Hacklands – the great outdoors, only better …

Of the many myths about technical people , the idea that we all hate the outdoors is maybe the most mistaken. We don’t hate nature, we just think it could be vastly improved by power sockets in every third fence post, and a reliable wifi signal. Hardly seems like much to ask, and luckily the organisers of the first Hacklands Festival of Technology – James Tagg, Lloyd Davies and Helen Keegan – agreed.

Is there internet access at the farm?

Yes, we have wifi across the site for all attendees to use and plenty of it. Ethernet will be available in the main hacking area.

So when I found myself invited to represent ODI Devon at Hacklands (as one of the event’s supporters), there was no hesitation. Tent, sleeping bag and camping lantern in a pile by the door in five minutes flat, leaving plenty of packing time for the important questions. Like, which laptop ought I to take? Should I pack my spare Raspberry Pi? Will I need my whole toolkit? Do I have time to order that Arduino starter kit I’ve had my eye on … ?

Being limited to what I could carry, I settled on the MacBook Air, multitool, no Pi, and left the Arduino order for later. They also said “bring a musical instrument” … but all I had room for was a recorder, which didn’t seem to fit the bill somehow. As it turned out there was no lack of music; one of the first things I saw when I arrived at Hurst Farm was a baby grand piano installed in the barn, later to be played by Warren Mailley-Smith, who has memorised the entire works of Chopin.

Over the weekend I found myself sourcing soil quality data to map in QGIS; watching drones get rescued from trees; watching a 3ft tall mobile phone prop being turned into a selfie camera by Terence Eden and James Norris; and of course scarfing down fried-breakfast-in-a-bun from the in-site catering van run by Dawn and crew. The overall schedule included walks in the woods, VR headsets, a raspberry Pi and microcontroller masterclass, working with iBeacons, choosing secure passwords, whittling, ukulele tutorials … too much for one person to fit in. I found myself wishing I could be in three places at once, and also that I’d brought the family – this was very much a child-friendly event with plenty for all ages.

While I personally didn’t get to build anything, I loved being able to float from workspace to workspace checking out what everyone else was getting on with. I managed to dispense some open data and data visualisation tips, and learned a few useful things myself. Sunday morning in particular was a treat, with a talk from Warren about how a creative brain stores complex data required to perfectly recall and reproduce several hundred pieces of music, and then another from James Tagg about why artificial intelligence will never replace human cognition and creativity.

I’ve been to a lot of technical and specialist events, various local and national unconferences, and many many camping holidays: but at Hacklands I had the fantastic feeling of every part of my brain lighting up at once under the combination of electronics, mathematics, music, green fields and blue skies, and most crucially the warm and positive vibes you get from being surrounded by very clever people who are eager to share and learn.
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