Hacker purgatory, thy name is Iowa.
Picture 12 people, many of them graduate students at Western University and all of them packing four e-gadgets on a trip designed to promote the creation of a mobile “hacker/maker space” rolling through one of the largest roaming dead zones on the continent.
“Iowa has its own cellular service provider so the major carriers in the States don’t work there,” Ryan Hunt said. “So we basically had a five-hour dead space.”
It was by far the scariest part of a 2,800-kilometre techie roadie for the founders of DHMakerBus and nine others who journeyed from the safe haven of the London Lawn to a Digital Humanities (DH) conference in Nebraska in July.
“We actually had to talk to each other, like what the heck?” Kim Martin joked.
Luckily, the group had a pair of “amazing” volunteer drivers that got them there and back again.
Hunt, Martin and Beth Compton, all Western grad students, have been fundraising to purchase a bus and outfit it like a tinkerer’s wet dream for several months.
In 2012 there were an estimated 700 to 1,100 active hackerspaces around the world. There are three mobile makerspaces in the United States. The DHMakerBus would be the first of its kind in Canada.
More than just a bus, it’s a “public digital humanities project,” which hopes to engage London in the digital humanities, sharing their academic passion with as many people as possible.
The plan was to the bus to Nebraska to promote it and get feedback from like-minded people but they fell short of their $10,000 Indiegogo goal.
They raised enough to purchase a full-length fixer-upper with good bones and crosses painted where the flashing lights used to go, but not enough to make it roadworthy or kit it out.
Local firm Alpine System Engineering has refurbished the bus’ electronics pro bono but the students still need about $4,000 more to get the bus street legal (it needs brake pads and a driver seatbelt) and somewhat geared up.
Around $10,000 would get it closer to their vision of a mobile version maker spaces like UnLondon’s UnLab filled with crafts, tools, toys a 3D printer and of course the Internet, according to Hunt.
Right now it’s sitting at a south London garage still looking very much like a decommissioned school bus, but the Nebraska trip was still a success.
“When we got to Nebraska we had a table set up at the conference and we gave out about 200 badges (that conference attendees exchange with each other) to people who asked them what the project was all about,” Martin said. “Multiple people approached to us interested in us travelling to them for different projects that they’re in; really nothing but praise from that community. Whether or not the bus made it the team made it and got to show what we were hoping to do, so that’s big step.”
The original plan was to pick up about five people in Michigan on the way to the conference. All but one fell through but others asked to join them last minute, so they ended up turning people away.
“If nothing else, that road trip made it really apparent how amazing a space like this could be it we could set it up the way we want to set it up,” Compton said. “It would be an ideal place to collaborate on stuff.”
Having the bus to show off in Nebraska was always secondary; the group was hoping to generate interest and gather feedback on what the finished product should look like.
“We weren’t sure if people were going to be interested and it was the complete opposite, they were coming to us,” Martin said. “When you’re at academic conferences that doesn’t happen very often.”
She said the usual conversations about abstract concepts were replaced by excitement over their plans to take DHMakerBus to events, educational institutions and public spaces and generally reach out to create interest.
“That means a lot because that is why we’re different.”
They said there was a lot of traction on Twitter and their podcasts were
According to Hunt a half-dozen institutions around North America in places as far away as Portland, Oregon and Victoria expressed interest in having the completed bus pay them a visit, so another road trip is soon to be in the works.
In fact the buzz is such that the DHMakerBus was being referred to as “the bus” at the Nebraska conference.
“When I registered they asked me ‘Are you from The Bus?’” Hunt said. “Why yes, yes I am.”
Visit http://dhmakerbus.com, like them on Facebook or follow @DHMakerBus on Twitter to keep an eye on “The Bus.”