My experience of Climate Hack 2018

  • Posted on: 22 January 2018
  • By: dave
Today, I have mostly been recovering from an exhibit hackathon on the subject of climate change: we were challenged to build an exhibit in 3 days in a Cambridge University museum on the subject of climate change. It was interesting, intense, and my team won the judges award, which was a great combination!

Our three days included introductions to the museums, getting ideas, constructing and exhibiting our creations, so there wasn't a lot of time to draw breath.

We were based in the Scott Polar museum which was set up after the ill fated expedition to the South Pole. It's a very small museum, but covers elements of exploration, climate, wildlife and native peoples in both the arctic and antarctic.

My group decided to focus on how the climate in the arctic was changing, particularly in the area of the now decidedly less mythical North West Passage.

When looking around the museum I noticed the lovely ceiling in the entrance hall, which has the top of two domes painted with maps of the North and south poles.

The ceiling showing the south pole map - © Copyright Josie Campbell

Seeing this it struck me that it would make a really pleasing thing to project maps of the poles onto. Talking to the wonderfully helpful people at the museum we found out that the met office has produced a data set for the extent of sea ice going back to 1850, with the older values coming from local observations (I assume from weather stations, and ship's logs).

We wanted to be able to project the changing extent of the sea ice on the ceiling. I was working with David Winterbottom, who is a games programmer, so I didn't have to do the coding, which was a lovely change (and he knows much more than I do about making graphics work smoothly, so what he produced was much quicker and neater then I could have managed).

That meant I could concentrate on building the physical side of the interactive, the controls to let people select the date they wanted to view mounted on what was really a glorified projector stand. The met office data set includes data for every month from 1850 to 2016, nearly 2000 images. Plan A, which was to use one giant pointer that would allow visitors to scan straight through the data set, turned out to require measuring the angle to a precision of well under half a degree: much more difficult than we wanted to attempt.

This forced us into a simplification which was, as is often the case, an improvement. We separated the year control from the month control, which allowed to you move through the year or staying on the same month move through the years. This meant that visitors could look at how the extent of sea ice varied in a given year, but also at how (say) September or March sea ice varied over time without the distraction of annual fluctuations.

Even this meant that the year control had to give out 170 different readings which wasn't practical with the encoders I had lying around in my workshop which only had 24 pulses per rotation. So I designed a gear system to gear up the rotation and spin the encoder about 8 times faster.

This was made out of plywood, and used ball bearings to keep it centred (as putting the projector up the middle made the central piviot slightly more complex). I was pleased with how well it ended up working.

We built it all at Makespace and finished building it at about 13:40 on Sunday and carried it to the Scott Polar museum (through a flurry of snow) for a 14:00 opening time, where we found that we were locked out (as the rest of our team were busy setting up the rest of the additional content they had been developing over the course of the weekend) but we still just about got it in and got the exhibit assembled in time for the public to come and play with it.

Unsurprisingly given the 3-day project time, 24 hour build time and 5-minute get-in there were a couple of bugs to iron out. The projector didn't have the adjustment to go wide enough, we hadn't got around to adding a date read out to the image, and we only noticed (and fixed) 3/4 of the way through that we had been projecting a mirror image onto the ceiling (although no-one else seemed to have noticed either, and really the key point of the extent of the sea ice came over very nicely even before we spotted it and flipped the image).

The exhibit, the trail, and content about the Northwest Passage went down very well with the visitors. There is nothing I enjoy more than building something cool. To top it off, our team won the judges favourite award, which was a lovely way to finish off the weekend.

After all that I was very glad this morning that, being my own boss, I could define today as a weekend!