making the greatest show and tell on earth

I’m at the New York Hall of Science (NYSci pronounced Neye Sigh) Flushing Meadow, Queens in New York for the 6th Annual World Maker Faire. Friday is the main setup day for exhibiting makers ahead of the weekend event. Staff and Maker Faire crew have been here for over a week setting up the huge site. Getting the scale of the event across in photographs is fairly difficult as the site is so large. For me this really is the greatest show and tell on earth and my Maker Faire of choice to visit. 

 

Maker Faire Producers from all over the globe exchnage experiences over lunch.
 
To put the scale in context the crew have their own canteen and rest area which is packed with bicycles for them to get about site. They have  a fleet of telehandler fork trucks, dozens of golf buggies wizzing about. The Faire uses 250 radios across 16 fully monitored channels for the crew. There are  800+ booths (Bay Area has 1200+ and so is the larger Faire) for makers ranging from huge pavilion sized corporate sponsors to individual young makers. The budget for the Faire is over $2millon.

The Faire covers (indeed literally take over) the NYSci site itself and pushes out into the Flushing Meadow park area (the home of the 1964 Worlds Fair). Staff at NYSci have been instrumental in the success of the Faire and it’s a great partnership for Maker Media and the Faire has reportedly changed the fortunes of the museum this being their flagship event. For the first time this year the Maker Faire has setup a stage next to the Unisphere for Eeppy Bird to perform Coke Zero & Mentos free of charge for the public, especially the residence of Queens who the Faire effects the most.  The ambition is to push the Faire further and further into the park as it continues to grow. 
  

5th annual brighton mini maker faire

A somewhat late blog post here, so my apologies but I’ve some stuff to get up on the blog and this post got misplaced! More to come soon.

The 1st weekend in September marked the 5th Brighton Mini Maker Faire to be held at the Brighton Dome. The team at Brighton Mini Maker Faire are highly experienced now and run a very good faire. As usual set up for Makers starts on Friday evening, a good opportunity to have a look at the tables of fellow exhibitors and make friends. Later beer and pizzas was laid on to aid socialising further.

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For Just Add Sharks (who I’m proud to say were “professional maker sponsor”) MSRaynsford made a new attraction in the form of a catapult shooting range complete with knights and castles! You can read about it on his blog here. The range proved very popular and a big draw for kids who tried their hardest to destroy it with lasercut mdf missiles.

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There was some talk of the event not running in 2016 (don’t take my work for it if you are reading this as a “what’s on guide) which I think would be very sad, though it must be said without proper funding and the support of so call “maker” companies in the UK it’s understandable that the event might not happen. Organisers work very hard and for little reward let alone the cost in time, events must be sustainable and can be very very expensive to put on so sometimes these things just don’t always happen and it should always be remembered that most exhibiting makers do so for the love of it and at their own expense.

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You can see a gallery of my pictures from the event here.

what if? machine derby silk mill

Back in 2012 I coordinated an event put on during Derby Feste 2012 at the Silk Mill Museum. The idea of the day was to create an elaborate “Rube Goldberg or Heath-Robinson” it was a great success for the Silk Mill and when I heard they wanted to do it again I was keen they got in touch with me to run it.

A lot has changed at the Silk Mill since we ran the last event in September 2012. They now have a very well equipped workshop with lots of tools and off cuts and that sort of thing. The main difference in approach between this years and the 2012 event was that I asked teams to complete a machine “about pallet sized” away from the Silk Mill and bring it in. This worked okay, but it’s a big commitment to build a machine, it can take hundreds of hours.

This time we gave everyone a sort of starter kit to get them going. They had a pallet to build from as both a guide and a solid bit of wood to get them started. We had about 5 teams more or less including 2 family teams! Everyone worked well and without needing any real help at all. Once the teams had been shown some general principles and encouraged to experiment physically and test their assumptions. “The Brio Train will knock a switch!”… “Will it? Let’s test it!”

The Saturday build day went well, with the teams who tested their machines making the most progress. Sunday started with much tinkering, decorating and tweaking. Sunday, being the run day was much improved by the addition of Sally Thompson, a comic book illustrator who I’d hired in to live-draw the event. Her work shown below tells the story of the day beautifully.

