Hillhacks – Hacking and Making in the Himalayas

Education Workshop
Hillhacks – Hacking and Making in the Himalayas

Hillhacks is an event that I’ve been working on with CCC for the past year. It’s a two week workshop/conference/temporary hackspace in Dharamsala, India in the Himalayan foothills and anybody is invited to join. Immediately following the event is the Dharamsala International Film Festival so attendees can unwind and enjoy a selection of Indian and international independent films. It’s all happening in the second half of October. Here’s the story of how hillhacks came to be.

The Beginning

Tibetan Childrens Village in Upper Dharamsala
Tibetan Childrens Village in Upper Dharamsala
TOP 25
Classroom at TCV

It all started when I was teaching a one week wireless workshop in Dharamsala at Tibetan children’s Village (TCV), a boarding school/orphanage for Tibetan children. The workshop was a success, but more importantly, I was extremely curious about TCV and talked to many of the people there. I was with my friend, Jacinta, who was there writing an article for a magazine. She set up an interview with the secretary-general of TCV and kindly allowed me to tag along. Hearing him talk, I was mesmerized by his passion for the children and their education. Many of the children came from remote mountainous regions in Tibet and had little or no previous education. His goal was to make sure they learned basic reading, writing, and arithmetic, as well as Tibetan culture, and interestingly enough, English. According to him, the children at TCV were their hope and future and it was important that they be educated and worldly. Later on, we went on a tour of the place and saw that the living areas were divided into houses with a house mother, each taking care of about 12 children. It was fascinating to see how the mother plays such a strong role in the childrens’ upbringing there while there didn’t appear to be a strong father role.

About a month later, I was talking to Ritu and Tenzing, the two organizers behind the Dharamsala International Film Festival. They were attending an art exhibition in Tokyo and we were discussing all the interesting things happening with art and technology in the world. They mentioned that Dharamsala was a bit remote so there wasn’t much exposure to the creative side of technology out there. At that time, I had a flashback to the meeting with the secretary-general of TCV and how reading, writing, and arithmetic were fundamental staples of education for the children. I thought that in the near future (if not now), an understanding and familiarity with technology will also be an important part of a child’s education and play an important role in their lives. I wasn’t really interested in pure technology, but introducing them to technology in a creative context was very appealing to me. Also, during the wireless workshop that I taught, there were only two female attendees, one of which was there to be with her boyfriend. I figured teaching technology as a means of creative expression might also be a way to attract more girls to the discipline. The discussion with Ritu and Tenzing ultimately led to a rough goal of establishing a temporary hackerspace in Dharamsala focusing on artistic applications of technology.

A few months after that, sva met up with Ritu and Tenzing while she was living at Ghoomakad, the local hackbase in Rakkar near Dharamsala. sva is part of Chaos Computer Club (CCC) and is an organizer for the annual 3xC3 conference. She organizes cryptoparties and other events around India and got to meet many amazingly skilled technologists. She was disappointed that many of the techies she met rarely played around with technology just for curiosity or the pure joy of it but were doing so mainly for commercial or business reasons.  This is in contrast to being in Hamburg or Berlin with CCC where it’d be the opposite. She wanted to put together an event that would promote simply hacking around with technology and discussed it with Ritu and Tenzing. They put her in contact with me and we started throwing around ideas and formalizing the event now known as hillhacks.

The Tools

Laptop collection for hillhacks

We immediately started up a mailing list and sva and her friends started up a wiki. I had ambitiously planned to get a laser cutter out to Dharamsala as one of the main tools for the technology/art workshops. This turned out to be a mistake, since there was essentially no budget. As the discussions and planning went on, the opportunity arose to pick up a large set of 40 identical Lenovo Thinkpad laptops for dirt cheap. Many of the children (and adults) we’d be working with don’t even own computers so providing sets of identical laptops solves a lot of headaches for running workshops, both in availability and compatibility issues. They would also stay in Dharamsala after the event and be available for use by the community for other workshops throughout the year. The laptops were basically considered junk by the local shop in Akihabara because they were liquidated merchandise but still had the administrative password on them blocking them from booting. It took a bit of time, but we figured out how to crack the security off the laptops and purchased the whole lot.

