The weekend wasn’t really that weird but the title appealed to me. I’m talking about the weekend of 15th and 16th March 2014 by the way. On the Saturday me and some of the Nottingham Hackspace stalwarts ventured off to Wollaton Hall in Nottingham. There the Nottinghamshire branch of the British Science Association (mostly from the University of Nottingham and other worth institutions) were conducting their 7th (it might be 6th) annual Science in the Park event. A great event that aims to bring science to the attention of the public in an engaging way… of course Nottingham Hackspace has nothing… AND EVERYTHING to do with Science and the feeling in Hackspace circles has been that supporting this sort of event is a good way of engaging with the public locally. Hackspaces in general can be a little bit to inward looking, but getting involved in this sort of venture is an excellent way to give something back to the community (beyond a huge low cost, well equipped workshop), show ourselves as part of the community AND engage families and let them know about the Hackspace.
We’ve long come to the conclusion that hands-on activity wins where kids are involved. To that end Matt Little (fellow Nottinghack founder) brought along his “Drip-Drop-Marble-Run” (see video below) moving the Drip-Drop is a bit of a logistical operation as it involves using the terrifying gantry crane (see picture at top) to get it out of Matt’s workshop. Luckily an army of student helpers (who frankly struggle under their own direction) was on hand at the Hall to undergraduate-handle the drip-drop to the first floor of the Elizabethan hall. The real beauty of the “Drip-Drop-Marble-Run” is that is requires little to no adult intervention or monitoring. Other than keeping a general eye out for stray marbles, kids can sit happily for minutes at a time either blocking up or freeing up the run. “It’s stuck” a sticky fingered child might exclaim… “can you fix it?” is all the adult need say to have engaged said youth in problem solving, physics and engineering… probably.
Our other offering was “THE EMBIGGENER” as named by Hackspace member Mouse. The Embiggener is an inspection microscope purchased from the Anchor army surplus shop. Michelle had been saving interesting insect bits, feathers and other gross stuff to put under the scope. The scope then presents the image on a screen. We found out that if you are at a science event with a bit of scientific looking kit, people immediately assume you are some scientific authority…. quite interesting echoes of the Milgram Experiment (though we didn’t encourage anyone to electrocute anyone else)… props and situation are everything when it comes to perception.
In the picture above you can see James from Nottinghack having his eye inspected by a kid FOR SCIENCE!
Sunday involved a trip to Leeds and a visit to the Leeds Hackspace. Sadly I’ve decided to take a laser cutter away from them. I had put an A4 laser cutter in the space about a year or so ago. Putting a laser cutter in the Nottingham Hackspace has been a huge success and well worth the personal risk and investment. The little A4 laser cutter has been a great draw to new members and a benefit to those who have a project that needs precision cutting or a nice enclosure. It’s given me the opportunity to really get to understand a modern prototyping tool and has directly led to me taking my interest in lasers much further (with the start of Just Add Shark Ltd in January partnered with super-blogger Martin Raynsford).
So why did I take the laser out of Leeds Hackspace? My lowest level of expectation when putting the laser into their space would be that it would at least pay for itself. I purchased the laser specifically to put it in Leeds Hackspace, that is to say, I got it with the express purpose of it paying itself off and maybe eventually making me a little pocket money (likely to fund another laser somewhere else). The advantage to me is that I get my money back and still own the laser cutter. It might seem like a bit of a venture to do this and perhaps it is but I hoped it’d be an opportunity for myself AND the Leeds Hackspace.
I don’t want to try and guess why Leeds Hackspace doesn’t have a lot more members. The Leeds built up area is the 4th largest in the UK after London, Manchester and Birmingham (Nottingham comes 8th) with a population of about 1.8 million, having said that the population density in Leeds is lower. The city has a good swath of technical businesses and universities and the Hackspace is close to the city centre AND parking. On paper they should have at least 100 members. In reality they have 30 members though the number has doubled since they moved into the Hackspace about 2 years ago. I’m unsure of the current financial state of the Leeds Hackspace but I do know they said they don’t have enough money to buy a laser cutter right now or even pay a flat rental for the laser (at least they certainly didn’t feel it was value for money).
Leeds Hackspace has had some trouble with the process and rules around access to the space for members… or at least with getting their decisions and kit in place to make it work. As I understand it, members only recently got 24 hour unlimited access to the space. Universal access to all members is I think very important to attracting new members. I’ve seen systems in Hackerspaces that require a member to telephone a key holder or only go on the open night. These baggy processes don’t attract a wider pool of new members to a Hackspace. Check any Hackerspace mailing list (not currently the case in Leeds) and if that Hackspace is full of posts like “Open?” “Is anyone in?” “Is Hackspace Open?” “Open times?” you can interpret that the Hackspace in questions might have problems with it’s universal access policy.
I’m not suggesting this is easy to manage, landlords often can be funny (or more often we image they will be funny if we ask them permission) locks and locksmiths can be expensive and never underestimate a Hackerspaces ability to Bike Shed the entry system (into having RFID and voices and tweets and logging and and and…). Then there is the question of trust. Who do you trust? I believe that Hackspace should trust every paying member to have 24hour access with keys. Obviously this might work best with a system that at least logs who has been in when but the investment in a quick off the shelf system (or rob London Hackspace’s gatekeeper system like Nottingham Hackspace did) you don’t have to re-invent the wheel for every problem WORKING and in place QUICK are very very valuable things in the Hackerspace world. They always trump fancy features.
Cost of access is another issue. Your Hackerspace costs say £500 a month to rent… you currently have at least 20 members… so £25 a month! Easy. Well not really. £25 is a commitment and an amount of money that you’ll cancel if you aren’t really going to the Hackspace as often as you thought you might. Letting people know what the space costs to run and asking them to think about what they can afford is (I think) a much better way of having a large number of members. More members leads to better activity, projects, more money, more varied events and the better chance of having someone interesting to chat to on an idol Monday you fancied popping in to use the laser cutter… pay what you like is just harder to predict and account for and probably doesn’t feel safe and logical.
One of the problems they had with the laser cutter at Leeds Hackspace specifically was that they were unable to ventilate it. This has either something to do with the landlord or something to do with not having been able to find a good method of ventilating AND asking the landlord (it’s vague). As access was not universal and the Open Night was still the focus, the laser was only really getting used on open night. It produces a lot of smoke and needs ventilation. If you only use an open window you are going to have a problem. It’ll be cold and the smoke will mostly blow back into the room. No wonder it didn’t get any use really. I took it away because my laser cutter in Nottingham needed a swap out. It’s possibly once I’ve reconditioned the Nottinghack laser that it might get sold on or put in my own office at home.
I wish Leeds Hackspace the best of luck. Several have suggested it sometimes takes the removal of something to get people to miss it. I absolutely think every Hackspace no matter how small should concentrate on the following 3 tools before they worry about CNCs and mills and other silly things or filling the space with broken or poor quality tools.
1. Laser Cutter as big as you can afford (cheap Chinese ones are okay) non-open source ones are OK you can always hack-it-later (HIL)
2. Plug and play 3D printer (not necessarily a RepRap) something anyone can get on and use
3. Electronics Bench (good soldering iron, good multi-meter, good set of tools, bench power supply and scope)
Leeds Hackspace needs members, do-ers and people who’ll organise in the face of bike shedding and flakiness (that skill is needed by anyone who wants to be a big noise in any Hackerspace). Go visit them on their open night, it’s on Tuesday (corrected)… I was interested to see the “Nottinghack was here 7/7/12” on the white board from our visit to their opening parts nearly two years ago. They said they’d kept it on purpose… part of their history. Nice touch.