Introduction: Quantifying Access to Your Mind

About: I spend my time somewhere between engineering and art.

So, I manage a creative technology lab at California College of the Arts. It's essentially an educational hackerspace for art and design students. Pretty awesome, right?

After graduating from the University of Minnesota with a degree in mechanical engineering, I was desperately trying to find a job that would allow me to use my technical skills in a creative way. It's a hard job to find and I ended up getting lucky. I love my job but that doesn't mean that it's easy. It's mentally exhausting.

Last week was finals week. If you have ever witnessed a design school towards the end of the semester, you know that it is complete chaos. Students don't sleep. They are always on campus, pushing as hard as they can to finish their projects. Traditional expectations of what it is to be human starts to break down. They need to finish their projects and they will do whatever it takes to finish their project. The last few days, students lose all empathy. Materials disappear in huge quantities. They steal tools and bring it to their studio. I have to deal with students in the lab looking for a tool and I have no idea where it has gone. "I'm sorry, it's the end of the semester. Someone must have taken it." Human-centered design turns into self-centered design.

The semesters end with the entire campus looking like a horde of zombies came through. Part of my role is to help students bring their projects into reality and troubleshoot issues with them. Towards the end of the semester, this feels like all I am doing. The lab is constantly filled with students. I would turn around and there would be four students standing right behind me, looking at me with panicked eyes. It's mentally exhausting. Troubleshooting electronics is difficult and when I'm working with a student, my brain is in overdrive trying to determine what is the culprit. Sometimes it's simple and it only takes a few seconds to figure out. Sometimes it's a bad jumper wire and it can take an hour.

After I closed the lab on the Friday before finals week, I was thinking, "I wonder how often a student asks me a question?". Wait... I can determine this! I'm surrounded by technology development tools!

Step 1: Types of Questions

I thought of all the questions I get asked. After some thought, here is what I came up with.

"Andrew, why isn't it working?"
"Andrew, where is the (insert object here)?"
"Andrew, how do I make (insert some concept here)?"

Step 2: Quantified Andrew

I had one day to make the system for finals week. Saturday I was on campus all day for an architecture review, so on Sunday I got to work. I decided to go with an Arduino with a Data Shield and three momentary buttons for each question category. I would wear the system on my belt and anytime I was asked a question, I would press a button and log it onto the SD card on the shield. If the battery died midway through the day, it would still have the backlog of data.

Step 3: Assemblying Electronics

Components used:
Arduino Uno
Adafruit's Data Shield
6 AA Battery Holder
3 Normally Closed Momentary Switches (would've used N.O. but this is what I had)
3 10K Resistors
SD Card
Toggle Switch

The momentary switches are connected to pins 4, 6, and 8. The data shield has small area for prototyping that is perfect to solder everything together.

Step 4: Load Code

Here is the code that I used.

It was a modification from the Light and Temperature Logging code from Adafruit.

Step 5: Laser Cut Case

I cut the case out of 1/8" plywood. It has finger joints for easier assembly, holes and labels for all the buttons, slots to loop it through a belt, and a hole for the toggle switch. I ended up drilling a hole for the toggle switch closer to the top because it was easier to assemble.

Glue and clamp everything except for the top piece. The top piece uses a force fit to attach to the box.

Step 6: Assembly

The electronics should all slide into the box and the toggle switch is mounted into the hole on the side. Mount the switches into the lid and the lid should have a force fit onto the body of the case. I was able to get a belt to loop through the holes in the side but it was a tight fit.

Step 7: Results!

So, I did all this work and it ended up being far quieter than I had anticipated. I think the Monday of finals week was the quietest day of the entire semester. Wednesday was also quiet. Tuesday and Thursday were pretty busy but not nearly at the levels of what it was the previous week. On Friday, the projects were all finished and I spent the day cleaning and checking items back in.

Here is what the results were:

How? - 69 times
Where? - 34 times
Why? - 9 times

I'm a little disappointed. Not nearly the numbers I was hoping for. I'll need to remember to start the week before finals.

