Sync NI speaks to Andrew Bolster, Director and Founder of Farset Labs

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  • “It’s a continuum” answers Andrew Bolster when asked about the difference between a meetup, a hackathon and a hackerspace. He’s one of the founders and directors of Farset Labs, http://www.farsetlabs.org.uk/ Belfast’s first hackerspace which has just celebrated its sixth anniversary.

    Meetups – which used to be called user groups – are almost the most intense events, short and intensive [and] quite organised. You attend for two hours, you learn about X, it’s sponsored by Y, and Z supplies the food and drink.

    “Hackathons stretch the time out further. It’s not quite as intensive but it’s more dynamic and collaborative. You have the time to properly explore ideas with a real problem or challenge to address and build prototypes to support.

    “We ran some of the earliest hackathons in Belfast. They were nearly entirely unsponsored other [than] some money thrown in for beer and pizza. There were no prizes, no judging. People came together and shared their personal projects. That’s the kind of spirit that Farset Labs bleeds from.

    “We take a very hands-off approach. You walk into this building and your Intellectual Property is never going to be impinged. You come in, share your knowledge, your time and your experience. It’s a low intensity, long-term, stable platform for collaboration, growth, education and knowledge sharing.”

    Hackerspaces – sometimes called makerspaces – provide a venue for creativity and technological tinkering. While the word ‘hacker’ can conjure up the image of someone involved in illegality and security exploits, the term more generally refers to a skilled technology expert who uses their technical knowledge to overcome a problem.

    “Farset Labs is one of the few [hacker]spaces I’m aware of that has an even balance between a co-working and hot-desking; a dynamic space to run events, meetups and hackathons; and a workshop for physical tinkering and 3D printing.”

    The sixty or so members of Farset Labs get access to the building for their projects and each other. But the community that uses and supports the space numbers several hundred by the time visitors and meetup attendees are counted. The annual Global Game Jam attracts upwards of 70 people over a long weekend. Farset Labs have also launched their first "Craicathon" event, sort of a mini no-pressure hackathon

    While the building just off Sandy Row is six years old, the community that uses the first hackerspace in Belfast is even older. While visiting the US in 2010, Andrew volunteered at The Next HOPE hacker conference in New York.

    “I was a general dog’s body, running some of the stalls and helping with the media. I ran network cables around The Pennsylvania Hotel. I met people who were my technical heroes and whose software I’d used. These people that I had never met before, and had never met me before, welcomed me with open arms for volunteering to help.

    “I was able to ask how does this stuff work? How do you come up with and prototype and build these things? One of the recurring answers was the word ‘hackerspace’.

    “I learned about the history of hackerspaces which originated in Germany in the late 60s and early 70s and then exploded as shared spaces to explore technology and how it interacts. Imported into the US in the early 80s they have been used to bring people together with overlapping – but not necessarily shared – interests, maximizing resources and knowledge.

    “One of the big factors is the ability to turn around – both in the physical space in the online social space – and ask does anyone know about something?”

    Before Andrew returned home from New York he had set up a Belfast Hackerspace Google Group https://groups.google.com/forum/#!topic/belfast-hackspace-working-group/KJw3A8uAdXA with nascent idea of getting a space in Belfast.

    “It took a while to gain momentum, two years before we got a space.”

    The early enthusiasts worked with existing tech organisations in Belfast as well as the QUB Dragonslayers society, prototyping the idea by holding 24-hour hackathons in a corner of the Students Union “to mess with stuff”. Later the Queen’s University Engineering Science and Technology Society [QUESTS] had a regular booking in the library room at The Parlour.

    “Some weeks it would just be me sitting there on my own feeling that there was no momentum. And then other times it would be absolutely filled with people talking about their own projects, sharing ideas that they were having, exchanging the latest tech news. After six or nine months it was rare that I was sitting there on my own nursing a pint. We had a solid, established community. And only then did we start thinking about how to get a space.”

    Farset Labs is a registered charity, with the educational aims around the promotion of STEM collaboration. “We’ve never drawn a solid boundary around what Farset does and we recently changed our Articles of Association from STEM to STEAM to explicitly recognise the arts and creative work we’ve always been involved in.”

    Farset Labs supports a CoderDojo http://www.farsetlabs.org.uk/events/coderdojo.html attended by local children as well as Raspberry Jam, https://twitter.com/niraspjam a project which now runs up at QUB because it got too big.

    Wednesday nights are given over to meetups which can use the space on a first come first served basis for free. “While we’re hiring the space out for events and external organizations, we want to encourage meetups. They can book a Wednesday evening for free. A couple of years ago we ran for nearly year with every Wednesday evening other than Christmas booked.”

    Though Andrew detects that the meetup ecosystem is now evolving with some user groups that started in Farset growing too big for the premises. New FDI companies are keen to host meetups: “I don’t see this as a problem!”

     

    There’s a striking wall in-between the co-working area and the workshop area. It’s painted as a giant blackboard.

    “Whenever you’re trying to talk through an idea with somebody else, other people will come back and forth through the door in the middle. Somebody might overhear something or recognise from their own experience, and there’s the openness to turn round and interrupt and suggest ‘have you thought about doing it this way?’”

    This “random serendipity” has led to employment for Farset Labs members who have had the expertise others were missing in their start-ups. Eight months after jumping into a conversation, one member ended up CTO of a nearby company.

    “Last time I checked, five or six start-up companies have either spun through Farset Labs and left to move into their own facilities or are still operating in here.

    Project Lintol was incubated in Farset. They’re recently won Open Data Institute funding https://syncni.com/news/718/9380/project-lintol-is-officially-launched-with-funding-from-the-open-data-institute/ to build a data validation tool that can help keep the world’s open data clean.

    Other successes include Knight Systems, Sixty-5 Technologies and QUB medtech spinout Causeway Sensors which did some early prototyping in the hackerspace.

    “A lot of people have been introduced to the companies that are in Weavers Court by coming to Farset events. There’s a deeper level of economic feedback that’s very difficult to measure and very difficult to characterize. Add in the work we do with the local schools like Blythefield and Donegall Road primary schools and the local kids who come to the dojo.

    If Farset Labs wasn’t here I wouldn’t be working at Alert Logic” says Andrew Bolster who has recently started a new job as a data scientist at Alert Logic’s Belfast office, conveniently based in the same business park.

    “The building serves the community. I’ve always been against the idea of just airdropping these kind of innovation hubs into places and expecting that ‘if you build it they will come’ because the experience of people trying hackathons or hacker spaces and maker spaces and innovation hubs across the world – we collected all that information to figure out the right strategy to build Farset – the community is the only thing that matters …

    “The building is somewhere that the community leaves their stuff: it’s just a storage and collaborative space.

    “It’s a home and a hub. I reckon if the building blew up tomorrow the community would still be here. The connections would survive.”

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