Culture Hack North

This weekend we had the pleasure of hosting a very different type of event that brought some new people to Old Broadcasting House as well as some old friends as the first Culture Hack North took place.  The brainchild of Ash Mann, Digital Manager at Opera North, in partnership with Dom Hodgson, who runs Leeds Hack and many other things too, the objective was simple:  unlock data from leading Northern cultural organisations and make it available to hackers - designers and developers - and see what amazing things result from 24 hours of hacking.

A hack event can be a way of injecting innovation in to your organisation in return for opening up some data and coming along and taking part.

Those who were up for this challenge included :  Breeze Leeds, Cornerhouse, Culture Grid, Leeds Libraries, Leeds Museums, Museums Sheffield, Manchester Museum, National Media Museum, National Railway Museum, Northern Ballet, Opera North, Pilot Theatre, Sheffield Theatres, and Yorkshire Sculpture Park.

The event started on Saturday morning.   After a welcome and introduction from Dom, Ash and I, teams were formed and work commenced on the datasets. The hackers had an opportunity to meet with the data sponsors who were keen to 'sell' their  data and encourage teams to work on what they had provided. Data on films, books, and art with images included was popular. Trains went down well too.

A series of talks and debate on the digital future of arts and culture had also been scheduled by Rachel Coldicutt so whilst many of the hackers carried on working, we squeezed into the downstairs training lab - iMacs pushed back against the wall - to take part. Highlights for me were:  Frankie Roberto's talk on his experience of using the blue plaques (on buildings) data, and so much more; Leeds' Matt Edgar on 'Down with Facadism' - what if the interior lives of buildings were as exposed as their exteriors; and Lucy Bannister 's call for a more open debate on the use of copyright for images of art .  Some of the 'no photo' policies in galleries stop people from socially sharing their experiences. For most of us trying to promote what we do using social media, that's a huge positive so why wouldn't you want people to do that?  I really enjoyed the talks and debate, and it was great to see so many people come along from the arts to support the event.

I'll fast forward now to Sunday lunchtime. I have to confess that I did retreat to the comfort of my own bed, so I passed on pizza, beer, coffee, and bacon sandwiches in favour of Strictly. Everyone was looking surprisingly energised when I returned on Sunday morning, and there was a real buzz as the teams got ready to present their ideas.

Tim Walters' hack had already been previewed via twitter that morning, generating a great positive reception. Tim had taken the Whitworth Gallery dataset to produce a map which tags the geographical setting for the subject of a landscape artwork, with a nice link to Flickr to see people's photo landscapes too.

I must mention the team of Tom Wade from Leeds agency Creode  and Jonny Sedman,  not least for their sheer productivity: delivering three excellent hacks.  The one which really stood out for me was Colour Tone, which turns a work of art into music.  Red values are drums, blue guitar, and green bass. You can try this for yourself at

The  InformedApp - an opinion generator -  from Mick Adams, James Hitchcock, and Carolyn Jones is great for those difficult situations when you are put on the spot with a question such as  "What's your opinion on Mario Merz latest exhibition at the Henry Moore?"  InformedApp will come to the rescue so you can reply -  "I like the way Merz discarded abstract expressionism's subjectivity in favour of opening art to exterior space".  Take that Siri!

The hack that seemed to me to be 'of our time ' is Consider The Library , a Chrome plug-in that  will prompt you, before you buy a book on Amazon, that you could loan the book instead - if it's in one of Leeds' libraries. This saves you money and spreads the love for libraries at the same time.  Great work from Alex Wolfe and Jonathan Powell.

For sheer genius and vision, I was bowled over by KhaKauRe - described as "Like wikipedia, but with a graph. And bettererer" .  The team of David King, and Leeds Met students John Tate, and Joe Woodhead had difficulty choosing which data set to work on so they decided to work on them all! I would recommend taking a look at

These are just some of the hacks, you can see many more outstanding ones at including a great one for the trainspotters out there from Heather Burke and Alistair Macdonald.

This was our first experience of Culture Hacking and it was a pleasure to work on this with Ash and Dom.  Thanks to everyone who took part, we hope you enjoyed the weekend.

A  huge thanks to all the behind-the-scenes teams here at Leeds Met including the security and housekeeping staff.  I'd also like to thank the Leeds Met Broadcast Journalism students for their great work - looking forward to seeing the video guys. And Lloyd and Tom, from Exposure Leeds too, for the photography. Marketing Leeds very kindly paid for the refreshments and other expenses.

Over the last four years I've been lucky enough to experience an incredibly diverse range of events and looking back, it's amazing what we've been able to support and enable through inviting people in to Old Broadcasting House.  What next I wonder?

Linda Broughton 14/11/2011


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