Hacker Roots

Some of my favourite undergrad memories are spending hours in the computer lab transforming geophysical processes into MATLAB code. There were only a dozen of us in my grad class, so we got to know each other pretty quickly as we helped one another through our weekly assignments. Though they weren’t group projects per se, I’m not sure they could have been completed without the constant exchange of help/code/debugging/advice. Those assignments required more time than any others, and yet they were my favorite and most satisfying to complete. Coding came to me naturally, and it I really enjoyed it. I couldn’t wait to graduate and put my new skills to work in industry.

I joined big company in the energy industry soon after finishing my degree. A big company with big software to do anything I should ever need to do, no MATLAB required. I spent the following five years using that software, and it did the things I thought I should do. It performed certain things really well, but other things… not so much. It could do them, but only with the help of vendor “work-arounds”.

Eventually, I wanted to do something for which there was no work-around. Phone calls to software help lines ended with, “Sorry, but that just isn’t possible”.  I wasn’t asking for something particularly specialized, and I doubt it was the first time someone wanted to do it. Frustrated, I brought it up with one of the senior Geophysicists at my company. He chuckled and said, “Oh yeah, that’s tricky. I figured out a way around that when we were developing the Nile Delta in the 90s”.

“Wait… what?”

My colleague dug up his notes and found that he had coded a short script that allowed him to do just what I wanted to. He shared the script, and I was able to implement it with only minor tweaks. Memories of toiling on assignments in the computer lab flooded back. I remembered how much I had enjoyed coding, and realized it was something that I hadn’t used in my professional career. I wondered how many of the big software “work-arounds” would have been better addressed with a bit of code.

If my colleague was an undercover coder, I realized, there must be others out there. So with eyes open, I noticed articles and posts about using programming in the energy industry. It was very interesting, but intimidating as well. Where could I even start? The answer came in bold Helvetica: Geoscience Hackathon.

A What-athon?

A hackathon sounds like a deviously sinister affair (not the -athon part, it’s the hack). I have to explain it nearly every time I mention it to someone. People are most familiar with the word hack in the context of online criminal activity, and only to the extent that it happens on digital planes of existence that they are only vaguely aware of.

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Grandpa Galloway’s farming roots run deep.

I think of hacking the same way Grandpa would: creating something using whatever is at hand

When I think of what it is to hack, I think of one person: my grandfather. Grandpa Galloway is a farmer on the Canadian prairies, and he is one of the most resourceful and creative people I have known. For a problem or task to do more efficiently, give Grandpa a welder, cutting torch, and bits and pieces of old machinery, and it will surprise you what he hacks together in a week or two of spare time. As farmers go, I know he’s not an exception, but rather the rule. Farmers have been hacking for years, and the proof is on YouTube. I think of hacking the same way Grandpa would: creating something using whatever is at hand. Even though a hackathon substitutes computer software and hardware, business professionals, and technical expertise for the welding gear, the spirit is the same.

Considering the long hacking tradition in the farming industry, I wasn’t surprised to discover an agriculture-themed hackathon: Emerging Agriculture. The original (and only?) agriculture-themed hackathon in Canada returns for another weekend of innovation January 9-11, 2016.  If I could, I would absolutely participate in this event!

Though not part of the mainstream cultural consciousness, public awareness of hack events is growing. There was a recent feature on CBC radio about DementiaHack 2015 in Toronto. I was surprised to hear ten to fifteen minutes of national radio airtime featuring hackathon highlights, project descriptions and interviews with the winners. Sponsors, attention, and valuable prizes prove that these events are well-regarded as places of innovation. They are producing real solutions for real problems.

Geoscience Hackathon

The brilliant Agile Geoscience masterminded and hosted the Geoscience Hackathon (Calgary, 2015). The two-day event was a civil affair, which is to say that we were encouraged keep our hacking efforts to a typical workday (it was a weekend, after all). Taco fueled all-nighters were allowed, but not encouraged. When all was said and done, we were allotted about 12 hours of development time to come up with a working prototype or proof-of-concept. The hackathon concluded with each team demonstrating their project in a short presentation for the judges. Even though a winner is selected, the teams aren’t really pitted one against another. It’s a team versus project and time.

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Geoscience Hackathon team in action: Evan Saltman (left), Matteo Niccoli (centre), and me. Photo courtesy of Penny Colton.

In the first hour of the event, participants introduced themselves and shared their project ideas. I was surprised at the diversity in the room. Comp Sci students, Geoscientists, Engineers, and Software Developers. First time hackers (like me) to all-the-time hackers. Each of us had skills to offer, whether technical or otherwise, and an enthusiasm to create. The participants were encouraged to mingle a little to meet and ask a few specific questions about the ideas floating around the room. We ended up self-organizing into groups of four or less and got straight to work.

The limited time is a universal challenge for any hackathon project, yet there was plenty of banter bubbling through the room. We took time to peek over the shoulders of the other teams to see how their work was coming. The creative energy in the room sustained us through the day (the caffiene and Vietmanese subs helped too).

Everyone returned the following day with the focus to wrap up their projects before the beer and judging. It was amazing to see what was accomplished in only two days. The projects were varied, including porting a seismic visualization tool to Python, an educational crowdsourcing tool, an LAS viewer web app, and an app to turn sketches into models (my team’s project). Have a look at Agile’s blog post on the hackathon for their take on the weekend.

Spending a weekend locked in a room with new friends and some computers may not sound like leisure time, but the Geoscience Hackathon was a great way to spend two days. It was the perfect way for me to get back into coding, do some quality networking, and get a double shot of professional rejuvenation and invigoration.  I can’t think of time better spent in the past year.

I will followup with a post about our Geoscience Hackathon project, sketch2model. Stay tuned.

a love letter…

Agile Geoscience has hosted Geoscience Hackathons in Houston (twice), Denver, New Orleans, Calgary, and have 2016 events planned for Vienna and Dallas. Agile is a geoscience consultancy busy solving tough subsurface problems, and yet somehow they make space to write a blog, run a subsurface wiki, publish books, and write and maintain an open-source geophysics library for Python. This small group of visionaries hits WAY above their weight class. Kudos to Matt and Evan for their courage and inspiration.


Vintage photos courtesy of Elwood Galloway.

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7 thoughts on “Hacker Roots”

  1. Great read and viewing. Your grandfathers hacking connections remind me of my grandfathers similar innovation spirit. – his northern Ontario. tourist camp (fly-in and winter dog teams or horse sleds). Hacking anything together with haywire if necessary- thus the. nickname “Haywire” in the 1920’s to 50’s. And why I became a Geophysicist – to explore our world and “Geophysics makes the “World”. Go ‘Round! (Both the planet and it’s people).

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  2. Thanks for the shouts out Elwyn! And even more thanks for coming to the hackathon in the first place.

    The story about the senior geo with a cunning script is apt. I wonder how many such scripts are languishing in shared drives around the world. It highlights the strong hacker culture in earlier days of geophysics, I think. Some hacks involved bash scripts and tape splicing, but others involved great sheets of mylar, or scissors and tape, or dry erase markers on the CRT screen.

    Humans are great analog hackers, I suppose. Digital hacking is a newer skill. Kudos for promoting it!

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  3. Great blog post. I share many of the same memories of working to solve problems using Matlab (for me starting in grad school) and then learning to “hack” problems in the real world. Was formulating a similar post for my blog in my head before Christmas. Will need to get back to that. Hope to meet you at the Hack-a-thon in Dallas.

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