Python Northeast

I’ve had the pleasure of being present at a number of inaugural North East meetups (Design Interest, Drupal Northeast, and Interaction Tyneside), and was happy to be present at another last night : Python Northeast. [EDIT: turns out I'm wrong in terms of the inaugral thing. The first actual meetup was at the Bridge Hotel in August. This was the first proper meetup with talks though.]

While I knew that Python is the language of Googlers and other hardcore developers (and that the old .py icon used to look rather freaky on my old Toshiba Satellite), my knowledge of the language didn’t go any further than some Codeacademy lessons and messing with Django over the weekend. As it turned out, I wasn’t the only person there who self-identified as a Python novice. About 2/3 of the group of 15 or so felt the same, with the rest considering themselves as having intermediate knowledge.

Organiser Jamie Curle hopes to create a community of people at various levels of expertise, and deliberately arranged for talks to aim at different levels.

Simon Oram’s talk about The Zope Object Database (ZODB) was the most technical of the night. He explained that Zope’s strengths lie in it being using Python for transactions (no need for SQL queries unless you need it), built in versioning, and that its blob-structure makes it incredibly flexible and capable of fine-grained security permissions (one of the reasons it is used in military applications and the CIA). [As it turned out, I’d come across ZODB through my former colleague Chris Chambers who was a champion for ZODB based CMS Plone.)

For those of us less-savvy Python users, Dave Jeffrey talked about virtualenv and virtualenvwrapper. Basically, as long as you’re prepared to use a command line, they’re a good way of playing with new Python installs without having global effects on your entire system. Virtualenv also lets you run different versions of python on your computer (not at the same time though!) so you can work on bleeding edge apps while still being able to do work on aging apps. Virtualenvwrapper is an added layer that lets you be more productive by using tab completion and other shortcuts.

Both can be installed using pip (if you have it on your machine), or easy-install if you don’t. (As it turns out, Jamie has written a detailed article on his blog about setting them up on OSX. Windows users: you’re on your own. No, apparently you should install Cygwin or similar so that you can use the terminal but apart that it’s pretty much the same).

There was also the opportunity for everyone to get virtualenv/wrapper going on their own machine through good old pair teaching. (It’s also worth a warning that you may have problems if you’ve installed other mac packages on your machine: I had a few problems which I suspect comes from playing with Macports!)

For future talks, people are encouraged to both volunteer talks or suggest possible topics on the Python North East Google Group. Their official blog post is also on their blog site (you know you’re into developer land when a speaker’s presentation is available via github!)

Northumbria PGR Conference (September 2012)

Yesterday was a busy day in terms of finding out about other people's work. While in the evening I heard about the recent Culture Code hack day, earlier that day I had the chance to listen to a number of talks from postgraduate researchers in the Northumbria arts and humanities schools (see a PDF of the abstracts for more information). My sketchnotes from some of the talks are below.




Culture Code 1.1

Earlier this year, a series of workshops and finally a hack day brought together designers, developers, digital technologists and cultural institutions to see how they could collaborate with data. This evening, past the stuffed animals in Great North Museum, a series of speakers reflected on their experiences with Culture Code and how the event could move forward in the near future.

New Culture Code organiser Joeli Brearley welcomed the audience here, as well as the badge system.

What Colour is Your … Badge?

What Colour is Your … Badge?

She also explained to those new to the technology world that contrary to popular usage, 'hacks' are not about doing things that are illegal instead about 'playful cleverness'. Culture Code One was about getting cultural organisations to 'liberate' their data for developers to play with. The initiative took to heart the statement by Tony Hall about data:

“People are over-optimistic about future commercial value (of their data) and not excited enough about present public value.”
Tony Hall, Royal Opera House

James Rutherford (Wedding Tales) and Amy Golding (Theatre Auracaria): the Designer and the Culture Institution

James Rutherford and Amy Golding gave the richest description of what can happen at the Hackday. Their hack A Day of Hope won the overall award and has had a lot of interest since.

A Day of Hope

Golding is a self declared non-technie—”I don't play video games, didn't have a mobile till 2003″—and had never really seen how to get technology involved with her work at Poverty Child UK. However, when she came along to the initial Salon evenings, she was surprised as the scope of hacks (arduino jewelley) and practicality (user tools), and inspired by Jer Thorp's talk to get involved.

She brought along child poverty data along (132k or 24% NE children live in poverty) and photos (from over 10k disposable cameras), and scripts from a play called 'Hope's Diary', which she didn't think of as data until she told James and co about it and they showed interest.

While she found the first few hours of Culture Code a little awkward “it felt like a strang dating game, where you hung out at the bar and waited for someone to show interest in your data” James and some others thought that her data was interesting (and had also wanted to play around with gaming). They did a lot of planning, “we didn't start coding until 1/3 of a way through and planned instead”. 

The game used the script and social media tools to explore what it is like to be a young impoverished child.  They also had fun with some of the  mini puzzles (“We had these images … it was 5 in the morning and we were getting dazed”).

Golding felt it was a true collaboration: she stayed through the night, 'though I did get a few hours sleep” and was happy to be part of the conversations “and keep their energy up, even if I couldn't do code”. She wanted work that was emotive but not didactic, so was very happy with the team and the output.

She's now less afraid of digital and sees how it can help provide a legacy since her play work is often ephemeral. The project is in talks to further it, and she's become involved in performance using technology live.

“It leaves me thirsty for more digital work in the future”.

Rutherford was happy to be involved with something different “it's an exhilarating thing to work with some data and some people under time pressure”. He's had commercial and academic interest from the project, and had the knock on effect of now being part of a wider professional community than just a developer and designer one. He urged designers and data providers to get involved as they all might be surprised with the results.

