Innovator Interview: The Importance of Hacking with David Curran

Innovator Interview: The Importance of Hacking with David Curran about Science Hack Day

In March David, his dad, and the rest of the team (Shubhangi Karmakar, David Curran, Duncan Thomas, James McDonn, Maurice Curran, and and Phil a medical colleague), took part in Science Hack Day making a simple ventilator. Given the crisis we see in some countries running out of ventilators and the price of just a ventilator valve being $10k+, it’s great to see home-grown solutions emerge.

In this interview I asked David about:

  • His background and how he got into hackathons.
  • How did he build the team for Science Hack Day? What skills did they bring, how in just one day did they achieve so much?
  • Why did he choose to build a ventilator, what did he learn, and could the ventilator be viable?
  • We discussed hackathons in general and their role in helping industries and society adopt new technologies faster, and for the individual to make a difference in the community.

Q Would you please introduce yourself? A little background about your life and career.

I am an Irish computer programmer who likes to make new electronics inventions.

Q What got you into machine learning?

My wife was ill in hospital. The bookshop had a copy of Super Crunchers by Ian Ayers that I bought on a whim.

By the time she came around later that day I had the book finished. I think something about the idea that life might be predictable at a time it really didn’t feel that way appealed to me.

After that I started blogging about the numbers behind news stories. How likely are two Nuclear submarines to crash into each other at random. Things like that.

Q One of my rants is: there is no such thing as AI, yet! AI is being used as a panacea for all data problems, everything gets an AI badge. It reminds me of the Big Data hype of the previous decade. How do you see this playing out over the coming year or two?

Tech for obvious reasons is a very hype fueled industry. And I worry that fancier techniques are being used when the basic data preparation stuff is not done right. Garbage in Garbage out as the saying goes. I think AI can learn a lot from more traditional engineers about how to build solid systems rather than obsessing about one particular metric of prediction accuracy.

Q What got you into hackathons? And what do you consider the main value of hackathons to the people taking part, the companies they work for, and the communities they live in?

The first science hackday Dublin was in 2012 The maker community in Dublin is fairly small so I knew the organisers.

I find corporate hackathons fairly odd. Usually someone comes along with a side project they have been working on for months and uses the hackathon as a chance to demo it to the bosses.

I think the main value of hackathons is in the community. The getting to hang out with friends and learn some new skills that later might turn into something bigger.

Q What do you consider to be the important things a hackathon should include?

A friendly encouraging environment to let people try things. That and coffee.

Q Do you need to be a coder to take part in a hackathon?

Oh no, the ones I do tend to relate to electronics but even there Chemistry, metal work, 3d printing, laser cutting are more important than coding. Making things that flash and move is more fun than just sitting in front of a laptop.

Q How would you persuade someone who have never taken part in a hackathon to get involved?

Many of our jobs no do not produce something physical. My brother in law is a roofer and occasionally he will drive some long way round to stop and look at a roof he has made. I think it is really good for us to be able to feel and show off things we have created.

Take a weekend and make something, learn new skills and make some friends. You can get a lot out of a hackathon.

Q Focusing on Science Day hack:
How did you build the team for Science Hack Day?

My father I strong armed into coming along. He has a garage filled with old parts and I think he thought it’d be fun to use some of them. Shubhangi Karmakar is a medic with maker skills she wanted to use again. The rest of the team heard the idea on the day and decided to help.

Q What skills did they bring, how in just one day did they achieve so much?

“Always be the worst guy in every band you’re in. – so you can learn.” Chad Fowler. I am amazed at how much they all knew. Particularly Duncan laser cutting, electronics, cam mechanisms. The guy just knew everything.

Q Why did you choose to build a ventilator?

In 2006 I started blogging about how we would need more ventilators for the next influenza pandemic. I worked with the Pandemic Ventilator Project a bit at the time. I retrospect I should have kept working on it since then. When Covid-19 came out I was working with Chinese colleagues and seeing how seriously they were all taking the threat I did as well.

Q What did you learn through the hackathon?

I learned that for this challenge taking designs from actual ventilator designers was the best idea. Our hack was really just to get the idea out there that there was going to be a huge issue with hospital resources and that the time to start organising was now. I also learned that stopping people getting sick was a much better idea than helping them once they were really sick.

Q Could the ventilator be viable?

Some similar designs but designed by proper ventilator technicians have been put into use around the world. 3d printed valve parts in particular have turned out to be really useful. There is an Irish project that has ironed out a lot of the issues in rapidly making ventilators and the manufacturers like Medtronic have reacted well open sourcing their designs and upping production

Q Looking more broadly across the role of hackathons in society, with a focus on Asia:

We’ve been running TADHack in Asia since 2014. Google, Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft and many of the big internet brands now run hackathons in Asia. One of the organizers of TADHack Sri Lanka is now a Cloud Community Manager for Google across SouthEast Asia. Many others involved in TADHack are now working for the big web brands.

But we’ve struggled to maintain the energy of TADHack in Asia. Telcos have pulled away. Their vendors have pulled away. Many of the people are now working for the big web brands. The web monopolies ‘do not play well with others.’

Given your work in Asia, and coming from a broad technology background. What do you think we can do to re-energize TADHack in Asia?

It is a really good question. The needs of Asia are different to Ireland so I am wary of giving advice.

Your point about the big manufacturers not wanting to open innovation is really interesting. That seems to leave open source systems like Arduino, Raspberry Pi etc. They won’t be able to provide funding that really helps hackathons. But they will allow IOT pollution detection, AI machine vision projects, Voice interface systems and all sorts of other cool stuff that are much easier in open ecosystems.

David’s final recommendation was to copy the approach of TOG, a hackerspace based in the centre of Dublin, Ireland. It is a shared space where members have a place to be creative and work on their projects in an environment that is both inspiring and supportive of both new and old technologies. And a call to action around particular topics, like Science Hack Day.

An additional element I see is the market reach a telco can provide in transforming a hack into a real business through helping the team get to know the target customer. As discussed in the TADSummit Asia interview with Ruwan from Extrogene Software and his experiences with IdeaMart in Sri Lanka.

Below is a preview of a hack David was working on detecting if people have a fever, which ended up winning the the TechStars Start-up Ireland Weekend hackathon on the 25th April 2020. Here is the link to the winners announcement of Fever Finder, well done David and team. Carry on hacking 🙂

You can contact David here, and here’s a link to his weblog.