Hacky Hour for eResearch Training, Engagement and Community Development

Dr Nick Hamilton1, Ms Belinda Weaver2

1University Of Queensland, St Lucia, Australia,

2Software and Data Carpentry , Brisbane, Australia


In the biosciences, as well as many other fields of research, there are often relatively low levels of mathematical and statistical expertise, as well as a lack of basic computing, eresearch and data skills. This is despite such skills becoming increasingly important across many fields to create cutting-edge research. Towards filling this knowledge gap, we have been experimenting with running “Hacky Hours” at The University of Queensland for the last 18 months. These are weekly events, held in an outdoor cafe, where researchers who would like assistance with their research IT can come along and ask questions or just work on whatever they are working on, in the company of other researchers who are into computing. A strong community of both helpers and researchers with questions has built up around this event, with many returning regularly. Often, a researcher with a question one week will come back and be a helper for another week.

During this period, we have been collecting data on all of our attendees and the types of problems they bring, as well as on our helpers and their interests. Typical questions include:

  • getting started with Python and R
  • software tools
  • how to access high performance computing
  • cloud data storage
  • tools for data cleaning and data visualisation.

The disciplines attendees belong to are very diverse and include: the biosciences, economics, psychology, humanities, languages, chemistry, mechanical engineering, nanotechnology, biomedical engineering, and ecology. There are also attendees from  the library. Interestingly, a significantly larger number of women than men come to ask questions at Hacky Hour, though the helpers are approximately gender-balanced.

The Hacky Hour model of training and engagement offers a number of benefits.

The friendly, non-judgmental and informal environment encourages a greater diversity of participants than are often associated with research IT. For the University organisations that allow or encourage their employees to participate as helpers, there is the benefit of presenting a friendly face to IT and eResearch facilities. As time is limited to an hour a week, helpers are more willing to donate their time without fear of problems blowing out and   their being stuck with working on the problem. Hacky Hour often works as a referral service: while the Hacky Hour helpers may not have a solution, they may well know a person or organisation who could help. Similarly, the Hacky Hour helpers build up a knowledge base of common problems and their solutions, as well as resources such as R cheat sheets, short training courses, or good web sites on how to get started with Python. The helpers also gain valuable skills in helping the problem owners understand and define their problems and thus how to develop a solution. Often the problem may not be what the problem owner thinks it is, or the solution may be completely different from what the problem owner thought they needed. While occasionally a helper will solve a problem directly, the Hacky Hour ethos is much more about helping the problem owner develop the skills to find a path to the solution themselves. For the helpers, the informal discussions about solving problems is a good way to share high level expertise with each other and keep up with the latest technical developments. More broadly, the helpers and problem owners have now become a community that can be drawn upon to help at or participate in other training or community events such as Software Carpentry bootcamps, HealthHack or Research Bazaar (ResBaz) events.

In this poster, we will outline our experiences with Hacky Hour, the strategies that we have taken to developand maintain a community of helpers and attract a diverse range of problem owners, as well as the outcomes and benefits we have seen.



Dr Nick Hamilton is the Institute Bio-Mathematician at the Institute for Molecular Bioscience (IMB), The University of Queensland, and holds a co-appointment with the Research Computing Centre at UQ. He gained a PhD in Pure Mathematics from the University of Western Australia in 1996 and was subsequently awarded Fellowships in Australia and Belgium. In 2002, Nick made the decision to change fields into the exciting new areas of computational biology and bioinformatics, returned to Australia, and subsequently took up a position within the ARC Centre of Excellence in Bioinformatics at The University of Queensland. In 2008 he was appointed as a Laboratory Head at IMB, and Institute Bio-Mathematician in 2014, where he continues to lead a group in bio-image informatics, mathematical modelling and data visualisation, developing methodologies to deal with the current deluge of data that new microscopy imaging technologies have enabled. He also has interests and has participated in many training and engagement models such as Hacky Hour, HealthHack, ResBaz and Software Carpentry, and has Chaired the Winter School in Mathematics and Computational Biology for the last 6 years.

Belinda Weaver is the Community Development Lead for Software and Data Carpentry, global organisations that aim to make researchers more productive and their research more reliable by teaching them computational and data skills. She was formerly the eResearch Analyst Team Leader for the Queensland Cyber Infrastructure Foundation, where she helped deliver cloud storage and solutions to Australia researchers. She was a key organiser of the very successful Brisbane Research Bazaar events in 2016 and 2017 – cross-institutional, community-building events that taught a range of digital skills to postgraduate students and early career researchers.

She helped inaugurate the weekly Hacky Hour drop-in research IT advice sessions at The University of Queensland. She is a certified Software Carpentry instructor and instructor trainer and has taught at many Software Carpentry workshops. She organised the two very successful Library Carpentry sprints in 2016 and 2017 which updated and extended the basic lessons. The 2017 hackathon pulled in more than 100 people across 13 sites in seven countries, including the British Library and the National Library of the Netherlands. She will take a Library Carpentry roadshow to staff at the national and state libraries of Australasia during July and August 2017.

Belinda has formerly worked as a librarian, repository manager, project manager, newspaper columnist, Internet trainer and in research data management. She tweets as @cloudaus (https://twitter.com/cloudaus).

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