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I’ll be putting these illustrations together into a proper portfolio page about chain reaction machines at some point in the future. I’d like very much to run these sort of events more often as they can be great fun. Here are some of the photographs and videos from the day too.

Just like the way you should think about your chain reaction machine, starting with the end and working to the beginning, I’ve loaded these pictures the wrong way. It took a while so they are staying that way.

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and a very roughly edited video done on my iPhone. Some of it is made of Vines and so is portrait, blame Vine it makes you do it.  There is talk of another What If? Machine event next year.

so you want to run a maker faire?

In the last weekend of October I co-produced the 3rd Derby Mini Maker Faire at the SIlk Mill museum in Derby. It was our most successful Derby Mini Maker Faire ever, with about 2700 visitor and over 100 makers. We were greatly helped by the support of Rolls Royce and the Bloodhound SSC as well as the team at Derby Museums being 100% behind the Derby Mini Maker Faire as a good thing for the SIlk Mill and Derby.

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Chris Keady and Andrea Mercer (Co-Producers) put up bunting. Bunting is essential for getting that Maker Faire look just right.

My very first Maker Faire was at the Centre for Life in Newcastle Upon Tyne in April 2010, I set off from Nottingham very early in the morning to find myself at the Faire at 8am a good two hours before it was due to open to the public. When it did open I was one of the first through the door and stayed their the rest of the day. It was my first exposure “in the flesh” to many of the exciting projects, people and ideas I’d been researching for the fledgling Nottingham Hackspace, which had founded just the a few weeks before and a watershed moment for me at the start of a new life in some ways.

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Sometimes giving your sponsors the chance to make speeches is essential!

The recent Derby Mini Maker Faire marks my eighteenth Maker Faire, of which I’ve produced four of them and been an exhibitor at another twelve of them. That’s not to mention the un-branded “Making Fairs” I’ve been to. I still love these events and look forward to producing bigger and better events in the future as well as attending my first Bay Area Maker Faire in San Mateo California in May 2015. So what tips if any would I give an aspiring Mini Maker Faire producer? I’m glad you asked…

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Ensure you have an awesome marketing person like Emma Hallam shown above with “selfy stick”.

1. Make Media licensed Mini Maker Faire

The Americans are coming, hooray!

It’s easy for us Brits to fall into a little mind trap about America and Money. It’s somehow cultural osmosis that American companies are always BIG and RICH. Can this be true or every American company? Why do we think this? It’s been a staple of dramatic story telling in our culture that “The Americans are coming…” to save join us in war or step in with big oil money or buy out the failing company in a film or soap opera as some sort of funding deus ex machina. I think we naturally assume that the noisy and well run media empire that is Make Media have big pots of gold and we despair at their seemingly tight pockets? In spite of our unfounded prejudices about all that money they have, we mustn’t forget that Make Media recently floated from it’s parent company O’Reilly Media.

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Get your wallet out.

So likewise your Faire is going to cost money to run, money you’ll need to pay to Make Media. Make Media don’t let you use their branding lightly and you’ll need to be ready to pay to brand your event as a Mini Maker Faire. If you charge entry to your Faire, Make Media might want a cut of the gate and if you generate sponsorship Make Media might also want a cut of that too. How greedy? No, it’s their brand, if you don’t want to cut Make Media in then come up with your own brand. This can work well, but don’t be surprised if your “Fair” is missing a little something.

CONS 

  • Make Media will want a fee as well as a cut of your ticket price and sponsorship
  • Make Media will ask to collect data from your visitors and attending makers
  • You will need to ensure that you run the event in accordance with Make Media’s rules and the Mini Maker Faire playbook

PROS

  • By using the Maker Faire branding you have an instant short hand for what your event is
  • Make will promote your event
  • You will be part of a huge family of Maker Faires around the planet including the White House Maker Faire
  • People want to go to a Maker Faire near them, they might hear about them in New York or Newcastle Upon Tyne or Rome but not everyone will travel to go to a Faire but they will to yours if it’s local
  • Chuck some bunting up and it instantly LOOKS like a Maker Faire
  • Make Media and the producers network offer invaluable support and advise

I’ve written about a “Fair” that went off brand, Maker Day in Sheffield, it worked very well but you might also like to research Dublin Maker, Leicester Creator Fair (no link available) and Hack n Make Aberdeen. So think carefully when you go off brand… can you link into another fair? Are you reinventing the wheel? Will it look like a craft fair?

