Experimenting with ICT in Belfast

farset labs01 Based on the Sandy Row, Farset Labs is Belfast’s first hackerspace: a place for ICT enthusiasts to work, meet and relax. Director Andrew Bolster talked to Peter Cheney.

What’s the big idea?

Basically, I was at a conference in New York several years ago and was meeting some of the guys whose work I’d been following. And I was asking: “Where do you come up with this stuff? Where do you come up with some of these ideas? Where do you get the space to do these ideas?”

It was funny because I had an automatic assumption that there must be one in Belfast. It seemed such an obvious idea that there must be one in Belfast. And, of course, I hit on the Googles and realised within a couple of minutes that there had been several abortive attempts but nothing that actually worked.

The over-arching idea is that it’s a place for people to play. You’re producing not only better future employees but also better future entrepreneurs and better future business builders.

We find ourselves in an interesting little bubble where an awful lot of the social issues that are more heavily integrated in the mainland because of geography are left out. We’re actually doing an interesting project at the minute in terms of secondary healthcare and community healthcare: How can you bring these organisations together for a general social good?

We’re looking at this from an, almost, engineering perspective. We look at it and say: “This is your actual problem,” and try and nail down the problem domain as tightly as possible. And then go: “Right, we’ll throw it out to a couple of people and see if they can fix it.”

So you try to get a team of people around the problem?

You’d be amazed at how much motivation is derived by people who have my interest in technology, engineering and problem-solving. Having a problem put in front of them makes them very energised to solve it. There’s no major motivation. Obviously, we do want to get both the internal community and the organisation to get a bit of funding out of it but the real driving force is that desire to solve problems.

farset labs02 What about results?

Our membership is continuing to grow. Our first-month membership was 12 or 13 and we’re now into the high 40s, low 50s, of people involved. The interesting thing is that the only time that people have ever left is that they’ve got better jobs and in every single one of those cases, Farset Labs is on the CV.

We are demonstrably producing better people. We’re also involved in several consultative projects and we host things like the Momentum programme’s Block 54: the computer games community getting together and showing off their development. We had a very successful relationship with the British Computing Society and their sponsoring of our talks series has spawned off some very interesting “cross-pollination” research ideas that are currently being investigated.

How does the CoderDojo* work?

The CoderDojo was started off in Cork, almost as a school club for people doing programming: young kids, originally around the teenage years, but it’s grown as a movement.

We don’t technically have age restrictions. We have one stipulation that if you’re under 14, you have to come with a parent or guardian. We’ve got kids who are eight, nine or 10 who started off in Scratch which is an MIT-developed visual programming language running right through to Hyphen, which is an industry-grade programming language and they’re actually producing tools and using the tools that are used in real industry, and they’re not even out of primary school.

Who else is this for?

Is this just for students and school kids?

There has never been a stipulation that it’s for students. It just works out that students are the ones who have the most free time but we do have a very healthy freelancer and professional community. In terms of percentages, we’re about 50 per cent students but then the rest of the make-up is a variety of ‘fly-by-nighters’ who pop in whenever they can, to freelancers who are working all over the place, to professionals who are hopping in at 6-7pm to try and work on their pet project.

Why are you excited about this?

The big thing for me is that there’s so much opportunity out there at the minute but there has almost become a culture of mediocrity in the technical world where you can tick a box, you can get a degree and you can almost go into ‘job x’.

The opportunity to play and experiment means that you have not only got people coming out at the other end but they’re coming up with interesting ideas. They’re able to experiment with things. They’re able to try things out and if they fail miserably, it’s been so lightweight, they can pick up afterwards and they haven’t suffered any major loss.

*dojo is a Japanese term for a martial arts training facility which has been adopted by computer programmers in Ireland

Farset Labs was set up in January 2012. Andrew Bolster is a PhD researcher in cyber-security at Queen’s University Belfast. More details are available at www.farsetlabs.org.uk

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