Electromagnetic Field 2012

Four of us from the ExCiteS group – an anthropologist (Elles), designer (Christian), human geographer (Cindy), and a computer scientist (Matthias) – made our way to the Electromagnetic Field 2012 (EMF), which took place in Milton Keynes (Friday 31st August – Sunday 2nd September 2012).

Dubbed “geek camp” by the BBC, EMF is a get-together of DIY enthusiasts, makers, hackers and the like, organised by volunteers associated with several hackspaces around the UK. It was inspired by the Chaos Communication Camp, an annual hackers event in Germany, but it was the first event of this kind held in the UK.

At first it felt like we fell through a rabbit hole as we were awed by the number of soldering irons, LED illuminations of the camp at night and t-shirts with texts like: “No place like ::1” or “Talk to me if your resistance < 1 Ω”. How would we be received in this world? With a talk and a workshop lined up on noise mapping and monitoring, we would find the answer. First we immersed ourselves in the workshops offered and listened to talks. Citizen science, citizen sensing, crowdsourcing or related topics were covered in quite a few talks. On the first day a heated debate about which (if any) models of change citizen sensing could bring about lasted well into the night, while we were enjoying food from communal BBQ’s.

In the talks, workshops and many side activities we heard and saw many interesting ideas. Such as hexayurts, biohacking, 3D lasers for mapping internal body parts, mechanical Turing machines and IT improvements for the NHS. There was also a good range of more fun stuff, such as how to pick locks, brew beer, play vintage arcade games and turn yourself into a zombie. Actually, the most interesting things encountered were not in the talks and workshops, but with people on the site. We noted that most people attending the weekend were extremely smart – in the hands-on practical definition of smart. They will make machines they think up, are patient and great teachers, and most surprisingly have spoken to women before. The only hiccup we had, was when one of us compared quantum physics to philosophy and rejected the notion that it was the field with the most accurately verified theories on reality.

Our own talk and workshop were entitled “DIY Decibel Loggers for Heathrow”. We talked about existing and novel ways of mapping and monitoring noise pollution and the potential role for citizens. We drew on our previous experience and talked about the on-going participatory noise mapping campaign around Heathrow using mobile phones – which we are organizing as part of the EveryAware project. For the workshop we pitched an idea we have been chewing on recently, which is to use off-the-shelf electronics (e.g. Arduino’s or Raspberry Pi’s) to construct continuous noise monitoring stations for a fraction of the cost of similar equipment used by authorities. An additional challenge we brought to the table is to design an algorithm that could correlate measured noise exposure peaks with specific flights approaching or coming from specific Heathrow runways. We got some useful feedback and some participants wrote code to prototype the algorithm.

Here’s a video of our talk (although it sadly only covers 4 minutes): [vimeo 50776920]

Download link

–Elles, Christian, Cindy & Matthias

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