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A good venue and a good team

I’ve only been able to co-produce the Mini Maker Faires in Derby and Bristol because of the support of the venue. In the case of Bristol, the MShed museum, once I’d gotten them into the idea were great and helped with a great Faire. Hannah Fox and the team at Derby Museum (principally Andrea Mercer, Chris Keady, Emma Hallam and Kim Miller at the SIlk Mill) as well as all the staff and volunteers a museum can wield. Museums have generally been the favored venue for Faire’s in the UK. I think in the USA the Flagship Faires are principally seen as an outdoor event but I’ve not seen an outdoor Maker Faire in the UK yet.

One of the limiting factors for the event in Derby is the limits on numbers of people the building can accommodate at any given time. We have ambitions to grow the

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Planning is essential, the team discuss location for each maker prior to a “safety walk-about” ensure you have a fire evacuation plan and you aim to eliminate “pinch-points” where ease of movement is reduced. Pictured are Emma, Kim, Andrea, Mick and Chris.

2. MY Faire is going to be BIGGER than YOUR Faire

I don’t want to be Mini…

First thing you might be wondering is, why does my Faire have to be a Mini Faire? If you seek to run a Faire under licence to Make Media it’s going to be a Mini Faire, unless they agree to step in and partner up with you and grant you the honor of being a “featured” Faire or Maker Faire. The only one we currently have in the UK is the Faire at Newcastle-Upon-Tyne’s Center For Life. Why should Newcastle get the “featured” Faire I hear you scream? Well they got there first, they put time, effort and money into having the very first Maker Faire outside of the USA. They made it happen for them in Newcastle. You didn’t. I didn’t. So the featured Faire for the UK tends to be their where the effort and money is being made to hold it. Embrace it, I for one hope that Newcastle continues to host a featured Faire for a long time to come.

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Who’s on the brandwagon?

To be honest the Maker Faire game is a bit of a band wagon with all sorts of stories flying about and a lot of the producers are very inward looking. They want an event for their venue, their city or whatever. Some Mini Maker Faire annoying insist on running for two days. Faire’s sometimes “accidentally” drop the “mini” in press releases. Everyone wants a big successful Faire, just make sure you’ve done the leg work. It doesn’t happen over night.

Please, just run for one day!

My advise to any aspiring Maker Faire producer is to start small. If you want lots of Makers to come and show at your Faire don’t run for two days either. People giving up their time to show at your Faire (a grueling and sometimes costly task) don’t want to have to loose a whole weekend to travel and pay for accommodation. Run your mini Faire for one day not two days. Leave two day Faires to the big established players. Nothing annoys me more that a quiet Faire spread over two mediocre days (yes Manchester I’m looking at you) I’d rather have one fantastic busy day than two mediocre quiet ones.

Local Makers are key!

Go find them, your local makers, in fact if you don’t have at least 10 local makers who you know can exhibit, think carefully about having a Faire at all. You need to weed them out. Remember a lot of makers don’t know they are “makers” and certainly wouldn’t dream of showing off their projects. The point of most projects isn’t to finish them, it’s the ongoing joy people get from tinkering, tweeking, reinventing, experimenting. Think about something YOU made… how willing were you to have it put on display whilst you got asked a 1000 questions about it? If you are extroverted (and if you are thinking of running a faire you are) try to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. If you were a “deep geek” how keen are you going to be to have people (potentially) tell you how you’ve done your thing wrong. Go, find the local makers. The projects don’t even need to be finished to make them interesting. If you have a really good Faire with a good reputation and things that Makers want to see themselves you’ll get applications from further afield. But at all times THINK MAKER CARE not MAKER FAIRE! 

