Sketching with Code

Being a hacker on a remote Scottish island

Houses on Eigg

Wow. Well that certainly was an experience I’ll remember. I’ve just come back from my first trip to Eigg and I shall seemingly be known, I hope affectionately, as “Our Geek” by the fascinating array of folk I met while I was there.

For some of the next few months I will be spending time both on the island and at home working as a Geek in Residence there.

Lucy, who is setting up the perfectly-named Eigg Box as a new cultural centre for the island arranged for my first visit to coincide with Scottish indie label Fence Records’s second festival on the island. So my first impressions are going to be of a much more populous Hebridean island than for most on their first visit.

The plan for my residency was to head over, sit with Lucy for the weekend and work out some ideas, themes, problems, hacks, projects that we could work on later on in the year when I return.

In contrast to the other four residencies that are taking place, Eigg Box is currently in the”what a good idea” stage. There’s no building, only the beginnings of a business plan, no real funding and no staff other than Lucy. But what the project lacks in physical and financial assets it makes up for with bucket loads of support from the islanders, strong vision and leadership from Lucy and a “community needs first” approach that reminds me of Alex, one of the early proponents of the coworking movement who set up the successful Indie Hall in Philadelphia.

The island is fascinating and the more I heard about its history the more fascinating it got. With around forty households and around ninety people living there, it’s a tiny place. So within a couple of days (and thanks to the festival for pulling everyone together) I’d had bonfire-side chats with probably half of the people who live there, and they’re a diverse, resourceful, creative and inspirational bunch! I’m looking forward to spending more time with them on my return in September.

Until then I’m probably going to get stuck into a hack or two, think a little more about the themes that emerged in the conversations that emerged when Suzy Glass joined us for the last couple of days.

We’re quite deliberately keeping all of this quite open. We’ve had too many good ideas that we could try to do together, and we’re not yet at the point where we should be narrowing down onto single achievable pieces of work. I suspect what’s needed now is in the comfort of home (I was rescuing collapsing wind-blown tents on Sunday morning!) I’ll sketch up some of the following:

Telling the story of Eigg

Camille, one of the islanders who was living there’s during the famous community buyout, where the island effectively did a Kickstarter and raised enough money to buy an entire island, is the local historian. She’s researched and published a book of the island’s history (sadly out of print - candidate for on demand / turning into an e-book?) as well as turning two buildings into museums, and a ton of other cultural work. I’m hoping that I can bring an (appropriate) level of digital thinking to amplify the effort she has already put in.

I’m thinking simple audio tours for mobile devices, so new visitors can download it using the wifi at the cafe by the dock and then wander the island. Proceeds from app sales perhaps going to her history projects.

Also, there’s an archive of clippings that could do with digitising, some support getting a site online that she can maintain without my involvement, timelines, family trees, lots of stuff to do!

Helping get Eigg Box off the ground

Because the Eigg Box idea is so early, there’s some obvious work that I could do in helping communicate the idea of what it is going to be in order to help gain funding, interest and support from finders, sponsors, residents, potential overseas visitors, and so on.

Many people think of me as a software developer nowadays, which I find quite funny because my first company was a design agency, so I shall probably help with some branding help, materials pack (or indeed using some of my budget to buy an off the shelf branding pack that we could adapt). Again, the idea is that I leave behind something useful that doesn’t require external support.

Helping make life easier with appropriate tech

There are a few little problems that emerged during my time there. And with a little hack or two we could make some interesting sketches for solutions that might solve them, making life on Eigg a little easier for residents and visitors.

Transport can be problematic, and even finding a way to connect up the required train/plane/car/ferry connections is time consuming. Perhaps we could sketch up a wiki where people can share their journey plans, or even a journey calculator.

Also, there’s no cash point on the island, yet there are entrepreneurs providing services. Could we use Gocardless, Square (or the UK equivalent), perhaps some kind of hotel tab card and a way to tally up how much a visitor spends and dividing up a single payment between the various intended recipients?

There’s one of the islanders who knows about how to build websites, but I can imagine there being a bit of a bottleneck (I know - I’ve been it in the past!), and I’ve heard a few stories about projects that went awry when working with other web people from elsewhere in the country. I suspect finding ways for people to very simply operate the web side of their businesses using really easy tools. I’ve found an iPad app Simpl (not the FutureGov project) that looks great for that kind of thing. Plus there are a couple of iPads on the island.

Sharing knowledge

And then there’s just a piece of work to be done about having good conversations with folk, giving a few pointers, and swapping them for interesting and useful things that I can learn and take away.

Lucys house

Making something physical

I’m currently really interested in 3d printing, laser cutting and short run manufacturing. One or two of the islanders and I joked about making an Eigg Coop that would be an open source, easy to replicate/print chicken coop. Could be a nice experiment!

Kicking a ball

Playful, fun stuff

Of course I’ll also be making some fun little things. Stuff with instagram, stuff with Flickr, little sketches of ideas, who knows. The guiding principle at the moment is to keep it wide and undefined, until such a time as one or two turn into something promising. Then I shall probably work with Lucy to decide on where to put the effort, where to focus and hopefully end up with some lasting, useful tools that help Eigg Box get to the next stage.

Washing line on Eigg


Finally, I put the word “remote” in the title of this post on purpose. I loved the work that Distance Lab did a few years ago, so there may be a thing or two to do around similar themes.

I’ll end by summarising Lucy’s wise words on the subject - “everywhere is remote from somewhere”.