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Andrew Back on OSHCamp, Wuthering Bytes, and the Cradle of Ideas

Gareth Halfacree

This month is Wuthering Bytes month here at oomlout, as we count down the days to the opening of the UK Maker Belt's pre-eminent technology festival. For those unfamiliar with the event, it's time for a primer - and who better to talk to than co-founder and organiser Andrew Back?

"Wuthering Bytes is a tech festival with a focus on open technologies, practical skills and inspiring stories. The great thing about open source hardware and software is that it lowers the barrier to access to technology, while also fostering a culture of sharing skills," Andrew explains of the event he co-founded with fellow open technology enthusiast Tim Harbour. "The closing 'Festival Day' features talks that span a far more diverse range of topics, but which provide insights into some pretty amazing personal journeys, first-hand experiences and unique insights."

It's impossible to discuss the topic without touching upon the name, though, which stands out starkly in a crowd of Make-this and Hack-that events. The pun is clear: a technological twist on Wuthering Heights, the Brontë novel set on a windswept Yorkshire moor and inspired by the countryside around nearby Haworth's Top Withens. "Tim — who co-organises Wuthering Bytes — and I were brainstorming names. He initially suggested it and then quickly dismissed it as being too silly. I agreed that it was quite daft, but also thought it was fantastic. Much brainstorming and many far more boring ideas later, we eventually agreed to go with Wuthering Bytes. Given the location and subject matter, how could we not? It's a gift!"

Wuthering Bytes was born out of the annual Open Source Hardware User Group (OSHUG) Camp, and still dedicates two days from its schedule to the group. "The second ever annual OSHUG Camp was held in Hebden Bridge, and Tim came along to this. Afterwards and in the cradle of all great ideas, the pub, we talked about adding days onto it and covering other topics," Andrew says, recalling the origins of the event. "The first Wuthering Bytes took place the following year and had two tracks — hardware and web — which alternated across the main hall and a second, smaller room. This was great fun, but made for a lot of running up and down stairs between rooms, and with many people saying that they wanted to go to talks that were on at the same time. So for the 2nd year we spread the festival over three days."

Andrew is no stranger to event organisation, but the scale of this year's Wuthering Bytes - which expands upon the traditional three-day format with a full week's schedule thanks to the involvement of the British Computer Society and Calderdale Council - is his biggest yet. "It's definitely blossomed," Andrew admits, "and I'd be lying if I didn't say that I was a bit nervous." If earlier incarnations are anything to go by, though, the event will be a smashing success. "The reception in previous years has been great, which can be attributed to the fact that we've had some pretty amazing people present and others running fantastic hands-on workshops."

A big part of the event's success is its low cost of entry, with tickets costing just £10 a day including lunch. "We want the festival to be as accessible as possible. We did consider even trying to make it free, albeit without providing lunch. However, it would be a bit of a stretch and then there is a much greater risk of getting non-shows," Andrew explains of the pricing, which has been fixed at its low level since the first Wuthering Bytes. "It's a challenge at £10, but worth the extra effort and in particular when you consider that so many fantastic speakers and workshop organisers generously give their time for free also."

The list of previous speakers is, indeed, impressive. "It's clearly an honour to have had the inventor of the ARM processor [Sophie Wilson] present at Wuthering Bytes, and that was some talk! Sarah Angliss also gave an incredible talk that explored the pre-electric roots of electronic music," Andrew recalls, rattling off a selection of his personal highlights from Wuthering Bytes 2015. "Oh and there was a live demo of a rocket engine... Ann Kilbey's talk on being a computer programmer in the early 1960s was also utterly captivating. And these were all on one day last year — there are too many to list!

"A call for participation goes out to the Open Source Hardware User Group for talks and workshops," explains Andrew of how he and Tim select the speakers each year. "With the Festival Day we aim for a diverse range of topics, with a focus in particular on fascinating first-hand experiences, unique insights and inspiring stories, looking both to the history of technology as well as the future."

Wuthering Bytes opens on the 26th of September with the Open Source Hardware User Group Camp talks, and closes on the 2nd of October with the popular Festival Day. More information on the event, and links to order tickets, can be found on our dedicated microsite.

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