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Find your local makers, make your event excellent and makers will come to you. Lots of “famous” people from the UK maker scene in this picture can you spot them? Leave a comment if you can.

Watch out for the craft mafia!

Crafters are a very important part of any Maker Faire, but here is a little warning, MAKE SURE THAT YOUR EXHIBITORS KNOW THIS IS NOT A CRAFT FAIR. Crafters understand, they get craft fairs. I don’t like craft fairs. A craft fair is not a Maker Faire. At a craft fair you’ll have a number of people “playing shop” setting out things that have been made and selling them. By all means let your makers sell at your Faire, but to stop it looking and feeling like a craft fair INSIST THAT CRAFTERS BE PREPARED TO DEMONSTRATE THEIR CRAFT AND TALK ABOUT THEIR PASSION FOR MAKING. This makes a world of difference and will stop your Make Faire looking like a craft fair. Having said that, if you DO have a huge Faire, consider having a craft market as part of it. There was a sort of ETSY sellers bit at the World Maker Faire and it was F******** awesome.

Where is our big Faire?

Earlier this year there was talk of a huge “Flagship” Faire for East London. At the time of the announcement which went off a little bit half-cocked I was invited to a Google Hangout with staff from Make Media. They carefully explained that they would very much like a “flagship” sized Faire for the UK and that it would require many hundreds of thousands of dollars investment and that we shouldn’t be sour about the impact on Faires like the Elephant & Castle Mini Maker Faire and the UK Maker Faire in Newcastle. I don’t think the guys at Make understood our annoyance about the diminuation of the UK Maker Faire in Newcastle. But I now know that if you’d have been to World or Bay Area Maker Faire you’d be forgiven for assuming that the UK Maker Faire was a Mini Faire (sorry Newcastle you’re still my favorite). The guys at Make were genuinely a little hurt by the UK producers seeming hostility to a large scale Maker Faire in London given the amount of money and effort it would take them. I for one look forward to a UK based “Flagship” Faire and want to mark myself out as a supporter of that idea. Let’s not be naive about such a Faire, it’s going to take money and political wrangling to make it happen, so I do forgive just a little the shitty press release put out by Here East earlier this year.

 3. MAKER CARE not MAKER FAIRE

To build your Faire make sure that you do LOTS of things for Makers. This might include:

  • PAT Testing – if your venue requires PAT then don’t expect the makers to pay for it
  • Understand that lots of amateur makers DO NOT HAVE public liability insurance
  • Help them with the application form, lots of makers make a big deal of making an application and they shouldn’t worry about it so much
  • Help them with Risk Assessments, lots of them have never done this before
  • Give them a Greenroom with tea and coffee, water and some snacks if you can, a Makers only toilet and cloakroom is also good.
  • Communicate, welcome them and help them, remember a lot of Makers will have made a big effort to come to your Faire. Naturally many of them will not be thinking about YOU and your problems but them and their problems.
  • Makers will fill any space given to them and any amount of “prep” time they are given.
  • Give your Makers a lunch in a bag that they can eat at their stall.
  • Try and provide some perks for your Makers. A little time (and encouragement) to look at each others work. Pizza and beer on setup night help too. Maybe a behind the scenes tour of your venue?

…and last of all. A great team who all understand what Maker Faire is about is essential. I dedicate this blog post to the hard work of the Derby Mini Maker Faire team. Thank you!

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The Derby Mini Maker Faire Team finish off a barrel of beer left over from the Makers Meetup after the long hard day of Derby Mini Maker Faire 2014

 For an official Make Media Inc how-too please click here. 

1000 hackers in an electromagnetic field

Way back in August 2014, me and Martin Raynsford setup a laser cutting village at the excellent second outing of EMF Camp 2014. Rather grandly (and wrongly) described as the UK’s Burningman by the Guardian. Setting up a Whitetooth A1 sized 80w laser cutter (and it’s Blacknose A3 40w baby brother) in a field is as difficult as it sounds! It was a good experiment for Martin and me as we’d not really found the best way to move these monsters about. Our solution, car-trailer! The sort you’d go fetch a car with, they are huge by the way and not always treated well, though we found it worked well for moving a lot of gear and a very heavy laser cutter.

