Report from #CultureCode in Newcastle

Talks, workshops & performances galore

Photo: Martin Cunningham

Last Sunday I attended Culture Code Hack and left on a real high! The superb atmosphere of a hack is unrivalled. What happened? The short answer is hacker magic! The long, read on (or check out the Culture Code Storify by Documentally).

The Culture Code Initiative was a series of events culminating in the Newcastle hack, aimed at developing relationships between the creative cultural and creative digital communities in the North East of England. The initiative is produced and was superbly run by Codeworks, delivered by Newcastle Gateshead Cultural Venues, and funded by Arts Council England.

Sync were delighted to see another programme with similar aims to Culture Hack Scotland and happily shared our lessons learnt. Codeworks did an amazing job of easing the arts organisations and developers into the new terrain of collaboration and innovation.

The first in the series of events I attended was the Culture Code Boutique, an event specifically for the culture sector, in February at Live Theatre, Newcastle. The quality of presentations that unfurled was impressive:

Jim Beirne from Live Theatre kicked off the talks contextualising the position of the cultural organisation by providing examples from theirs. Live Theatre’s online offering is an essential part of their business, working in tandem with a physically limited venue capacity. It includes a successful commercial playwright website,, an online shop and a wealth of rich content and online visitor transactions that help them track and maximise interaction with the customer . It provides two elements of data sets, prosaic data and data that can be used to make things.

We had the pleasure of some quick fire talks on digital media, tech in the arts and data rangling: Rafhaelle Heaf, whose motivation to share art she liked resulted in the creation of Artspotter, what she calls ‘Foursquare meets Timeout’. Rain Ashford showed some stunning examples of her wearable crafts that combine art, creating, interaction and electronics. Rain likes to challenge the notion of boxy, cold, sharp or grey that electronics have. She uses arduinos and wifi controllers: chips are sewn into clothing with conductive thread instead of using solder. Key to Rain doing what she does are her communities of makers and hack communities all coming together.

Kelly Richardson is creating new work with Pixel Palace this summer, a creation of a piece called Mariner 9, a triple screen project taking DGN data and creating a virtual Mars! Jer Thorp, currently the data artist in residence at New York Times (check out his TED talk: Make Data More Human) showed us some boring data representations transformed into engaging data visualisations:

“Data can be really exciting, no really! [...] it’s hugely valuable and informative”.

One example was the Kepler project, a NASA study in planet habitabilty displaying pages of multiple plain graphs of stat such as orbital period and similar. Jer felt he could do a better job and build a system to fit this data, see the spectacular results.

Oli Wood gave examples of projects that were made during hack days that typically wouldn’t normally have been commissioned outside of one: Smoggle a hack made for Rewired State taking pollution data and turning it into a game. Jim Newbery’s Edinburgh International Book Festival app and Justin Quillinan’s footfall clock data visualisation, both made at Culture Hack Scotland last year.

John Hill of NCJMedia summarised describing what the hack event will offer the cultural organisations in the room:

- a building full of creative developers to develop content, add value and build things.
- an opportunity, and free research for all parties.
- beautiful failures, it may not work but will give you ideas.

Wise words. Questions were taken and the audience were encouraged to get in touch to discuss their data with the Culture Code data ambassadors. A handy data guide was given out. I liked the quote on it from Tony Hall of the Royal Opera House: “People are over-optimistic about future commercial value (of their data) and not excited enough about present public value.”

The next meeting, the Salon, would be an informal meet up in the pub where the communities met to get to know each other a little better before the hack.

Then, on a sunny Saturday afternoon in March, came the hack. A civilised 12pm kick off featured “heaving” amounts of data contributed by arts organisations: a whopping 120 datasets included theatre visitor behaviour, the Lindesfarne Gospels, disused railway buildings, libraries data, and much more.

A packed programme of seminar presentations followed, coding workshops were smattered throughout the afternoon and a full midnight til dawn film programme. New friendships were forged and data repurposed in unimaginable ways. This heady mix tipped us into British Summer Time (losing a precious hacking hour to it as we went) with the deadline for the hack show-and-tell at 12pm the Sunday.

Everyone was a winner at the hack. Everyone who made something took away beautiful arduino starter kits and DiBi web conference tickets. Those lucky enough to fit into the Playful, Beautiful and Useful prize categories won a variety of goodies including a trip on a steam train, a technical drawing of a steam engine, tickets to Opera North and lots more!

CultureCode Hack Bettina Nissen 1

Photo: Janet E Davis

Bettina Nissen won ‘Coolest Award’ (working title – a prize category added last minute). Bettina designed 3D vases whose dimensions were driven by Flow Project data. Flow is a floating public art commission smack bang in the centre of Newcastle on the Tyne! It takes river data, by taking samples of the salt levels and tidal patterns and turbidity, generates its own power, makes and streams the sounds and stores the data. Bettina’s vases were realised just that morning and had great appeal to the audience. Herb Kim was so inspired he proposed that Bettina map out his daughters life stream and serve that up in 3D (…and she didn’t say no)!

The ‘Playful’ hack prize winner was Hopebook, a realistic story of a child called Hope living in poverty. You befriend her and see her public updates (and private thoughts), photos, and brilliant games such as ‘Povertyville’, a farmville-type game that tells you school poverty stats. A superb combination of the Children North East, data and a theatrical play called Hope. The hack is now live: The collaboration was triggered by a tweet from Amy Golding ”Help us beat child poverty in the north east and create an exciting digital Legacy for our project”. Created by James RutherfordAmy GoldingJeremiahColin (with contributions by EmerBecky and James). James Rutherford explains the hack to Documentally here.

