Monsoon Collective, a retrospective

Posted on Mar 17, 2013

 

July 2012: what an incredible month! I say this for myself, and hopefully ten others, who got together to form the Monsoon Collective maker/hacker-space in Kathmandu last summer. And now that its been almost nine months, I figured it was time to turn gestating thoughts about the experience into a retrospective blog post… so here goes.

Shishir Pokharel, a monsooner, showing I paid a bribe to onlookers.

Shishir Pokharel, a monsooner, showing the “I paid a bribe” project to onlookers.

The Monsoon Collective was an experiment that turned out to be amazingly effective; a month long hackerspace 1 that brought a rag tag group of “artists, engineers, and tinkerers” around a series of projects and experiments located in the city of Kathmandu. We produced impressive projects, a rip-roaring exhibition of the projects, and built a spirit of collaboration infectious enough to help inspire Karkhana (to my knowledge, Kathmandu’s first permanent makerspace).

So, what happened?

  • We formed a community of makers. Based on a solicitation for self-motivated artists, engineers and tinkerers with “background or interesting in making things,” we got a fabulous group of applicants who turned into members of the space and quickly a community that worked together and helped each others develop projects.
  • We created a conversation about hacking and making things. The space started a conversation between engineers and the do-it-yourself / together culture that groups like Sattya have begun to cultivate in Nepal. It was great to have those communities to come together.
  • We pushed Open Source in the Nepali context. The conversation around Open Source in Nepal is sometimes related to using open source tools rather than creating them. In the Monsoon Collective, we not only used, but created, and built on top of, both open source code (javascript libraries, sms sync, much more) and open data (openstreetmap).
  • We watched self-leadership form. When the facilitators of the Monsoon Collective were planning it out, they were advised to (and did) frame the collective as a “workshop.” This was great for getting folks to join, but a “workshop” does not a hackerspace make… self-leadership and lack of structure is a part of the hacker/maker-space culture. Luckily, despite the workshop tag, the collective stuck to its roots in the community of spaces without highly imposed structure or direction, and the participant/members all exercised phenomenal self-leadership. The answer to the facilitators’ nervous question: “will we have to teach?” was thankfully an emphatic NO.
  • We learned. Almost everyone who did not know javascript at the collective ended up on codecademy–an online tool for learning programming using javascript, the programming language interpreted by web browsers. Others learnt mechanical tools, how to model “poetry” using markov chains, about mapping and open transportation, how an umbrella works physically, and the amazing refractive powers of light.
  • We created projects. The Monsoon Collective resulted in a wide array of projects, ranging from “smssage“: a library for authoring sms-based apps with an android phone as a link, “yatayat“: a series of projects about public transportation in Nepal, cinemagraphs: a series of photographs that combine movement and stillness of digital images in interesting ways, “bottle light”: a one-liter bottle that provides indoor lighting during the day in dimly lit buildings such as slum dwellings, “bark classifier”: a classifier for detecting barks in ambient audio, “cartoon collective“: cartoonifying the monsoon collective’s members, “slum mapping”: mapping the slums of Kathmandu on openstreetmap, “glitch projection”: a video stabilizer concept, “sms kabi”: an sms-based poetry generator, “i paid a bribe”: a prototype website to report bribes.
  • We worked together. That was the whole point; the atmosphere made us work together, even when we were working on solo projects. The “mobile” weekend was also a really cool example of working together; Young Innovations and members of Mobile Social Networking Nepal came and helped built an SMS and Android app based off of the Yatayat data in Open Street Map.
  • We had an exhibition. To showcase all the projects that we had worked on (over the span of three and a half weeks!), we had an exhibition. It was a great amount of fun to see all the projects come together so nicely. But the exhibition also served the purpose of motivating us to produce “projects” in such a short time, and made an important message: that ambitious projects can be completed in two to three weeks with the right dedication, and the right community around.

And I want to reflect on a few points that I learned as a facilitator of this experience:

  • The “training” / “workshop” mindset is unnecessary.What Rob and I wanted to do, originally, was to host a hackerspace. To be there, working on projects, and have other people doing the same. Given that this was new to Nepal though, we expected to be in “training” or “workshop” mode, where we were more teachers than members of a space like everyone else. That we would be doing more leading, handholding, and god forbid, lecturing. However, besides a couple of small things like the “project blitz,” we sat together, worked on projects with everyone, made it clear that everyone was a creator (and no one merely a ‘recipient’), and were rewarded by collective members who outdid our expectations. What training and teaching we did, in the end, felt more like peer-to-peer skills sharing, which was precisely the point.
  • Sitting on your haunches is a great way of making friends quickly, and of working together. You can see photos of us working here; we sat on the floor while working. You just can’t help but be fast friends that way.
  • It is possible to pull off substantial experiments in 3 weeks, even during the monsoon, and even in Kathmandu. Yatayat is living proof. (And so are other projects; I am partial to this one because I participated heavily in it.)

What is next?

  • Karkhana!! Monsooners (and others), quite unimpressed by the fact that our silly experiment was only a month long, took up the baton, and have now formed Kathmandu’s first makerspace. Check out their blog for cool things they do, including play with electronics, 3d printers, beer-making, and trying to build home-brew vending machines. And if you are in Kathmandu, head on over!
  • Interest has grown in the very recent past in continuing work on Yatayat. Just two weeks ago, active OSMer Amrit Karmacharya sent an email that ended:

    In a nutshell, yatayat needs to be completed and offered to public asap. and we will need your help and advice in this.

    (Awesome!) Monsooners are beginning to re-form a team that will turn Yatayat into a project that can be curated by the wider public, and taken over by enthusiasts like Amrit. If you are interested in helping, do shoot an email.

  • And finally, the answer to the question “So what about the next Monsoon Collective?” is unfortunately, “we’re not sure.” Rob and I won’t be able to return this year, and there have not been any takers in Nepal so far. There may be Monsoon II in Kathmandu in 2014. Or before then, there maybe something like the Monsoon Collective that forms in New York, with Nepalis in the diaspora continuing some of the work that was started in that sit down room inside Sattya Media Arts and Collective. If you have thoughts and ideas, join the mailing list, and lets discuss them!

And of course, when I think back to July 2012, I always feel immense gratitude and warm thanks to everyone who made the Monsoon Collective possible. Here is to the Monsooners: Anshu Khadka, Colin McSwiggen, Dipeshwor Man Shrestha, Kishor Maharjan, Prabhas Pokharel, Rob Ochshorn, Sakar Pudasaini, Samarpan Rai, Shishir Pokharel, Suveg Pandey, Tshewang Tamang, and part-time attendees Aashish Regmi, Sandesh Ghimire, Surabhi Pudasaini. To the organizations who collaborated with us: Center for Migrant Children, Young Innovations, Mobile Social Networking Nepal. And eternal gratitude to our hosts at the Sattya Media and Arts Collective, particularly Anya Vaverko, Sara Holcombe, Shreyans Tamang, and Yuki Poudyal.

  1. A note on the word(s): hacking / hackerspace / hackers. Hacking means solving problems and creating solutions, often in the form of software. It does NOT mean breaking into other people’s computers. See this essay by Paul Graham for a more detailed version if you want the intricate details.

3 Comments

  1. Shirish
    March 31, 2013

    *Shirish Pokharel

  2. Samrakchan Ghimire
    April 7, 2013

    Monsoon Collective showed a way of collaborative effort for solving social problems. Now there are number of projects that has start on top of project like yatayat.