Hackaday Unconf Dublin Talk: Socially Accessible Computing

Andrew Bolster

Data Scientist at Alert Logic, Founder/Director at Farset Labs


As part of the fantastic Hackaday Dublin Unconference in the Project Arts Centre over this past weekend, I got to speak about a project I’ve been gently pushing for several weeks now; boxes of laptops for people and community groups to use rather than cap-ex-ing any more pointless under-scoped under-utilised computer labs for everywhere.

Comments/Collaboration/Assistance more than welcome

Money even more welcome.




This is the first time I’ve used a Mac for longer than 30 seconds in… ever so; plugging dongles and things in and the screen not exploding and creating loads of extended desktops all over the place is very very strange.

As you can probably tell by the accent I’m a friend of David’s, I’m another one of the directors at Farset Labs so that’s why we’ve got the nice pretty master slide that we put together about 500m away from here when we were driving in this morning.

I had a completely different talk plant that was basically too similar but funnier than David’s that was basically a Photogallery of all the shit that’s happened over the past six years.

But as we were driving in… Hackaday’s about projects; Hackaday’s about building things and yes, having a retrospective on the trials and tribulations of setting up and running a hackerspace is one thing but why not look forward to a new project that we’re trying to do?

And one of the projects has been close to my heart for the past couple of weeks is this idea of “Socially Accessible Computing”.

So tiny bit of background on me originally telecoms engineer somehow drifted to marine autonomy then fell into data science using empathic technology, now currently doing data science in cybersecurity. Accidentally started a hackerspace with this man, teacher of coderdojos, code clubs, school outreach, all that stuff.

We are constantly underfunded because we’re basically no money, self money or membership dues.

Hands up who does stuff like that, the dojos the code clubs who does education who goes out and does workshops who does classes? right okay so I’m looking at that that’s maybe but 60, 80 percent.

Problems whenever you are a zero funded organisation trying to run stuff like that you’re trying to get members of the public or members of the community and from different places from different walks of life; not everybody has a laptop, not everybody is carrying their laptop all the time or feels comfortable carrying it all the time, not everyone has the same software/OS/licensing or anything like that.

Not all… [dongles] sorry? [DONGLES] Exactly! We don’t always have the right dongles I mean you know can you imagine if we have everybody here had the same laptop this would not a problem.

Not all organisations in clubs, so even, we’re talking about community organisations; you know the big funded bodies that actually do real good in the world and in the communities servicing the vulnerable and all that stuff; they don’t always have the funds to run the courses and clubs that they want to do because they can’t all afford to just build out a room into a computer lab that they use once a week.

Computer rental is a joke, running big regular recurring workshops on PI’s has been a massive pain in the ass whenever we’re trying to do loads of different things. They (the pi’s) work on pi specific projects or if you’re specifically doing things they’re in particular with particular hats or anything like that but as general computing, software, design, fabrication, programming, whatever, they’re just not up to snuff.

What does that mean? That means that we end up accidentally implicitly excluding people from the programs that we’re trying to run. We have people from lower economic backgrounds that just can’t get access to these resources that we’re trying to give away for free. Effectively there’s a massive time cost in the beginning of any workshop where you’re sort of sitting there going “does everyone have Python installed? No, hold on, which version? 2 or 3? No, hold on you’re on Windows, this works differently, hold on…

That then means that whenever you do have the big organisations that can run these large things you end up with the resources, the experience, and the expertise basically being sucked into these, because they have the budget, and the staff, and are usually quango’ed up to hell…

And one of the big things that started to impact me is there is no structural improvement in community education; you’re not actually going out and teaching community leaders how to teach.

There are a finite number of technologists who are willing to give their time freely to community education and we’ve kind of got two models with this it’s either we quit our day jobs and basically run around every school/community group all the time, or we teach the community leaders how to do and put together resource packs that they can use that they understand that they can bring into their own systems.

So the fiendish and cunning plan; it’s a box. Everyone loves a box.

Who’s watching Silicon Valley yeah? okay.

So this is “the box” one

So the idea is; box of cheapish laptops we’re talking about ten-ish, standard operating system standard image that’s automatically wiped whenever it’s restarted; standard, ideally free and open source, software. Also developing standard for free and open source copyleft educational resources based around these where you’re able to hand them out to different schools and work with schools to develop them.

This is obviously very interesting from an Northern Ireland context because one of the angles that I try and push whenever I’m talking to government about this is going… So everyone’s aware of the whole protestant-catholic thing in Northern Ireland? One of the things I’d like to see is whenever you’re able to take resources that were generated in one community and have them be taught in “the other” community with a nice little footnote that says this worksheet was generated by school “X”.