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EMF Camp 2014

I think the thing people don’t realise about laser cutters is just how heavy they are at that size. The Blacknose A3 is a hard two man lift in it’s self, anything larger you won’t lift right off the floor with four and the ground in a field is soft. Our main problem was keeping this huge laser on top of the road mats and getting it into the tent. Needless to say we managed in the end with quite a bit of welcome help!

Ben Heck visits the laser village
Ben Heck visits the laser village

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We were joined in our laser village by Ian Crowther, a fine gentleman from London or there about, who brought his own Lasercut5.3 powered A3 which had the oddest 4 mirror setup I’ve seen on a cutter. Ian though was an excellent and patient expert helper taking many of the “how too” queries in his stride and was a great advocate for us. Also of great help was Dan Nixon (late of Newcastle Makespace and now of OxHack) who got stuck in making on the laser and helping others to cut their designs too. We also had good help from Nottinghack’s Michelle Strickland and Andrew Armstrong with additional village setup help from Rob Hunt and Matt Little. Thank you to all those who helped make the laser cutting village a success, especially Martin Raynsford who I don’t think left the village all weekend!

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Gillian and me were official t-shirt vendor for EMF, stepping up at the last minute to provide around 250 t-shirts for the campers, most of which were made on site with my tiny hobby vinyl cutter and pro heatpress. I managed to drop 5kg of laser ply on my laptop at the start of the weekend, so seeing Katie Dumont at EMF (who introduced me to the world of hobby vinyl cutting) was a relief, especially when she lent me her laptop the whole weekend, a very kindly act. I was very ably assisted by the wonderful Hannah Howe (the partner of Jake GMJ Howe t-shirt designer) and together we churned our hundreds of variations of the EMF official t-shirt. Everyone seemed to get a kick out of it being made “live” on site, though really that’s not a good way to produce hundreds of festival t-shirts. My one regret was not getting to take part more in the camp as I was mostly busy from early till late doing t-shirts!

I was pleased however to see talks by Tom Scott and Matt Gray about EMOJLI and a talk from my Elephant & Castle Mini Maker Faire buddy Tom Lynch (also of South London Makerspace fame) on Split Flap displays which is of especial interest to me. In addition to talks and laser cutters there was a large amount of activity all over the site including blacksmithing, silversmithing, retro-arcade, on-site radio station, various workshops activities and lots more.

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This second outing was considerably larger than the last. In 2012 the Nottingham Hackspace organised an excellent and really the only village on site. This time around there was at least ten villages of different and varied sizes. Nottinghack’s offering again served two purposes. Firstly as a living space for the large number of Nottingham Hackspace members who attended and secondly as our embassy at the camp offering our own activities and entertainment to the other campers. Our secret weapon was Nottingham Hackspace’s most successful collaborative project to date, the BarBot. Mathew “Mouse” Gates, Ian Dickinson, Ed Raisin and Micheal Erskine primarily slaved over BarBot for well planned months prior to EMF Camp. BarBot was complimented by the addition of Toby Jackson’s BoozeFogger. The parties run in the Nottinghack village were popular, well attended, fun and lucrative (in the form of voluntary donations) too. BarBot allows party-goers to choose a cocktail from an interactive webpage, the punter is issued a number and the robot makes the cocktail.

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Yet again the EMF camp weekend was a triumph. I’m beginning to think it’s not luck but skill which makes these excellent events work. It’s a lot of (possibly thankless) work for the organisers and volunteers. The organisers themselves don’t take a cut or a wage from these very expensive to run events. Some of the materials hired for the camp are incredibly expensive, not forgetting that every tent has power and a full, fast WiFi and ethernet network across the whole site, which only hours prior to the start of the weekend was little more than a field by an irrigation lake. Good work all, can’t wait for 2016’s awesomeness.

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Jonty of London Hackspace and Electro Magnetic Field

You can find some good tails from the Laser Cutter Village on Martin’s blog.

