What the Hack is going on here?

by Willi Rath

About a year ago we introduced the GEOMAR (open!) Hacky Hour, a weekly (virtual) programming and data analysis support meeting compensating for missing door-to-door exchange in the office during the COVID-19 pandemic. This is about our lessons learned along the way.

If you’re interested in participating or have any other questions or feedback, feel free to reach out to Willi Rath.

Why?

The Hacky Hour is meant to provide a really easy and welcoming way of getting support related to programming and data-analysis questions for everyone from or around GEOMAR. Its name is inspired by the loosely organised type of meeting of the same name (see https://hackyhour.github.io/).

Our idea is to bring together people with common software-related or methodological interests and to make providing such support easier and more efficient.The GEOMAR Hacky Hour originated from an event that felt more like a consultation hour where an experienced scientist and scientific programmer was available for support questions and in-person counseling on a regular basis. With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, it was moved to a virtual format. Going virtual also turned out to make it easier to open the event to anyone interested.

Who?

The Hacky Hour is aimed at everyone interested in and using data analysis and programming in their daily work. It targets all levels of skills and experience and is open to various programming languages and analysis platforms. We aim to create an inclusive and welcoming environment and to make it as easy as possible for everyone to join and benefit from the event. Note that contributing a question is just as important as providing a solution!

What worked?

The Hacky Hour has become well-accepted: meetings are attended by 3 to 15 and more people with a handful  of regular participants. In each meeting, we discussed between one and five specific problems. Meeting formats varied between using a single virtual  room and addressing questions in a sequence (so that everyone could follow all solutions) and splitting up into breakout rooms (if there was a more diverse set of interests).

It feels like we have already found a good rhythm: After a period of short-term announced events, in October 2020, we’ve converged to more regular weekly events that alternate between a morning (Thursdays at 10:00) and an afternoon hour (Tuesdays at 15:00). The specific time slots are adjusted to not overlap with current lectures during the teaching terms.

Over the first year, it became clear that people use the Hacky Hour in very different ways. We intentionally didn’t require any specific preparation, such as minimal complete reproducible examples. Instead, we let everyone choose how to introduce their problem the way they felt most comfortable with. This resulted in an inspiring multitude of formats from sharing a snippet of messy work in progress to really well-prepared questions with materials provided by e-mail prior to the meeting.

What didn’t work?

Since most regular attendees prefer Python, Matlab, and R, the discussions stayed within these “ecosystems”. As curiosities, we also dealt with a few Fortran / C++ problems, which we tackled to the benefit of all people involved, but without experts in those languages, we will not be able to maintain such service.

We’d love to engage more early-stage scientists, e.g. PhD students, but also students assisting scientific work at GEOMAR. We had good acceptance among M.Sc. students who are already part of scientific groups at GEOMAR (as part of a student assistant position or as part of their M.Sc. projects). But we need to make sure to also be visible for the other students that are associated with our institute.

Furthermore, we will need to find a way of easily sharing the responsibility for the event. As we relied on a personal Zoom licence for the video conferences until now, defining multiple equally responsible hosts was a challenge. This will hopefully change with an institutional Zoom plan.

Next steps?

We are currently debating whether to take this hacky hour beyond GEOMAR. One could argue that with the broad acceptance of virtual formats that came with the pandemic, connecting within the same or adjacent time zones would be easy. Aiming for a Helmholtz-wide Hacky Hour could be a way to go. But expanding the event is coming at the expense of potentially keeping early-stage scientists and students from speaking up and may make the participation less comfortable for them.

Either way, we plan to continue the GEOMAR Hacky Hour on a long-term basis.

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