In terms of bringing communities together I think there’s no better way of doing it.

And obviously from a hardware perspective we want these to be you know in general machines for not just coding but for electronics programming, but for design, for developing wearables, for web design, game design but also for teaching web safety and information safety about how do you surf safely online.

So we’re not just looking at this from a kid’s perspective; this is young adults; this is the elderly; this is basically anybody who needs to be brought into the computing sphere.

And we want them to be drop-in, chargeable, and you’re basically, just, plug the thing as easy as possible.

Fiendish and Cunning plan; vague, three general phases first one is… we get a box.

Aimed initially at basically local dojos, local schools then available to be lent to local community organisations on a sorta good faith basis so that we can start having that engagement, develop the resources in a sort of co-design perspective, and the fundamental aim for this is validating the technology, validating the load out of the box, the arrangement of… can we get all the Chargers and a grid on the bottom that you can literally just drop them in? How do you do the image cycling? hHw do you do standardized updates? Can you do remote management? Can you do user management? Is it safe to do that? All this sorta stuff.

And a secondary aim of as I said co-designing these resource packs.

Then, phase 2, scale that out to a lot of organisations within sort of the Belfast metropolitan area. The idea there is to develop a network of these bases so the idea is that if Farset’s ones’ lent out to one organisation, and then we can just refer to somebody else and say like have you tried going down to w5 or the Fablab or something like that.

And this stage is focused on trying to get collaboration, of multiple buy-in from as many people as possible so that this kind of thing could be sustainable.

We don’t want this to be something that’s owned by Farse; this is something that we might start but we just want to get it up and going so that somebody else, and everybody else, can lift this along.

And then phase three is basically good bigger. How big can we get this? Can we take this across the island? Can we take this over… I’m sorry for anyone who can’t see… the… doing the Google slides animations (of the boxes)… it doesn’t let you copy and paste animation so I just gave up at this point so sorry there’s no more dropdowns so yeah… further collaboration but I’d also like to throw in that I want to see this expand not just in terms of the geography but also in terms of the subject area.

So the same kind of arguments that I’m talking about here apply to electronics education where, you know, every… everybody, RS, and other vendors are available; create these fantastic kits but sometimes whenever you’re looking at bulk buying; the educational materials don’t necessarily match whenever you’re going to the context of a school or a community group; they’re aimed an individual learning alone. So, you know, maybe we can look at something customised for that.

So, we’re nearly there how can you help…. I wanna know does… does this already exist? Am I completely wasting my time here because I’d rather no. Second question; is this insane is this completely missing the mark, have I completely come at this in the wrong way? And would this be useful for anyone else because yes at some point we’re going to need to develop a business case. Also resource signposting, in terms of this I really don’t like the idea of “not invented here”, I’d rather collaborate on (this with) as many people as possible to bring resources together so we’re not all wasting our time and focus on what we actually want to do. We’d particularly like help with sort of the user account management.

And if anyone has ten grand lying around give me a shout!

There is also a link to this presentation which then has a link to the project proposal, long form project proposal, so if anyone wants to throw in comments, that’s open and commendable.

And that’s me thank you very much!

Q: I would like to confirm, you’re not insane A: That’s always a good start in this in this specific regard I’m not insane Q: I hope so we had the same problem at the Warsaw hackerspace when we were running classes we have kind of solved the problem but in a different way, we had like a central server and a terminal server setup but also like you know ten cheap think pads, [A:yeah] and we kind of dropped it but we would like to probably have this running again so A: The funny thing is, on that, there’s a project that was started as part of the Raspberry Jam, or Northern Ireland Raspberry Jam that originated in Farset; since moved on to bigger and better things it does the what’s it called, the PINet project but those are the Linux terminal server based images for the PI that has loads of lovely stuff on it but as you say it runs into the same problem where it requires a localized server; we literally want these boxes to be something that a amateur can walk in grab a box and go….

let’s take it away from teaching programming but let’s say we just want to get people on to, CodeAcademy which does it’s own teaching; whoever is ‘driving’ the laptops doesn’t need to be an expert. It’s pick up the box, set up the laptops, go. And that’s where I think we’ve got a big challenge. Q: This is the way we would have done it now but in that time we had to use the central server because we had no hard drives and zero budget.. But yeah well I can probably help with you. A: Yeah thanks for that!

Q: I think the problems that you mention are often that of … suffered by often pretty large corporations like Oracle or Redhat or whatever, because they do training and they have exactly the same problems, so, if you market it right to them, they sit on cash basically…

A: I’d have philosophical issues with that one… RedHat’s fine… Q: Well, take from the rich and give the poor!

Compere: Alright, thank you very much…..

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