This is the last post in my series of interviews with BDN What’s Next Conference. presenters. Please check out out my talks with Shannon Kinney, Spose, Anthony Ronzio, Patrick Roche and Amanda O’Brien.
I chatted with Garrett Wilkin, the founder of Maine Hacker Club and Maine Civic Hack Day. Garrett got his start in computer programming in Bangor and is working to establish a cohesive community of technologists. Maine Hacker Club, which he founded in February 2012, has grown to more than 40 members and meets weekly at the Maine Discovery Museum. This technical community was the foundation for the recent Maine Civic Hack Day event, which focused on community service through technology.
Note: For more hacker talk, I also recently interviewed Sam Mateosian about Portland’s role in the civic hacking movement.
I am coming from Maine Hacker Club, which is a social club for technologists. We are catalyzed around some shared goals. We might set up some legal entities like nonprofit or for profit entities to capture some of our activities.
Of the main things were are thinking of are bringing the Hacker Club to high schools because most high schools don’t even have a programming course. For a lot of people, if they are not thinking of cyber crime when they are thinking of hacking, they are thinking about programming. It is one aspect of it, but it is the entry level and so teaching programming is important as it is one skill set of a collection of skill sets that are needed to develop projects from soup to nuts and so we are thinking of how to get this program going.
We are also starting an open source software project and are looking to find collaborators through the network of people who participated through the National Day of Civic Hacking. They are spread out across the nation and someone from our group met with a few developers in New York who are doing similar work.
I was recently in Washington, D.C. for the Champions of Change event at the White House. When I was there I met a guy who has this idea of setting up hacker clubs with an entrepreneurial angle and wants to do so internationally. We were brainstorming yesterday, thinking that a Hacker Club concept could tie in with these international groups that he is setting up.
Can you talk a bit more about what you were doing in DC?
That Champions of Change event is attended by 15 individuals who are split into two groups, one that takes on issues regarding Open Government and another that addresses Civic Hacking. On the latter side, you had folks who designed apps during the National Day of Civic Hacking and so you have these groups that care about government openness and folks who have built their own tools constructed to create a more open civic space. It is an ongoing event series and other people who organized local events on Civic Hack Day and I were selected to come to this event and I was fortunate to be one of them.
Can you talk a bit about your group’s work with the recent Civic Hack Day?
While there have been a bunch of civic hackathons, this was the first National Civic Hack Day. What was cool was that I don’t think anyone from our group had yet been to one of these kinds of events. I started Hacker Club because I looked around and didn’t see one I could join, which is like a lot of things in Maine where most likely you have to start up what you want to participate in. I had completely different expectations of what I thought a great group of hackers might be than what had come together, but since then we now have this group of folks who can design their own chips, which is an intense level of skill. Or they know these particular soldering techniques or whatever and it has been mind-blowing to look at the skillets that we have from people who are literally coming out of the woods to come to the club. I had no idea these skill-sets were out there, I just wanted to find other people that I could hang out and share mutual interests with. The level of skills that have been represented has been incredibly impressive.
In sticking with the theme of the What’s Next Conference, what is next with regard to hacking in Maine?
There is a larger vision I have about how to stimulate Maine’s technical community. One of the key aspects is to, well, form the community. There are projects like Project Login, the specific goal of which is to increase the number of IT professionals in the state, and so these efforts are connecting students with the industry. But if we don’t have a community of technologists that are connected, that know each other, that encourage each other—and I am thinking of a group that ranges from school aged up through retired professionals—it is difficult to establish for potential professionals a concrete vision of what can be accomplished by learning these skills or working in this field. The education program is something we will be doing pretty soon, and that is geared toward bringing high school students who wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity the ability to get involved with hacking or connect with this community.