What happened at the first Refresh Oxford hack day on Saturday

Yesterday I went to the inaugural Refresh Oxford hack day in the Incuna offices. It was great.

The local initiative is part of "Refreshing Cities," an attempt to provide vitality to local creative and technical culture, especially in the field of "new media," which one day we'll probably just call "media." As I've spent the last four years organizing the Oxford Geek Nights to do this very thing within the geek-social space, I can only applaud the idea.

The start of the hack day saw dozens of people present: a decent spread of designers, developers, UX/accessibility experts and similar webby folks. It was useful to begin immediately after another first, the inaugural European jQuery conference, also in Oxford; the conference brought a lot of both attention and attendees to the event. Although, the large amount of booze available at the conference means that a lot of people didn't turn up till considerably later; if indeed at all. 

For the first hour or so, we were all free to propose projects to everyone else. The idea was that these should be ideas that could either: be begun and brought to a fun if not necessarily successful conclusion in a day; or that were more long-term, already underway, but needed a day's worth of work from a few people to yield real returns. While we did a bit of horse-trading, we also ate pastries and drank tea and coffee.

Henry, Suzie and I formed a team of frontender, builder and programmer respectively for our own project and came up with a plan for development. Lunch turned up as we started work, and then... well, the next seven hours or so are frankly a bit of a blur. A fun, exciting blur; but a blur nonetheless, as we dipped down below the surface of our project and hammered away at it. By the end of it we had a cute little application with a server and a Chrome browser extension that even I was surprised actually worked (despite Henry's attempts to break it just before we were ready to show it to other people.)

We all finished with pizza, a demo, and then beer. Other demos included:

  • an in-browser horizontal-scrolling game with cats
  • work on making the first volume OED searchable through OCR
  • a prettifying Django views inspector 
  • and an attempt to script kinetic typography

In short, a pretty varied bunch of really neat one-day efforts from everyone. And we also got to meet other like-minded local geeks and find out what other people were up to in the city and its environs. This coincides completely with the whole reason I run the OGNs: geeks are paradoxically both shy and social animals; so encourage them to meet up with each other once in a while, overcome that initial barrier of shyness, and magic happens.

The all-important social aspect aside, it's astonishing what magic people did come up with, given only a day to work on it. Incuna were a really welcoming bunch and made everyone feel at home, and gave us just the right amount of herding: thanks to their foresight, most of the projects we worked on are now available via the Refresh Oxford github account, if you're interested in looking at some of our code. It ain't pretty; but if Rome wasn't built in a day, then these projects were. In your face, Rome.