Mar 27, 2011 Ami Olson Uncategorized
A brand new community is forming in rented office space on the second floor of Syracuse’s oldest downtown buildings.
Syracuse Innovators Guild, a hackerspace headquartered in the Syracuse Building at 224 Harrison St., already counts around 20 members who are hoping to grow the group.
This calls for a brief vocabulary lesson. The term “hackerspace” technically refers to a community workspace where skills are shared and projects completed, though it often implies a stereotypically nerdy subset; a variety of talents, skills and interests are cultivated through hackerspaces.
“It’s up to people to come, make the most of its space and work on things they think are interesting,” said SIG Vice President Mo Morsi, a software engineer.
Think of what would happen if you took the old basement workshop, transplanted it into a public space or storefront and threw open the door to anyone willing to share skills, ideas and materials for the sake of learning and creating. That’s hackerspace.
Though it’s just gaining ground in Syracuse, hackerspaces are already thriving in cities around the world, and closer to home in Rochester, Buffalo and Pittsburgh.
The Syracuse hackerspace began with an ad on Craigslist placed by now-President Clayton Stetz, looking for people interested in starting such a group locally.
Stetz, Morsi and Pete Dowell comprised the first informal meeting of what would become SIG, and the group quickly grew.
For nearly its first year, SIG was a group of people with similar interests meeting regularly in some of Syracuse’s best bars to share ideas and update each other on their own ongoing projects.
Last November, the group became a registered non-profit in New York thanks to treasurer Christopher J. Pilkington, (federal 501c-3 status is in the works), and in January established a home base in the Syracuse Building.
The non-profit status speaks to the “for the community” philosophy behind SIG, said Morsi, and will make more grants and donations available to the group.
That’s important for an organization that is fueled by donations of scrap and spare parts.
“Everything here is donated by members, it’s a completely member-driven organization,” Morsi said.
And “everything” includes everything from furniture, a collection of computer towers to a box labeled “robot guts.
“Nerds are packrats,” added Jeff Mahon, an electrical engineer and secretary of SIG.
The existing membership may be heavy on the engineering side (“I can’t lie, there are quite a few techies,” Morsi said), but SIG is really open to all backgrounds and skill sets.
Artists, entrepreneurs and library staffers have also attended open houses and other events at SIG, Morsi said.
The broader the range of backgrounds, interests and skills that make up the membership the more opportunities members will have to learn from one another, and that’s what SIG is all about.
“Community and collaboration,” Morsi said.
The group is especially interested in tapping into the student community in Syracuse. Some students have already taken advantage of SIG, like Mark Scrano, a student at ITT Tech in Liverpool. But to attract more, the monthly dues of $50 are reduced to $25 for students.
“We’d love to have more artists and musicians, too,” Morsi said.
One of the biggest appeals of hackerspaces, SIG included, is how they tie into the growing DIY movement. Sites like Instructables.com and Hackaday.com offer step-by-step instructions on using deconstructed objects or simple materials to create functional things.
Learning skills from another human being – instead of the Internet – has its advantages.
“Google is great, but at some point it’s awesome just to go to a person and be like, ‘I don’t know anything about web programming, can you just help me out?'” Mahon said.
Mahon pointed to “the beginnings of a movement” of people knowing how to fix things, in contrast with the disposable society of the last 20 to 30 years as another driver to the hackerspace popularity.
Adding a social aspect to a project can help keep the momentum and energy going to see a project through to completion, Mahon and Morsi agreed.
But that can also be intimidating, Mahon recognized.
“If you come in and work with someone, a lot of the time, although it looks complicated, it isn’t really that complicated,” he said. “No one wants to fail, but there’s a lot to be said for just rolling up your sleeves and screwing up, learning from it and trying again.”
Syracuse Innovators Guild holds a weekly open house at 7 p.m. every Tuesday, open to everyone. SIG members plan to offer workshops for basic skills like soldering in the near future.
The group is, as you might expect, all over the Internet. Check out sig315.org for more on the group or meetup.com/syracuse-hackerspace for event information, or find them on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.