2014-08-05 DSC02069
Mobile phone repair tools for hillhacks

Another issue that came up was that there was a trash problem in Dharamsala. There’s not a lot of infrastructure to dispose of trash and so people end up dumping things in the open or where they’re not supposed to. We got the idea to put together workshops to promote recycling and repair. At the same time, I was in Shenzhen again working on hackercamp with Bunnie and Ian from Dangerous Prototypes. We were at a mobile phone repair school where they taught students how to take trashed cell phones, repair them, and resell them in the Shenzhen markets. Suddenly, a light bulb went off in my head and I suggested that we teach mobile phone repair. It’s an amazingly useful skill since mobile phones play such an important role in daily life. It also provides people with the ability to get phones for much cheaper than is normally available since not many have the tools or skills to repair them. I then went about scrambling to pick up mobile phone repair tools around the markets in Shenzhen and have been accumulating phones and consumables for the workshops.

Interestingly enough, one of the assumptions I made when we first started discussing the event was that it’d be nice to get a laser cutter out there. Although technically, it’s still true, it also shows a first world bias that I unconsciously maintain. There was a lot of discussion on the mailing list about content targeted for various problems in Dharamsala, but there was nothing that could really be well served with a laser cutter. In fact, basic computer skills, an understanding of technology, and actually having a computer pretty much trumps a laser cutter. Since then, we’ve decided to scrap the plans for the laser cutter and focus the shoestring budget on tools, equipment, and venue to get the event off the ground. It’s actually a relief.

The Details

I don’t have a lot of experience organizing events so sva basically took the lead. She enlisted the help of the local Tibetan community and Ghoomakad hackerspace who was also organizing events for Wikimedia in Dharamsala. They provided us with rough costs that we could use to put together a budget. At this time, we had no funding so it was basically funded out of pocket. The financial situation improved later on and we received funding grants from Network the World, Web We Want, and others. We also got an inquiry from Microsoft/Nokia who wanted to sponsor the event in exchange for teaching workshops on using Windows Phone. That ended with sva yelling at them on the conference call. Ha ha ha. It was pretty funny. Basically, we all like the idea of keeping it as a grassroots, independent event and maintaining freedom and control over content.

It took us a while to figure out the format that we wanted for the event. The first issue was timing. Dharamsala has the heaviest rainfall in all of India and the summer months are monsoon season  which pretty much disqualifies having a summer event. The two available timings would be April/May in spring or September/October in autumn. Since the Dharamsala International Film Festival (DIFF) was occurring at the end of October, we decided to have hillhacks adjacent to DIFF. This would have the additional benefits of attracting non-techies, diversifying the audience, and also put a nice ending to hillhacks. We also decided to limit it to a two week event which is still a bit long. The first week, we’ll likely be working with and teaching workshops to locals. It’ll also be a good opportunity to ease the international people into being out there. The second week will be prime time where we’ll have the main workshops, talks, and panels, culminating in the final weekend which will have the core speakers and events. After that’s all over, then it should be about time for the film festival to start J

The content was the next challenge. I came to the collaboration with the idea to put together a creative technology event and sva was interested to put together an event to discuss issues in technology in the context of policy, ethics, and humanities. We both agreed that we should also have a track for network and computer security which also includes hands on workshops. Dharamsala has the dubious distinction of being one of the most hacked place on earth.

Peace Zone at Tibetan Childrens Village in Dharamsala

We decided on a format with three main tracks. The first track is creative technology and will be focused on teaching workshops to children and adults on artistic applications of technology. We’ll be working with a team from MIT Media Lab led by Jie Qi (of Circuit Stickers fame) and also bussing in children from local schools as well as Tibetan Childrens Village. The second track will be on technology and ethics and will discuss relevant issues today like the environmental impact of technology, militarization and weaponization of technology, and diminishing privacy of everyday people. The third track will be on network and computer security, an especially relevant topic for the area, and feature hands on workshops on security technology.

The Future

This is pretty much where things stand at the moment. It’s just a few months off and we’ll be going through final preparations and issuing a call for participation. We’re really hoping for a good turnout from both locals and people internationally. It’d be great to build bridges between the international community and Dharamsala and the goal is to have this event occur annually.

For more information about hillhacks, visit the website here.

Discuss this article with the rest of the community on our Discord server!

Akiba runs FreakLabs and specializes in wireless sensor networks for environmental monitoring. He's currently running HackerFarm, a countryside hackerspace in Japan focused on agriculture, and trying to balance his time between designing new products and making sure things are planted on time.

View more articles by Akiba