A super album of pictures from Nottingham Hackspace FLICKR 

maker day, sheffield

When is a Maker Faire not a Maker Faire? When it’s not run under licence to Make Media, that’s when and whilst you might have heard of Maker Faire you are less likely to identify with any number of non-Make-un-branded events that are springing up around the country (and I suppose the world). It’s been a conundrum for some time for organisers, wanting to run an event like a Maker Faire but not a Maker Faire. Many have had to reinvent a brand and a format to side step the licencing costs and rules of Make Media to run a similar event their way. This is a post about one such event and an organiser looking to take that brand further.

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Don’t get me wrong, this blog post is neither comes to bury Maker Faire nor to praise it, the advantages to a group of running a fully branded Mini Maker Faire under licence to Make Media are immense. With it’s colourful bunting, crisp clean branding and World-wide following having a Mini Maker Faire is a great way to have an event that is quickly recognised for what it is, a big show and tell of makers in any or all disciplines. The huge buzz that is generated by the Bay Area Maker Faire every May trickles down to the features and mini faires as a recognisable package that makers the world over want to visit or exhibit at.

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But surly not every maker event needs to be a Maker Faire? With Make Media rightfully protecting their brand and gearing up to survive on their own feet after breaking away from O’Reilly publishing as a company in their own right. It’s easy for outsiders to assume that Make Media are rolling in cash… but in these early days who knows how the balance sheet might look? I rather suspect Make Media are worried about others making a quick buck on their name and muddying the quality of their brand. I utterly understand why they’d want to protect it. There have been similar issues at the UK Hackspace Foundation and it’s free to use Hackspace branding (is someone’s house really a Hackspace, “here is the electronics lab or “landing” as my Mum calls it”)? So obviously if you don’t want to pay 50c for every visitor and write Make Media into your insurance policy you might want to do an event YOUR WAY…

Maker Day Sheffield is one such event, run as part of this years Sheffield Design Week. Organisers Emma Cooper, Pam Bowman and Matt Edgar created a great buzz and atmosphere at the Yorkshire ArtSpace Persistence Works Studio in the atrium on the 28th June 2014. The event exhibited a range of disciplines including traditional crafts, pedal powered printing, laser cutting (your-truly as Just Add Sharks) as well as Steam Punk costumes and the usual RepRap 3D printers from the Sheffield Hackers & Makers. As well as one-man-band-Matt from Barnsley.io the fledgling maker community from Barnsley that’s just getting started. There was a constant stream of interested families throughout the day and the venue held the small number of exhibitors very well indeed. I was pleased to catch up with numerous Sheffield based geeks and friends from the York Hackspace. It was a nice and simple event run with little fuss (seemingly). One minor criticism was that from the outside of the ArtSpace you’d not have known there was anything especially interesting going on inside. Having said that there seemed to be no shortage of people with the RIGHT level of interest visiting inside!

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I’d like to see a lot more of these type of event pop-up all over the country. Once thing I hope happens (and I am sure Make wouldn’t mind this or shouldn’t… more shoulders to the wheel really) is to see an alternative brand pop out and get used under some sort of CC licence with support provided by a central team. A unified alternative maker event brand would be a great thing to see compliment rather than detract from the spate of Maker Faires around the country (and world). After all Make don’t have the reach or time to really take advantage of the interest in Maker Faires in the UK. With no UK based sales unit (since the spin out from O’Reilly) they aren’t generally able to provide a sales stand at Mini Maker Faires or even to organise a bundle of Make Magazines to be sold on by organisers, a real missed opportunity to cash in on an eager audience getting their first taste of Make I’d think. This is possibly because of their USA based advertising base, I’d imagine that a non-US based audience isn’t 100% appealing for US advertisers? To be honest I don’t really know what I’m talking about, but perhaps you’ll indulge my speculation?

So good luck to Emma and the team with future events… I sincerely hope we’ll see this brand grow and produce more events beyond Sheffield? I’d like to try and bang that drum myself and wonder if I could use my experience of MMF’s and contacts around the movement to help create and alternative brand? Watch this space maybe?

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weird weekend

 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.

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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.

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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.

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In the picture above you can see James from Nottinghack having his eye inspected by a kid FOR SCIENCE!

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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)

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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.

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