John Hill: A Journalist's Perspective

“I'm that elusive white badge group … a journalist”

As a journalist, Hill really enjoyed Culture Code as it brought a new group of people together (which has been developing in Newcastle but hasn't been obvious until now).  He gets frustrated when people shut off from technology that doesn't seem to be for them, so cheers for how Culture Code helps people be creative and explore interesting projects.

Hill is optimistice about the future of Culture Code: he sees it as the beginning of encouraging people to work together and culture and the as being separate disciplines. “Culture code is just the start”.

Sally Lockey and Katherine Pearson (Flo Culture):  Cultural Practice

As part of culture research organization Flo Culture, Lockey and Pearson found that Culture Code came at just the right time as they were looking at ways to inform cultural practice. It gave them confidence to get involved in the the community and carry out projects such as 'State of the Nation Report for the NE', where “we Realised that data shouldn't just be in written form” and sought out data visualization companies. And the Memory Box project (an ipad app and learning resource for older learners to help learn about digital).

Mike Hirst (DAS-360): Passing the Code On

Hurst has been involved in this type of community for a while, and not only provided a data set on music 

“we need to create spaces for ourselves to just play with data. It can be completely useless”. He suggests that the most dry data can give you rhythms and patterns to play with. His hack looked at railroad paths, and turned the patterns into music (the opposite of usually cataloging music). The repetitive nature of rail travel made it oddly compelling. He also found that the result inadvertently gave a sense of a list past “a simple and playful approach to working with data”. He's found artists he's talked to about since have been intrigued with the possibities, and urges creative practitioners to get together with coders. He would live to pass on his “three lines of simple code that anyone could write if they knew what they were doing”.

Tom Higham (~Flow, Trigger Shift) and Bettina Nissen (Bettina Nissen Design): The Afterlife of a Hack

Bettina Nissen, a product designer/jeweller by trade (“I'm not a geek”), looked through the data on Saturday after doing some workshops and was intrigued by the Flow Mill data from Tom Higham and his fellow Flow Project members. After “having a bit of a sleep” she came up with the idea of data generated CAD. 

As her coding wasn't at that level, she presented the idea at the end, did some proof of concepts a few weeks later, and started talking to Culturelab to see if they could carry it on. Their response: “why don't you do a PhD about it?”. She successfully applied to do it under a new Digital Humanities project, and is going to use the time to explore the project as well as learn more about coding such as Processing.

Mark Dobson (Tyneside Cinema): With Great Data Comes Great Responsibility

“We didn't bring the right stuff”.  As a data curator, Dobson realised that it wasn't about just bringing along numbers to crunch, what was important was data that “helped tell a story, provided narrative”. He hopes more people will get involved in the future.

Lara Robinson (Digital R&D for the Arts): Looking To The Future

Robinson brought the audience's attention to a new Arts Council initiative to bring together cultural institutions, technologists and researchers/research teams. It's being funded until December 2013 but will have rolling funds so is worth getting in quick (especially since she “looked at the researchers for the NE and saw three”. More information is available at or #artsdigital

Joeli Brearley (Culture Code): Wading Through the Muddy Waters of the Digital Community  

Jolie reflected on her personal experiences with both culture code and the digital community in general. Through taking to digital technologists she “managed to wade through the muddy water” to the point that she knows what's possible and knows who to talk to, and believes that if others go through the same journey we'll have a truly vibrant digital community here in Newcastle.

Culture Code: Next Steps

Culture Code will be doing the following things in the future:

  • Hack (i.e. another culture code)
  • Working collaboratively with makers (Alistair is doing a number of workshops)
  • Nurture the community (the first of its kind in the NE, possibly the UK) through regular talks and a portal
  • Research: there's an opportunity for a Culture Code Manchester.

Sonic Experiment

We were also treated to a live demo. The blurb for it summed it up pretty well:

Ed Carter (~FlowWinter North Atlantic) and Matt Jarvis have created a new audio/visual interpretation of wildlife sightings data from the EYE Project, building on their combined interests of 1970s synths,1980s computers, and robot voices. Mapping the sightings, and using the geographical coordinates of each one, they have developed a synthesiser that builds unique melodies from each location. Each digit in the longitude and latitude relates to a specific pitch, playing the notes in sequence. Any sighting can be triggered independently to control the melody. Another layer of audio reflects their passion for the most popular (yet inefficient) method of data transfer – talking. By turning the full data set directly into over 26 hours of synthesised speech, the changing amplitude of the speech is then used to control the pitch of a second melody.Their aim is to create an instrument that operates like a layered code, whereby the data could still theoretically be recovered from the resulting sounds in a usable form.

The data set was somewhat arbitrary (they just needed info that had geostationary), as was the method “we used Google Maps… now I know a lot of JavaScript!”. Their code converted the data into sine waves (96 different tones) using latitude from London for tone (0.0 is middle A, 0.1 is Bflat), and longitude from the Equator to make the scale for a melody. They like the idea of the data being retranslatable: “we can play a melody of the data, and then convert it back”.

The Culture Code group crowd around

The Culture Code group crowd around

The text to speech aspect had some interesting effects, namely that despite it being simple, it's data intensive: the sound file converted from the data was 26 hours long! 

Echoing the comments in earlier talks about hacks being a form of play, Carter and Jarvis didn't have a set solution in mind while making the work “we didn't know what we were going to do with the dataset, we just knew that we wanted to create something interesting”.

And, as with everything, it takes effort for something to look easy: “we've tried to make it simple … which has taken ages”.

Final Notes

What kept coming through in the talks was how relationships were built up, both at the early discussion evenings, and in interest in projects after the hack. I'd say the Bettina's 'I came up with an idea and ended up doing a PhD' the best story of the night, but the commercial opportunities that also came up were also heartening and generally a compelling reason to get involved.