A few weeks ago I attended Astro Hack Week at the Berkeley Institute for Data Science (BIDS). It was a seriously fantastic week. It’s going to take a while to wrap my head around all the great discussions, ideas, projects, lectures, tips ’n’ tricks, and my rapidly growing to do list. This relatively free-format conference exceeded expectations in nearly every possible way, except for the fact that I didn't finish everything I wanted to and I didn't immediately retain the vast amount of information that flowed into my brain. An utterly exhausting and satisfying week. Honestly, I don’t even know where to start with this blog post, other than thanking the organisers profusely for such fantastic week, for getting GitHub involved, and for the financial support that enabled me to attend.
The focus of Astro Hack Week
One one level, it isn't really about astronomy at all. With a focus on
- effective computing & statistics,
- machine learning, Bayesian statistics,
- pair coding, and
- code optimization & sampling,
the content presented would likely be useful to researchers from many other scientific disciplines.
We also discussed;
- mixture models
- hierarchical models,
- probabilistic graphical models,
- Gaussian processes,
- Jupyter notebooks,
- parallel programming in Python,
- natural language processing,
- failing efficiently,
- career transitions, and
- imposter syndrome
These topics are nicely summarised in a retrospective* by astronomer turned public health scientist, @piccolomud
*at the end of this blog post.
The hack projects were pretty fantastic and their was am impressively large number of them. At face value, many of them appeared intimidating, perhaps more so than the projects pithed at other unconferences, for example., .Astronomy (pronounced "dot astronomy"). But when you get past the research and statistics lingo and the specific science drivers they weren't so daunting – at least that's what I kept telling myself. In some ways they were just more prescriptive, and the people who pitched them had specific research goals they wanted to achieve. The only downside of this approach is that hack project may ultimately benefit only one or two people, and so this type of hack might not lend itself to collaborative coding (pair-coding maybe). The Hackpad contains pretty much everything that was proposed and “completed” during the week. Not all hacks made it to Friday and that's really important to note. The fail fast and fail effectively mantra proved to be successful and I'll talk more about that in a bit. At a later date I plan on going back and revisiting the lectures, the tutorials, the other hacks, and of course finishing my own projects.
Fortunately best–hack–practise dictated (gently) that everyone create a Google doc, or an iPython or Jupyter Notebook to document everything that was done, a suggestion Phil Marshall (@drphilmarshall) made at the start of the week. Experience has shown that GitHub repos, Issues and Jupyter Notebooks prove very effective at preserving projects. Communication tools like Hackpad and Slack work really well for these types of conferences. Gitter too, although I must admit I rarely checked into the AHW Gitter account (I'm really not a fan of online chatter). As with the .Astronomy conferences, archiving and documenting discussions and projects is also important to the future success of these events. The facilitate community building and future collaboration, and they provide a way for organisers to demonstrate, outcomes, derive impact, and showcase projects and themes to potential sponsors.
On the first day Daniel Huppenkothen (@Tiana_Athriel) gave a really great talk about Imposter Syndrome. For participant driven conferences it's is really useful to address this at the start of the week. I’m constantly surprised by the number of astronomers who, despite all their years of research and university training, still feel like they don’t make the grade. Ironically I am one of them. I can say with certainty that my own imposter syndrome has led to self-sabotage and missed opportunities. It's something that I try not to dwell on, but it's always with me. During morning coffee on the first day at least two people (highly accomplished and well respected researchers I might add) commented that they weren't entirely sure whether they should be at this conference – of course by day two their fears were mostly behind them. I'm sure they were not the only ones. I suspect that like .Astronomy, Astro Hack Week is a bit of an unknown. You're never quite sure what you've got yourself into. I later learned that the conference organisers took on board feedback from previous years, and took into consideration discussions from .Astronomy8, specifically this excellent blog post; The Horror of Hack Days written by Aleks Sholz (@Dalcash_Dvinsky), from the University of St Andrews.
Even better still, imposter syndrome was monitored throughout the conference, particularly when more mature hacks (which began well before AstroHackWeek) were discussed or presented. Phil Marshall did a really excellent job of pointing out his own imposter syndrome which I think put a lot of people at ease. Failing effectively and discussing failures was also encouraged (even AHW veterans failed!) and this really helped to set up a "safe" environment.
Since Astro Hack Week tends to focus on more advanced programming, high-level statistics and and computational algorithms, the related projects are somewhat more intimidating, particularly so for us old-timer observational astronomers who deal with small sample sizes and global parameters, and have never really thought Bayesian. The organisers where clearly aware of this, and at some point many hack projects morphed into useful tutorials for the community. I couldn’t help but feel collective relaxation around half way through the weeks when more general, tutorials, social hacks, and dare I say it more whimsical hack projects were pitched.
One of my favourites was Adrian Price–Whelan (@adrianpw), Dan Foreman–Mackey (@exoplaneteer), and Ben Nelson's custom queried colormaps. The example they presented was for cities at night. I couldn't help but think of the Apollo Project image gallery. I'd love to create custom palettes based on those (now added to ...).