Let's just think hypothetically and assume that this is what an average week is. I think that this a reasonable assumption, two of the days were unusually quiet and two of the days were moderately busy. Average all of those days together and I think it is a good grasp of a normal week. With this assumption in mind, here is what the numbers would be for a 15 week semester:

How? - 1035 times
Where? - 510 times
Why? - 135 times

Also, during this semester I started allow students to schedule half hour long consultation appointments from me. I started this midway through the semester and in two months there was a total of 53 half hour long consultation appointments.

The lab also has a checkout system, which gives me additional data beyond the Arduino system I hastily put together. A lot of the components that are checked out are Arduinos, sensors, various shields, servos, projectors, iPads, etc.

Checkouts for this semester (Fall, 2013):
Total checkouts - 409
Total number resources checked out - 648
Total patrons - 114 (out of a total student body of about 2000)

These numbers are meaningless to you. Let me give it some meaning. This is the second year for this facility. It is allowing art and design students access to technology that has traditionally been used only by engineers. I think a lot of people thought that an electronics lab in art and design school would be a dismal failure. Let's compare these numbers to the numbers from last year.

Average semester from last year:
Total checkouts - 184
Total number resources checked out - 263
Total patrons - 56

Increase between this semester and last year's average:
Total checkouts - 222%
Total number resources checked out - 246%
Total patrons - 205%


Step 8: What Does This Mean?

Here's what it means to me. I need to get additional funds to hire more students to help me out in the lab. The lab's popularity is exploding and there is only so much one person can do. I need support and most of that support is going to be financial. So, I'm going to be asking the school's budget committee for the most difficult thing to get in any school, additional funds, and not just a little bit, a lot. In order to do that, I need to have a convincing argument. Ultimately, I'm not that hopeful.
But that probably doesn't matter to you.

So... what does it mean to you?

If I remove myself from the situation and what I am hoping to gain, here is what it means to me. The open source hardware movement is succeeding. Hugely. Arduino has changed the landscape of what novices can do and there is an innate interest to learn it and use it. I have overheard students walking by critiques of 3D printers made by architecture students at CCA and hear them whisper to their friends, "I want to learn how to make robots!". And who doesn't? The amount of technology that we are surrounded by is increasing very rapidly. The amount of us that understand even the basics of how technology works is extremely limited. This is creating situations in which people feel victimized by technology because they have no control over it. Arduino is allowing people to use technology as it should be used, as a tool.

Instead of feeling reliant on technology, we can now use technology to become more self reliant. This creates empowerment through technology. This should be the goal.

I hate having a Pavlovian response to my cell phone each time it buzzes at me. "Is it a text?" Is it an email?" "Who is it from" "What if it is important?" It probably isn't. I don't feel like this is sustainable. The novelty of having technology constantly interrupting our lives to try and get our attention is going to wear off. Technology needs to become meaningful. Technology needs to learn how to respect us.

I don't know if we can expect companies to determine and create this for us. That is why open source technology is important to me. That is why community driven technology development is important to me. We can collectively determine what the future is going to be. We can be a part of the worldwide conversation and it needs to be a worldwide conversation. A 24-year-old computer scientist who graduated from Stanford and lives in Silicon Valley doesn't know what technology a small scale farmer in Ottertail, MN needs. It probably wouldn't be profitable even if the computer scientist did. But the farmer still needs it.

There was an article about employers starting to use wearable devices to monitor employees. The article makes it seem like the types of things they are monitoring aren't malicious but it is still terrifying to me. I find it to be a dehumanizing direction for technology to be heading towards. Open source technology is the best chance we have to globally help determine the direction.

Maybe I'm just idealistic. That's fine with me. I felt the power of community based technology development when I realized I could create a wearable device to monitor my data to try and make my job more sufficient. That is the type of empowerment that you get when you use technology for self reliance.