hackerspaces

Sustainable Hackerspaces FTW

Last Friday, the CEO of i3 Detroit announced his resignation, and Bucketworks in Milwaukee announced that they were raising money to help make rent (they did). Both announcements generated a lot of valuable discussion about the sustainability of hackerspaces, but there are a few important points that I believe are often overlooked when talking about sustainability.

Growth hurts sustainability. Expanding membership numbers or square footage sounds like a good thing for a hackerspace, but it also carries downsides, especially when that growth happens quickly. More members and more space means more to manage, which means a higher burden on the leaders of a space. A quick influx of new members can weaken the community because those new members take time to learn the group’s social norms (e.g. how to “be excellent,” as so many spaces encourage). It also takes time for new members to learn how to contribute back to the space, so even if they want to, they won’t at first.

At i3 Detroit, they’ve implemented a mentor system where all new members are assigned a mentor (similar to the time-tested big brother/sister system used in fraternities and sororities). Mentors are a single point of contact to help new members get acquainted with the space, its rules, and its values. It’s a new program, but it seems like a great way to tackle the instability that comes with growth, and I have high hopes for it. Have any other spaces tried this technique, or others, to combat the instability associated with rapid growth?

Fundraising is good, saving is better. Many spaces run very close to the break-even point, so when the natural oscillation of membership goes down, or they have to make an unexpected repair, they need to have a “rent party” to quickly come up with money to make ends meet. The alternative is to regularly contribute to an emergency fund. One benefit of such a fund is that even if you still need to have a fundraiser, it buys you time. That extra time opens up new possibilities, like getting more quotes on a repair, or even finding a new space. Plus, extra time makes it a lot easier to continue keeping the space running smoothly for members while dealing with financial issues, without burning out.

But spaces can save for more than just emergencies! Even nonprofit spaces can have investment savings and use interest and dividends to offset operating costs. It takes a long time to build these kinds of savings up, but once you have them, it’s that much easier to weather hard financial times, fund special programs, offer reduced dues for those in need, and so on. Many universities, for instance, use these kinds of funds, called endowments. Similarly, hackerspaces should be considering saving to buy their own buildings. I’m not aware of any that have done this, but owning rather than renting would lower monthly expenses for most spaces (even if they have to get a mortgage) and would prevent the common problem of landlords raising rent after a group has invested in repairs and improvements to their space.

Finally, hackerspaces are businesses. This is a controversial statement, but I believe that if the leaders of a hackerspace aren’t treating it like a business (keeping accurate books, financial planning, catching problems before they snowball, etc.) then they are doing a disservice to the members and setting themselves up to burn out. That said a hackerspace should not feel like a business to the members. Hackerspaces work best when members can come in and just hack, teach, and learn with a minimum of obstacles. In good hackerspaces, the administrators consistently remove those obstacles, and in great hackerspaces they do it before the members even notice them.

There is a lot of good common wisdom floating around on design patterns for hackerspaces and common traps to avoid. Now that so many hackerspaces are up and running, I’m hoping to see more attention turn to how to ways to keep them running, not just for 5 or 10 years, but for future generations.

Seltzer CRM - Penguicon 2013

Here's an outline from my Penguicon 2013 panel "Seltzer CRM."

On Hackerspaces and Inclusion

TL;DR: Inclusion and diversity need to become core hackerspace values. When our spaces lack diversity, we should accept responsibility and take action, not make excuses. A little effort can go a long way.

Everyone running a hackerspace should be thinking about inclusion. There are a few interrelated issues that I keep seeing come up in the hacker/maker/DIY community, and I feel obligated to help give them some of the attention they deserve. Some spaces are doing a really great job at fostering inclusion and diversity, but these values are not yet widely accepted as part of hackerspace culture, and they need to be.

We should care about diversity. All too often, when I talk to members of the hackerspace community about diversity, I'm asked why it matters, or even told outright that encouraging diversity isn't worth the effort. In defense of my fellow hackers, they are also usually quite open to reconsidering their position when presented with good reasons. The reasons fall into two categories: practical, and idealogical.

The practical importance of diversity is simple. Hackerspaces are made of people, and the more awesome people you include, the more awesome your space will be. Diversity doesn't mean, as some might think, lowering the bar for members. It means not pushing away potentially valuable members for silly reasons. It means including everyone who has something to contribute, especially if it's different from what current members are contributing. It means opening up spaces to new socioeconomic groups who will tell you how to make your space relevant to a wider audience, and as a result more stable and sustainable.