The ‘Beautiful’ award went to Mike Hirst who compiled a library of melodies of European traditional music a text based file and music xml. Mike combined this with the disused railway data set to trigger the melodies. Here is his blog about his experience. Hear him talk about his the Traditional Music dataset below:


A two pronged approach from the team who took the Lindesfarne Gospels made them accessible online, and reinterpreted the tiled patterns in the illustrations that accompany the gospels.

Mapping the data was a very popular theme at this hack:

Andrew Waters and Matthew Balaam produced an iPhone app based on existing Open Plaques data adding text to speech files to provide an audio tour of the city. With a view to a future iteration to combine user generated content: pictures, video and personal stories; Jason Judge and Peter Bull won most ‘Useful award’ (in conjunction with Alistair for his project) for visualised borrower distances from libraries; A hack featuring Lawnmower theatre company’s postcode data mapped the distance/time of day/art form; And Melody Explorer used the European Traditional Music data to map the music. On mouse over it played the music and displayed the sheet music for the melody. Giving a regional ‘vibe’ of traditional music made in that region and country.

Alistair MacDonald having been busy enabling people to use the data at the event, somehow managed to cram in an early morning hack. He mapped the types of computer book borrowed from Newcastle libraries using the Google earth API. Alistair advised the Culture Code team on the data preparation and got it all set for consumption. Let’s just say he is the super geek, a hack day veteran with many quirks and sleeps little. We’re looking forward to his return to Culture Hack Scotland again at the end of April!

Excellent results for 24 hours of hacking.

The previous day started with the data presentations. While the hack began, the seminar programme kicked off providing inspiration to those not yet ready to knuckle down with code and for those cultural organisations in attendance. The programme included:

  • an introduction to IP;
  • a glitch ‘chip-tune’ concert by 16 year old Conor AKA Psifork who composes/plays his music on a Gameboy;
  • Flow by Owl Project and Ed Carter, the electro-acoustic musical vessel powered by the Tyne who were due to open to the public the following day;
  • An Introduction to Interactive media by Dr. Stephen Gibson, a presentation covering a mini-history including Myron Krueger, computer scientist back in the 70′s up to present day, the Amon Tobin isam live – June 2011 (Mutek Premier), and Stephen’s true love, physical computing.
  • Janet E Davis spoke about painting by data and a little about the © word.
  • Bettina Nissen looked at a few examples of 3D printing including: Supabold, an online 3D vase design website where you design your Fluidvase, a liquid representation of a vase; Markus Kayser’s SolarSinter Project where Markus makes glass objects out of sand and sunlight, using solar power, in the middle of the desert!; the makers of 3D printers – a location to upload 3d models; the free universal construction kit, a matrix of 3D toy parts, born out of frustration that popular construction toys can’t be used together it that enable you to link between them;
  • Documentally AKA Christian Payne spoke about his work and social media ‘serendipity farming’;
  • Jeremiah Alexander shared his thoughts on why data sucks: a provocative challenge to find new ways to interpret data that isn’t cold, hard and unfriendly. A language so unapproachable without the creativity overlaid by the interpretation of the developer.

I hit the coding workshop at 7:30 that evening, we all sat down with drink in hand, it was that time of the evening. We used Processing, an open source programming language and environment to code (free to download). Paul King showed us the library of standard functions that we could use for reference which included example syntax, so we could copy and use those to create our masterpieces. What did we do? We learned how to draw circles and other objects with colours and dimensions, and made a face! The astounding artistry of these coded faces were the result of a two hour journey into the syntax. Paul the trainer is a hack day regular and creator of a recent Music Hack Day Kinect Virtual Disco Deathmatch. Hats off to him for making coding really good fun.

As I left the hack on the Sunday I noticed the motion sensors rigged up on the stairs of the Tyneside Cinema, a hack opportunity kindly offered forward by Dominic Smith during the previous days data presentations, but not taken. I wish i had investigated that to see if I could play with the sensors and any simple data, and it struck me. I couldn’t have considered it before the weekend and after this hack I now had a bit more confidence to even ask the question. What’s this? And instead of assuming it’s something i can’t do, i pondered if it was something I can.

On route to the train station (via @flowmill) I caught up with Jamie Wooldridge of Live at LICA and we reflected on the Culture Code process. I’d spoken to him at the earlier Boutique event where he had expressed that he was open to the ideas discussed but wasn’t really sure about the value of his box office data he holds or what could be done with it. Jamie now felt huge value in working this way and wants more opportunities to do so. Arts organisations hold a lot of data, they collect it because they have to. They have no way of exploring it’s value and potential without opportunities of this kind.

The hacks were delightful, not just because of the great final output, but because of the mutual journey of the developers, designers and cultural organisations. The observations and learning throughout the process that the encounter enabled, were enormously valuable.

Any event that drums up these kinds of sentiments did good:

Heading home exhausted after #culturecode, one of the best hackdays I’ve been to. Met great people & venue (tyneside cinema) was superb!— Paul (@nrocy) March 25, 2012

Inspiring to see different people from @culture_code weekend getting in touch with each other about new projects and ideas. #culturecode — Bettina Nissen (@bettinanissen) March 26, 2012

Well done to all the hackers and cultural organisations involved. Congratulations to Joeli Brierley and Herb Kim from Codeworks for putting on an amazing event that achieved over and above what they set out to do. The legacy of the relationships built will impact for a good time to come.

About Erin Maguire

Erin is one of the co-producers of Sync.

One Response to Report from #CultureCode in Newcastle

  1. Melody Explorer actually won in the ‘most playful’ category with Hopebook taking the overall prize. 

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