Researchers envision 'hackerspace' at MU

Friday, August 20, 2010 | 4:45 p.m. CDT; updated 4:47 p.m. CDT, Saturday, August 21, 2010

COLUMBIA — Two MU master’s students are working with a computer science professor to construct a “hackerspace,” a community forum that promotes technological inquiry, research and exchange of intellectual capital.

 “The idea of a hackerspace is a straightforward one,” said Ben Schulz, a second-year master’s student in computer science. “There should be a common space where anyone who has a curious mind can pursue their curiosities.”

The term "hacker" can be jarring to those out of touch with computer science terminology, but Schulz explained that the negative connotations associated with the word are a result of the original meaning being skewed over time. 

"The term hacker originated as a word for describing people who were exceptionally skilled with computers," he said. "It's not tied to anything with malicious intent."

Schulz is collaborating on the project with Ian Graves, a computer science PhD candidate, and Bill Harrison, a computer science professor at MU. A primary aim of the hackerspace is to “democratize technology,” Graves said.

The trio hopes that access to MU’s resources will allow the project, currently in its beginning stages, to eventually flourish as a campus-based research and information community. 

There are material prerequisites that are needed for a hackerspace to thrive, Schulz said.

“The College of Engineering has every possible fixture and apparatus we could want,” he said.

While the group expects members of the hackerspace to utilize many of the research facilities already on campus, Schulz explained that their research methods and practices will differ from more conventional campus-based research. 

According to Schulz, the difference is that basic research generally entails competition for resources, while a hackerspace is a commons where resources are provided to a broad range of participants. Schulz also said that "funding and paradigmatic constraints" of conventional research can sometimes foster "a culture of risk aversion."

The group believes a hackerspace can be a conduit for unbridled innovation and what Harrison calls "a community of interest in technical issues rather than a curriculum or research program."

The group expects the hackerspace to initially attract people with backgrounds in computer science and engineering. The founders want to develop a community that is interdisciplinary in scope.

“I think it could be a multi-disciplinary environment where you sort of bring your own interests into it,” Harrison said.

Graves sees value in this type of collaboration as well.

“We’re trying to be all-inclusive,” he said. “All levels of people will be entering the club, so we’re going to see many different forms of engagement.”

The project will require some funds, but Harrison anticipates that the project will be inexpensive to start. 

The group intends to purchase about 20 microcontrollers for hackerspace members to use. Harrison described these as “ simple computers without the bells and whistles.”

Yi Shang, director of graduate research at the Department of Computer Science, describes microcontrollers "specialized computers" with "specific functions." In addition to being cost-efficient, microcontrollers are energy-efficient as well, Shang said. 

A central meeting space for the group has yet to be determined.

“At the moment, we have space we can use in my lab," Harrison said. “It wouldn’t be dedicated to the hackerspace, but it would be a place where we could get together and work on projects together.”

As far as drumming up interest, the team is optimistic that a hackerspace can prosper at MU, despite some unsuccessful past attempts in Columbia.

“I would be very surprised if this crashes and burns,” Schulz said.

Still, the group acknowledges that building interest will be a gradual process.

“The pace of progress is slow,” Schulz said. “Progress doesn’t happen by itself and it doesn’t happen quickly. You have to be very patient, determined and keep at it.”

Schulz believes that if the hackerspace can reach “a social tipping point,” it will gradually and organically gain broader appeal. He also said that another focal point of the venture will be getting people to overcome fears about engaging with technology.

Some people, particularly in the humanities, have a traumatic experience in math or technology that drives them away, Schulz said. “We want them to realize, ‘Hey, I can do these things, too.’"

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Ellis Smith August 21, 2010 | 8:20 a.m.

Interesting, but is there some technical reason why this couldn't be System wide? We're laboring under the impression that this is one university.

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