But for me, the idealogical importance of diversity is even stronger. The hackerspace movement is about removing artificial technological barriers and using self-education and peer-education to reclaim the ability to make our world. If we leave people out for no reason other than their gender, skin-color, income, etc. then we are the ones placing artificial barriers and hoarding knowledge for our personal and selfish gain. Then we are hypocrites, and doomed to sabotage our ideals.

We have to accept responsibility and promote diversity and inclusion. Another common belief in the hackerspace community is that if we aren't actively discriminating against or excluding people, then there's no problem. But building an inclusive community takes more than that. Demographics are naturally self-reinforcing. Word-of-mouth travels through our social networks, made of people who are likely to share our demographics. When we teach workshops or hold events that are relevant to us, they are most likely to be relevant to an audience who shares our demographic. And there's nothing wrong with that, as long as we acknowledge and correct for it. When you're new to a group it's easy to feel like an outsider, especially if you perceive yourself as somehow different from the group's majority demographic. On top of that, members sometimes unknowingly say or do things that push people away because, through no fault of their own, they've never had to consider different perspectives.

A common response to the gender imbalance in hackerspaces is "Women aren't interested in what we do here." But on closer inspection this is just the "No True Scotsman" fallacy. In effect, it says "We [men] are True Hackers. If you are interested in something we are not interested in, you are not a true hacker and don't belong." To illustrate this point, ask yourself whether a clothes modding workshop or a Starcraft LAN party is more in line with the mission of a typical hackerspace. Then ask yourself which is likely to be better received.

The bottom line of resistance to making a hackerspace more inclusive is often "We don't want to change anything, we like things the way they are." That's a perfectly natural human response, but if it dominates your thinking, you don't have a hackerspace, you have a country club with Arduinos.

What we can do. Luckily, being inclusive is actually not that hard! At i3 Detroit, where I was a co-founder and board member for several years, inclusion was always one of my priorities, and I got a good sense of what works and what doesn't.

Just being actively welcoming to newcomers goes a long way. It doesn't need to be anything complicated, just saying hi, introducing yourself, and asking if they have any questions or if they'd like a tour. Sometimes that's a distraction to members who are in the middle of a project, but specifying best times for newcomers to visit, and a standard onboarding process can make it a lot easier. This is one reason I've never liked the idea of new members requiring a sponsor. Instead I like the idea of accepting anyone who shows interest and offering them a mentor to help integrate them into the group.

It's also crucial to create a safe and welcoming environment. That means having a sensible code of conduct and/or harassment policy. The policy should make it clear that if you're uncomfortable it's ok to voice your concern, and that someone trustworthy will listen, without judgment, and work to restore a safe environment.

Another key is being open-minded about what activities fit into your hackerspace's mission. If you give people the benefit of the doubt, you allow your space to grow beyond what you can currently imagine, and encourage people to push limits and take ownership in the space.

Finally, having a way to include students and other low-income members is important. A guest policy is one way to do that. Tiered memberships are another. A lot of spaces have "starving hacker" rates. At i3, we have two membership levels that are effectively the same, but a good number of people choose to step up to the higher level when they're able. Offering "scholarships" or no-fee memberships for those in financial need can also help. Even if they don't have a lot of money to spend on materials, those members may have awesome skills to share, and may be valuable contributors to group projects. And of course, members often grow through their involvement in hackerspaces. At i3, we had a "founding guest" who helped build the space even though he couldn't afford membership. Four years later, he's now a director and dues-paying member.

The hardest part of inclusivity is realizing that we can't see what's missing, that we have to actively seek it out. The rest is not that hard at all. Once we do that, our spaces benefit from a broader and more diverse membership, and more ties to the community. Some spaces are great at inclusivity, but as a community we still have a ways to go.

If you're part of a hackerspace, is this something your space talks about? What types of things do you do to foster inclusion and diversity? What works? What doesn't?

Seltzer CRM

Over the past couple years, I've been developing a Customer Relationship Management app (CRM) for hackerspaces, and it's now ready to release into the wild! Meet Seltzer CRM!

Seltzer CRM is an open source (GPL) CRM web app for hackerspaces. It's based on the LAMP stack, and has been in use at i3 Detroit for a couple years, growing with us to our current level of 75 members.

There are plenty of CRMs out there already, and even some open source ones, but all of the ones I've come across are rather complicated and have a learning curve before people can use them productively. Seltzer CRM is built around two goals: 1. Be significantly useful to the average hackerspace administrator without any training; 2. Be easy for a typical hackerspace web dev to hack on and extend.

The current features are:

  • Track member contact info
  • Track current and historical membership levels
  • Track keycard info
  • Provide attendance and voting sheets

You can try a demo here:
http://elplatt.com/seltzertest (user: admin, pass: beexcellent)

And the code is on github:
http://github.com/elplatt/seltzer