Aug. 05, 2009 - Issue #720: The Season 2009
Edmonton New Technology Society
The ENTS justify the means: New space will give Edmonton's tech community a place to collaborate and learn
Everyone is familiar with the stereotype of the hacker: a solitary person
sitting in some dark basement, hunched over a computer committing evil deeds.
But this popular view of hackers is actually a misconception, notes Rob Davy,
the vice-president of the newly formed Edmonton New Technology Society
"The tech community views 'hacker' as someone who hacks things, so 'tinkerer' would be a better term," Davy explains. "They figure out how things work—that is what the technical community regards as 'hacking.' And they do the same with software. They figure out how software works and perhaps try to improve it. What Joe Public would regard as being a 'hacker,' the tech community would call a 'cracker,' which is more the illegal, destructive side of it."
Stephen Olesen, the president of ENTS, agrees that hacking has developed a bad reputation over the years, but he can understand how someone who isn't part of the community could make the mistake.
"Hacking is taking things and hacking them together, as in taking bits and pieces and making something better, or just different, out of it. It has very little to do with breaking into things," Olesen says. "I think where [the reputation] kinda comes from is you can use the same skills and techniques to do things that aren't good."
Olesen says the reality of what hackers do is much more benign, and not nearly as solitary a pursuit as most people would think.
"The official definitions of 'hacker' go back to taking electronic things, tearing them apart and building new things out of them," he says. "Now it's grown to be more people sitting around and just putting things together as a group, or even by themselves, just mashing it all into one coherent item."
Working on such collaborative projects will now be easier for Edmonton's tech community—just six weeks after it was thought up over hamburgers and beer, ENTS has signed a lease on a space in the city where members will be able to come together to work on projects, exchange ideas and socialize.
Olesen explains that the group is responding to a need that's long been felt in Edmonton.
"What [ENTS is] about is to form a space, a physical space where people can collaborate and work on things together within the Edmonton technical community, because there's been a strong lack of that sort of community space for technical concerns," Olesen says.
During the initial meetings of the group, one of the founding members of ENTS discovered that such places, called "hackerspaces," already exist in other Canadian cities and around the world. But while ENTS is following the concept, it's steering away from the term "hackerspace" to avoid the stigma attached to the term "hacker" among non-technical people.
To illustrate his point about the stigma, Davy recalls his first presentation about the proposed space.
"One of my slides has a photo of a news clipping that says, 'Hackers can turn your computer into a bomb!' he laughs. "It was just to kind of emphasize that if we use the term 'hackerspace,' nobody's going to give us any funding, because, you know, who wants to fund hackers? So the term that we came up with was a 'collaborative workspace.'"
ENTS members have already discussed what kinds of projects they might want
to pursue in the new collaborative workspace.
"We always use the example of robots, because everyone knows what robots are, and a lot of people are actually quite interested in building them and learning how to build robots," Olesen says. "There's also going to be a fair bit of software development and idea exchange around those sorts of things, because most of the members so far come from a programming or semi-programming background."
While many ENTS members are interested in computer projects, ENTS also sees people who are interested in other types of technologies, whether for work-related purposes or simply as a hobby. During Davy's presentation at the workspace's recent open house, one ENTS member jokingly called the space a "geek clubhouse," but Olesen says the idea of the space it to bring together more than just techies.
"We also have some business development people, and things like that. So it's part of the learning and teaching part," Olesen explains. "What we'd like to do is see some of the business people teach some of the computer people, and the computer people teach some of the business people, and share what they're doing."
He adds that bringing together people with a variety of backgrounds, interests and skills has already steered the development of the ENTS space in some new directions.
"Some of the projects that people have discussed coming out of that comes down to even a small recording studio, a 10-by-10-foot room, soundproofed, so that people can learn how the electronic side and the detailed parts of doing recording works, and some people can show the artsy side, the creative side of doing recording."
Davy says there's really no limit to the types of projects that members might want to work on and, being a member-driven facility, its use will not be predefined but will support members' interests.
The structure of the space allows people with like-minded interests to work together in one area. The finished office space at the front, painted orange with red trim, offers desks and tables where people can work on laptops. The middle area, a kitchen space, will be for socializing and electronic work. The large, unfinished back area will hold facilities for welding, woodworking and other noisy, messy endeavours.
In addition to being member-driven, the space will also be mainly member-funded. A one-time ENTS membership costs $20, and members will then pay $50 per month for unlimited use of the space. A member can also pay $15 dollars for a one-time use of the facility. The fees will allow ENTS to purchase equipment that individual members would not otherwise be able to afford or house.
"We want it to be for the members. If the members need a certain piece of equipment or a certain facility to do a certain project then we will try to make that happen," Davy explains. "The vision is quite broad."
While most of the funding will come from members, ENTS also receives funding from other sources. One private company in the city has given the group a contract and ENTS has also recently partnered with the City of Edmonton, which has provided some financial support to ENTS and has lent the group a Microsoft Surface that it recently purchased. ENTS members will get to tinker with the Surface and in exchange they'll suggest to the city uses for the machine.
"The city has just lent us it to play around with," Davy enthuses. "So we can do some cool things and then they can start actually using it."
For Chris Moore, chief information officer with the City of Edmonton, the formation of ENTS has come at the perfect time.
"I was trying to figure out how to make a group like this, until I discovered that this group was emerging, and I said, 'Well, there's no point in me trying to make anything. Why don't I just partner with them?'" Moore recalls. "Earlier this year, I had a thought, which was, 'How can we leverage the city, the people in the city, to create solutions for the city?' So it's really the concept of 'crowdsourcing.'"
Moore says that this collaborative, community-minded approach to solving problems and developing innovative approaches to tackling a range of issues will be greatly facilitated by the new space and the people who will come together within its walls, and he's excited about the possibilities that could emerge if they set their sights high.
"My challenge to them is, 'What kinds of challenges do you want?'" he says. V
For more information about the Edmonton New Technology Society, visit ents.ca or call 780.701.9400.
More stories in front »
New comments for this entry have been turned off and any existing ones are hidden. We apologize for any inconvenience.