Introducing Swinburne Hacker Within

The Hacker Within (THW) began as a student organisation at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and is now reborn as a collection of such chapters around the world. Active chapters include Wisconsin, Berkeley, Yale and Melbourne. Each of the chapters convenes a community of researchers, at all levels of their education and training, to share their knowledge and best practices in scientific computing to accomplish their work. I first heard of The Hacker Within after visiting the Berkeley Institute of Data Science  (@UCBIDS) in December 2014. There I met Katy Huff, a BIDS Data Science Fellow (with background in Nuclear Engineering) and one the founding members of THW. Katy now now leads the charge at Berkeley.

Although it took a while to get started, implementing Swinburne Hacker Within (SHW) was no-brainer. It's run as a weekly, multi-disciplinary, meet-up for Swinburne PhD students, technical staff, and researchers involved in big-data projects at all levels and from all disciplines. The goal of the project is to introduce researchers – primarily from the social sciences, biosciences, astronomy, and economics – to the plethora of open-source tools that can be exploited to increase productivity and enhance existing projects, and to encourage the development of off-shoot projects and contribution to community-developed research tools. There are two reasons why this is important:

  1. To prepare researchers for alternative careers in the technology industry. The rise of fellowship programs, for example Insight Data Fellows and Science to Data Science, enable scientists to learn the industry specific skills needed to work in the growing field of big data at leading companies. With new skills in data science and software development, scientists with analytical  backgrounds are now in great demand on the European and US job market and are being offered jobs in leading tech-companies.
  2. The tenets of scientific research (e.g., data control, reproducibility, and peer review) suffer in projects that fail to make use of current development tools such as version control, testing, and comprehensive/automatic documentation. To avoid these pitfalls, the numerous Hacker Within Chapters exist for the purpose of sharing skills and best practices for computational scientific applications. 

It’s also about learning new web-skills, gaining experience with programming languages, trouble shooting existing problems, and helping one another to create innovative research tools and projects to enhance your research (or other interests). Having fun, sharing ideas, and finding the "hacker within". Why change something that clearly works?

No previous programming/hacking experience is necessary. Each session will be based around a theme and may include a short talk or demonstration to generate ideas. Researchers are welcome to follow along, or just work independently or in groups on their on their own projects. Participants are encouraged to work together, share ideas and skills, and propose topics for future sessions. It's pretty much a win-win for everyone.

Initial sessions will focus on data visualisation tools for research, creating research websites and blogs, and learning about software repositories like GitHub and useful tools to make programming easier, e.g. iPython Notebook. More advanced topics may be thrown in from time to time. In terms of project hacking, I'll admit I'm biased towards .Astronomy-like projects. This is somewhat deliberate. I'm on the organising committee for the .Astronomy7 conference in Sydney later this year, so I see SHW as one way of generating interest. There are also clear benefits to CAS researchers in terms of promoting their research products.

You can follow the Swinburne and the Berkeley chapters on Twitter: @hackerwithin