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Hackerspace Architect: Hactfulness

Hackerspace Architect: Hactfulness

I started listening to an audio book by Hans Roslin. Factfulness. You’ve probably seen some of Hans Roslin’s TED talks. His thing is nice graphs that have been animated, he calls them bubble graphs. They show things like family size vs life expectancy for different countries around the world. He has graphs, with data gathered by the UN and the world bank, with data taken on lots of topics. Income, education, child mortality etc. He plots these out and animates them in his talk to show that generally we are less informed than we imagine about such information and that we have a tendency to think of the world more cynically and as more broken than it really is. That taken in proper context we, humanity are dramatically improving the lot for the vast majority of us every year. The poor are not getting poorer, the population of the world is predicted to stabilise and education and health care are improving everywhere.

I’m only a little way into the book, but have been struck by the importance of having and using the right data in what we do. It occurred to me that much of the “annoyance” I sometimes have with hackerspaces and the movement in general might be as a result of, well, less than a scientific, in fact a totally emotional response to how spaces make me feel, not the underlying facts about how they works. I know, for instance, that the Nottingham Hackspace’s Gatekeeper system, linked to its excellent Hackspace Management (or membership) System HMS, is capable of gathering an awful lot of data. Without wanting to get into data security and privacy stuff, though that is a conversation to be had. It’d be super useful to see for real the parallel between the average contributions and the average attendance. If there is a correlation between attendance and volunteering or the amount paid (Nottingham Hackspace has a Pay-What-You-Like system).

I know that I have a tendency to think, that as the group size has increased, that engagement has decreased. This may not be true in a number of ways. It maybe that the engaged group in a hackspace more or less can only be a certain size, it could be that my perception of what is or isn’t the engaged group is wrong or it could be a number of other things, including me being perfectly correct. However I have no facts or data to back up my hypothesis and on that basis I think it might be worth having more rather than less data to hand. Hopefully allowing the facts to speak rather than feelings and opinions.

I’m not in anyway an expert on privacy and data gathering. I’ve done a little business analysis stuff professionally and have always found drawing conclusions from well recorded data to be very powerful. It does, though, also remind me of the dangers of data. In my early working life, I was a team leader in a large call centre. My team of about 22 agents, answered calls from the public to fix their computer problems.

We had A LOT of data about this. Length of call, first-time-fix rate, number of calls with engineers bookings, idle time (that is how long you’d put your phone out of use and couldn’t take a call for a number of reasons), the time you logged in, the time you logged out, how long you took on your breaks and the length of your toilet breaks even. The dangers here should be apparent. When you have numbers you can have targets. When you have targets you are in great danger of influencing behaviours that ONLY massage the numbers. The targets focused around short calls with lots of first-time-fixing and few engineer call outs. Obviously that’s to encourage you to fix things quickly and move on to the next customer. Ideally the customer is happy and never has to call back for that issue (we could track that). This created a culture of instructing customers to do things like a full reinstall of the operating system software rather than helping them with their problem which mostly was educational and expectational, it being the age of people having a PC at home for the first time.

Worse still, for most managers it was easiest to manage the numbers not the person. You could endlessly point at call length or long toilet breaks, without ever having a proper conversation about what was going on for that person. It wasn’t a very nice job sometimes and if an agent found it stressful, telling them they need to keep their toilet breaks under 10 minutes a day, isn’t useful. Addressing the stresses of work would be better.

Still, assuming we don’t use the numbers as a replacement for proper emotional labour, they could be very useful if presented well. Of course this would leave the question of “What is hackerspace for?” and “Who is hackerspace for?” still in need of an answer. Good management information (MI) could also include some anonymised demographical information. This is currently gathered on occasion as an optional survey at the Nottingham Hackspace. If you have opinions about the use of data like this let me know in the comments. Many of the discussions happen on twitter, but it’s here in the comments that it’d be most useful.

Today’s thumbnail are fonts created by students at Nottingham Trent University, to accompany an exhibition on Bauhaus photography at Lakeside Arts at the University of Nottingham.

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