Last weekend (18th  – 20th May 2012) all four of us went down to beautiful Slapton in Devon to spend the weekend hacking with the Field Studies Council and a group of geographers, developers and educators. The aim of the weekend was to see how tech could make field studies more effective, interesting and accessible.

View of a field with sea in the background near Slapton Devon

The best setting for a hackday we’ve heard of

Our aim was to have some time away from our projects to be creative, and sample some local ale and have a few wanders on a beach. It seems we successfully achieved all three.

Our Hack is born

After an introduction to all things Field Studies we sat down to deliberate what we were going to build. We’d just about decided on making an ID Keypedia (ID Key in the Geography sense) when Dave and Jim – two Field Studies Council approached us with big puppy dog eyes and asked us to build something they really needed – a database and front-end to hold and visualize all the data that is collected by the school groups. Outlandish took on the challenge.

11am: The first day was mainly about figuring out exactly what data is collected by the different centres, in what format and trying to get our hands on as much of it as possible. This was far from the easy part. There was much head scratching and laptop searching to find as many spreadsheets as possible. We ended up with around 50 separate investigations on measuring river data spanning the last 3 years. Enough for us to start with.

Summary of functionality we aimed for:

  • Ability to submit spreadsheets in to the system in a specific format
  • Database to hold data
  • Visualisations of data (average depth vs width through river, and over time)
  • Animation of the data where possible and time permitting
Harry, Tam and Ras looking puzzled when building the River Cruncher

Then it was coding time.

We hacked from about 3 until 10pm on the first day, giving us just enough time for a pint or two down at the local The Tower

Day two had a 3pm deadline when we would need to present what we had built. In the middle of the morning the lovely @rowstar who was doing a fantastic job of blogging, tweeting and soundclouding much of the weekend interviewed us on where we were and what we were trying to achieve:

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By 3 pm we managed to get a pretty much working tool that did all the things we wanted to and it even got a vocal oooooh when we showed the rather lovely visualization of the cross section of a river bed (Thanks Tam).

The importer was built with the myriad spreadsheet formats in mind, so that it could deal with multiple worksheets per file, and multiple investigations per worksheet, and could intelligently guess what data the rows contained. Once the format was confirmed, it would remember it for the next time. The front end allowed the user to manage and explore each school’s investigation and each river site, visualizing cross-section dimensions, flowrates and discharge (tee hee). With a little more time we would have liked to incorporate some of the other data, such as the river gradient, and pebble size and shape.

For those of the technical persuasion, the tool was build using the PHP Zend framework on a mysql backend. We made use of the PHP excel reader for parsing and importing the Excel spreadsheets, jQuery and jQuery UI for general all-round front-end goodness, the datatables jQuery plugin for presenting the data in a nice sortable and searchable format, and Google chart tools for, well, the charts.

There was plenty more to see from the other teams – our favourite was the bat detector, created by Michael Saunby from the Met Office. Not only a brilliantly fun tool, but something students could make in the class and try out themselves. Perfect for learning about more than just bats. We are going to have a crack at making one and seeing if there are any bats in Finsbury Park. We’ll keep you posted. Read about all the projects in this blog post on the Field Studies Council website:

So the winners are….

Best Build – Outlandish’s River Cruncher

Best in Field – FLAIR (Field Log Analysis Instant Resource)

People’s Award – The Bat Men’s Heterodyne Bat Detector

Best Potential – Andy Piper & Neil Ford’s (with help from Bristol Hackspace) Floggr

Yes, you read that right. We won an award! We were really surprised and excited to have won in our first ever hackday as Outlandish. We were presented with a highly coveted Raspberry Pi

Raspberry Pi up close

The train journey home was spent coming up with different ideas for what we are going to do with it. I’m sure you are all on tenterhooks to see what we might decide on. Watch this blog for a series on ‘Rasperry Pi-deas’ (geddit??).

Thanks so much to the Field Studies Council and all the organisers, with special mention to:

Ant Miller for being the brains behind it all and the best hackday host we’ve witnessed, for always being there, helping whenever we needed it and having never-ending energy and enthusiasm throughout the weekend. Only coming second in the enthusiasm category to @folkprincess Harriet.

Harriet, was fabulous throughout the weekend and really spurred us on to create something not only that was fun for the weekend, but also something that the Field Studies Council will hopefully use in the future.

Here are some screengrabs of the tool we created. Need something similar? It will take us slightly more than 2 days to do it, but you just say the word.

The River Cruncher Investigation Overview page showing discharge and depth