Review of A Hack Day: Coding Comes to the U.K. National Astronomy Meeting (NAM)

Hack Days have become very popular in the past few years. If you want to know what happens at one and what value they offer, read this excellent post by Robert Simpson on the Hack Day at the U.K. National Astronomy Meeting (NAM). The original is posted at:

I wish to thank Robert Simpson for permission to repost this material.


Robert Simpson gives the inside story of the first – and very successful – Hack Day at NAM 2014.

At this year’s National Astronomy Meeting (NAM) in Portsmouth in June, there was something a little bit different – and a whole lot awesome: a hack day. Organized by astronomers Arfon Smith (GitHub) and Robert Simpson (Zooniverse), this was a day-long event that asked people to create something useful, new, or just fun, that they might not otherwise get the chance to do. The NAM 2014 organizers promoted the hack day event widely, which meant that we had about 30 participants through the day, with a mix of enthusiasts and first-timers.

Hack days are built around the idea that you’ll work on a project that you find interesting, possibly with people you’ve never met before. They’re about providing a space for creativity and networking between like-minded makers and coders. I’ve attended many hack days and run several myself, and have made friends and new working connections that have proved extremely valuable. At the Astronomy conferences, which I organize, there is always a 24-hour hack day ( Similarly there have been Science Hack Day events worldwide, where people spend up to 36 hours hacking (

Notable projects from past hack days include a customized tool to fit gaussians in a web browser (, an amazing musical video about Pluto (, a tool to calculate your own personal time-dilation (, and a project that eventually mapped global collaborations in astronomy through co-authorships in the literature (

The projects resulting from hack days are often prototypes, or proof-of-concept ideas that are meant to grow and expand later. Often they are simply written up and shared online for someone else to take on if they wish. This ethos of sharing and openness was evident at the NAM hack day, when people would periodically stand up and shout to the room, asking for anyone with skills in a particular area, or access to specific hardware.

Many of the projects from the day have already been posted online, often on GitHub: a code-sharing site ( and the sponsor for the event, which provided a steady supply of coffee, snacks and cool stickers.

What did we do?

The marvellous set of creations were fantastic and highlight the range of possible outcomes at events such as this. Timothy Davies (ESO) created a simple, useful tool for quickly creating tiny simulated galaxies, based on bulge-to-disc ratios. Rebecca Smethurst (Oxford) created code that instantly makes your Python plots look better for your presentation slides. Both are perfect examples of building small, shareable tools that you’ve always wanted for yourself.

Hack days are also about using your skills to advance somebody else’s good idea. Kyle Willett (Minnesota) was taken with an idea from another participant to create a map of the UK showing where your nearest astronomy club or degree-granting institution is located. Kyle decided to take the day as a chance to learn some JavaScript and eventually created a Voronoi-tessellated map of the UK – in which the country is grouped into regions evenly spaced around all the astronomy clubs (figure 1). This is based on previous work by Jason Davies (


Kyle Willett’s map of the UK in terms of your distance from the nearest astronomy group: the smaller the tile, the closer you are to astronomy.

Geert Barentsen, Jeremy Harwood and Leigh Smith (Hertfordshire) all went diving into unfamiliar data. They decided to use ESA’s Mars Express data archive to make a continuously rolling movie of all its observations. After realizing that such a movie would take days to run (even in fast-forward!) they decided to create an example of the first few chunks of data, ending up with a three-minute trailer of the experience, which you can see at At the last minute, they added in a little extra to the video to give it a bit more cachet with the meme-savvy online crowd: Nyan Cat (figure 2). We can all look forward to the two-day long version of this video when the whole data archive is imported.


Hack days tend to harness creativity of all sorts, in this case marrying the Mars Express dataset with the internet meme Nyan Cat.


The littleBits exoplanet detector and cup orrery built by Edward Gomez and Robert Simpson.

Galaxy knit

Other projects are harder to place online, such as Jane Greaves‘s (St Andrews) knitted galaxy cluster – with dark matter contributed by many people at the hack day (figure 4). Several astronomers popped in to contribute to the display!


Galaxy cluster knitted by Jane Greaves and many others.

I spent much of the day working with Edward Gomez (LCOGT) and the littleBits Space Kit. This is a modular system of circuits that lets anyone try their hand at something that ordinarily requires a soldering iron. The littleBits components may be switches, sensors, servos, or anything really, and they connect magnetically to create deceptively simple, yet potentially powerful, circuits. We decided to try to build an exoplanet simulator of some sort and ended up creating a littleBits exoplanet detector and cup orrery (figure 3). Our goal was to come up with something we could sit down and do with school groups in the future.

Prototyping is an essential part of any hack day. Ruth Angus (Oxford) and Joe Zuntz (Manchester) created the beginnings of an exoplanetary travel agent: a set of webpages outlining the known properties of exoplanets in a fun, friendly way. Adam Avison (Jodrell Bank) and Chris North (Cardiff) created the framework for a site that will tell you what was happening in Earth history when the light left an astronomical object. For example, did you know that when we look at the star Deneb today, we’re seeing light that has been travelling since the time of the first known writing in China, or the reign of Rameses the Great in Egypt?

Gender breakdown

A big push was made throughout NAM 2014 to keep track of the gender breakdown of speakers, chairs and people asking questions in sessions. This was inspired by James Davenport (Washington) and his gender study at the 223rd AAS Meeting. Jonathan Pritchard and Karen Masters (Portsmouth) led the charge and asked conference participants to complete an online survey. During the hack day they worked with several others to parse and analyse the data. Interestingly they found that male participants constituted 65% of the attendees but asked 81% of the questions. Female NAM speakers were asked an average of 3.28 questions, whereas their male counterparts were asked 2.64. The results will make interesting reading when they are published and available for comparison with James Davenport’s original work (

Indy Leclerq and Stuart Harper (Jodrell Bank) took on a topical astronomical concept: transient sky events. They parsed the Sky Alert website ( to create a graphical display that shows events happening in the night sky ( This kind of coding project emerges when people have time to think creatively and to chat about their ideas with others.

Finally, Duncan Forgan (Edinburgh) took the “music of the spheres” concept to its logical conclusion and created code to make music from any planetary system listed in the Open Planet Catalogue. Planets are given pitches based on their masses, and their repeated rhythms are spaced according to the period of their orbits. He demonstrated the new tool by playing us sample planetary systems, including our own solar system in which you hear both the high-pitched chirps of the inner planets flitting by every second or so, and the low pulsing beats of the outer planets humming past on longer timescales. You can hear examples on Duncan’s website and the code is available online at GitHub (

There were too many other hacks to list, but they included haiku, automatically extracted from arXiv papers by Arfon Smith (GitHub); and a prototype website for collating and commenting upon literature reviews from Lucy Fortson (Minnesota).

Hack days happen all the time in cities around the world. We hope to have another at the next NAM, but in the meantime you can find one near you by searching online, or reading more about Science Hack Day or Astronomy, for example.



This entry was posted in astroinformatics, Astronomy, blogging, computer videos, Computing, computing videos, crowdsourcing, cyberinfrastructure, Hack Days, informatics, information sharing, programming, publishing, Scientific computing, social networking, software engineering and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s