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What do a Planetarium, David Bowie, and Weather Balloons have in Common? Science Hack Day 2012!

Science Hack Day 2012 started at 2pm, in the basement of the Adler Planetarium, Saturday the 12th of May 2012.

Having never been to a Hack Day I was timidly unsure of what to expect. But my bashfulness was overridden by the exciting prospect of 24+ hours of unadulterated creativity and collaboration. Even more electrifying was the venue, the Adler Planetarium, a site I knew well from my childhood dreams of becoming a scientist. The Hack Day staff immediately greeted me upon arrival, and did an amazing job of setting an atmosphere of acceptance and possibility, which in retrospect was a huge benefit to the event. For most attendees, this was their first Hack Day.

After a number of presentations (most about new uses of Big Data in Chicago, which deserves a separate blog post in it’s own right) we got started. I teamed up with a group headed by Ken, a scientist and engineer who works with the Planetarium full time. His idea was twofold: To create a new UX interface for a weather balloon flight-path estimation software, and a kite powered recovery system for weather balloon instruments that would avoid obstacles and difficult terrain.

Our core team consisted of 5 people, with 3 or so coming in and out to work on other projects. We picked a spot in a classroom, and got to work. One team started on the software and Arduino controllers, another on the instrument case and kite steering system (I was on that one), and the final team designed the UX. People came ready to work, and I was lucky to be a part of such an intelligent and persistent team of people! By 6 PM we settled on our final designs and began building.

Walking around during our breaks, the sense of community was amazing. Yes, it was a competition, but the Hackers were more interested in helping each other complete their lofty goals. During meals people would walk around and chat with other teams, seeing how things were going, offering suggestions, and drawing out ideas.

The hours flew by, and by 4 AM we had 2 versions of software with working servos, and began testing the kite. About 5 AM I finally went to sleep, curled up next to an exhibit in my sleeping bag. It was an interesting combination of fun and strange sleeping in a museum, but by that point I was almost too exhausted to feel anything. Some of our team stayed up the entire night to keep working, and we finished our prototype for its final test at 1:30 PM.

Seeing all the projects put together absolutely astounded me. Some teams completely re-invented the wheel to complete their Hacks, and did it so gracefully you could hardly believe they had been awake for 27 hours. Finished projects included a new programming language designed for children, a (almost) wearable heart rate monitor, a Twitter that told you how safe your bike location is, a cloud chamber for detecting gamma rays, a galaxy-themed sing-along to David Bowie on the planetarium screen…. and others.

Our final presentation highlighted our hard work: The software took inputs from the altimeter, GPS and pitchmeter to shift weights in the instrument container, and over time alter the course of it’s decent by air ram kite (think skydiving parachute), and the UX would be implemented into the current system for better flight predictions. Our final beachfront test proved the thing could fly, but the wind was too unstable to detect the minor course changes that would take place in a real-time decent scenario (video at the bottom of this post). Ken is planning to use it on the next flight in June, and I had a very real sense of accomplishment in creating a project that may actually be used by the Planetarium. And the fun part? We won the one of the best Hacks of SHDCHI 2012!

I want to put out a hardy congratulations to everyone who participated this year, and if you have not had the chance to participate in a Hack Day, you must make time for it. I always will remember that 27 hours in May being surrounded by intelligence, creativity, and boundless perseverance.


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