendra (our welcome committee, compère, areas of interest match-maker and all-round organiser) for the smooth running of the event and the organisers / sponsors (DevCSI which is funded by JISC, SWAT4LS and the Open Knowledge Foundation) for enabling this exciting and productive event to go ahead.
More details on this event, including the lightning talks and round-ups, can be found at http://wiki.okfn.org/Working_Groups/Science/swat4ls_hackathon
For more information on future events please refer to http://okfn.org/events/