This week I was at one of the most enthusing and productive astronomy conferences of the year: .Astronomy 4 in Heidelberg. Once again it was very tiring but very enjoyable.
It was the fourth .Astronomy following Cardiff (November 2008), Leiden (December 2009), and Oxford (April 2011).
.Astronomy is a difficult conference to sum up in one sentence, so I won't. As the title suggests, it's about the overlap between the connected world and astronomy - both research and public outreach. The conference is kept deliberately small in terms of numbers (about 50) with a mixture of coders, researchers and outreach people. The small numbers mean that everyone gets the chance to interact with each other over the course of the three days or so. It is that interaction of ideas and people that really make the conference what it is.
Over the years .Astronomy has been iterating towards its format and I think it has improved each time. On the Sunday most people arrived and we met up for a fairly impomptu evening meal with over two-thirds of the attendees. On the Monday we took the funicular railway up the hill to the amazing, newly opened, Haus der Astronomie. Our main sessions took place in the planetarium at its centre.
On the Monday and Wednesday we had talks in the morning sessions and the afternoons followed an "unconference" format with the attendees deciding what the topics would be. These unconference sessions were discussion/workshop led with people banned from using them to do talks. The organisation of these afternoons was done through the medium of writing on blackboard. The white magnetic strips that could be moved around worked really well.
On Tuesday there were talks up until morning coffee and then the rest of the day/night was reserved for hackday - a chance to build solutions in just a day with one minute demos or presentations the following morning. To get the creative ideas flowing, a few weeks ago the attendees started adding ideas and skills to a hackday wiki page. Before the morning coffee those with ideas were each given 30 seconds to pitch them. People then self-organised into groups and were told that if they found themselves bored, or at a loose end, to go find another group. Some people even worked on multiple ideas during the day and well into the night.
People hacking ideas well into the night CREDIT: Kelle Cruz
I think it is fair to say that the hack day was very successful. Here is a quick run down of some of the hacks (apologies to those I've forgotten):
Amit and Phil pair-coding CREDIT: Stuart
- Kevin Govender, Edward Gomez, Haley Gomez and many others started building a "match-making" tool to connect scientists with outreach audiences worldwide. They called it Astroglocal and by the morning they had an example front page and a database driven back-end all sorted. I look forward to seeing them complete this project.
- David Hogg initiated a project to make a bot that would interact with users on the Planet Hunters forums helping them to do science with the things they find. By the end of the day the Zoonibot had started interacting with people on both the forum and on Twitter. They say they expect self-awareness and world domination by August 2013.
- Amanda Bauer and Nicole Gugliucci created a video response to the Science: It's a Girl Thing promo video - Science: It's Universal.
- Emily Rice and Kelle Cruz worked on a Sh*t Astronomer's say video. They had a first draft ready for the Wednesday morning but wanted to do some more fine-tuning before putting it online so I have no link yet.
- Alberto Pepe, Alyssa Goodman, and August Muench worked on the idea of extracting astronomical images from papers and positioning them on the sky. The idea being to free data from papers and help towards the ADS All Sky Survey. They investigated how this might be done automatically and the idea of having a citizen science project in the style of Old Weather to help extract the coordinates. At one point during the day I saw them surrounded by a sea of different figure styles that people of used. It certainly isn't an easy problem to solve.
- Karen Masters put together a list of ".Astro Recommends" and polled the .Astronomy crowd to see what devices they had and the languages they used.
- Eli Bressert discovered that his long-term hack idea had already been done by Gus.
- Michelle Borkin and others worked on Glue - a python project to link visualizations of data.
- Brooke, Thomas Kitching, Kevin Schawinski and Chris Clarke worked on Astronym - a project to tell you if your astronomical acronym was "doing it right" or "doing it wrong" and then suggest better acronyms to you.
- Update 2012/07/25: Rob Simpson, Sarah Kendrew and Karen Masters wrote some natural language processing to mine the astronomical literature.
I've put a bunch of my pictures of the conference on Flickr and you can look back through discussion on Twitter with the #dotastro hashtag. There won't be a conference proceedings (not really worth the effort as many things will be out-of-date by the time it would get published), but there will be some kind of write-up going on the arXiv soon. Plus, although the video quality won't be great, as we had to resort to plan C, I'll be putting some of the videos/audio of the morning sessions online soon.
This has hopefully given you a taste of what happened at .Astronomy 4.