On a Tuesday night, Patrick Mkacik presents his idea to a crowd of 15 to 20 people. Mkacik, who works for Vibra-Tech, a company which monitors ground vibrations, wants to create a mapping application that would allow his team to place synced annotations on shot holes that have been detonated. After all he works primarily with shot holes, 50 to 100 foot deep holes which contain explosives. Explosions from shot holes generate waves which help detect oil and gas underground. Usually teams from his company radio in the locations of detonated shot holes. But if someone misses a message, they waste time and effort in checking the same shot hole. If Mkacik could create an application which replicates his team’s paper map on a phone, it would make the process better. Even though he has coding experience, he doesn’t know how to create the whole application himself. But he has friends.
His friends, as Mkacik calls them, make up Hackerspace Charlotte, a group of tech savvy people who congregate every week to collaborate on projects and to teach other how to hack stuff. Usually, when people think of hacking, they picture a guy behind a computer that illegally accesses your private or financial information. But to members of Hackerspace Charlotte, hacking means none of that. “What hackers do that is different from everyone else is attitude and approach,” says Hackerspace member Bob Weiss. “Most people look at a system and they say how do I turn it on? They read the instructions [to find out] how [they're] supposed to use this. Hacker says [to] take that manual [and] throw it away. I want to know how can I abuse this system, how can I get it to do something that it wasn’t intended to do.”
Weiss and fellow hacker Benjamin Gatti met at Hackerspace Charlotte last year and decided to embark on a project that demonstrated how 21st century tools could decode messages created by the Enigma machine, which was used by Nazi Germany before and during World War II. A turning point in the Second World War occurred as a result of British cryptographer Alan Turing’s work on deciphering and cracking encrypted text from a Enigma machine, which helped turned the tide of the war in favor of the Allies. After nine months of work, the duo created open source software that cracked Enigma encrypted text. 44CON, an information security conference in London, invited Weiss and Gatti to present their work at the conference this summer. Their presentation impressed. “It creates a commitment, you know, the heads of the conference say thats a great talk you gave, what are you going to do to top that next year?”, says Weiss. He and Gatti will also speak in Nashville this week about their Enigma Decryptor.
Their success demonstrates the value of bringing together human capital. It’s that kind of knowledge and expertise that Mkacik wants to tap into for his project. “What I’m mostly interested in is draining some of the brain trust that we have here, which is the best part about this place,” says Mkacik. He writes some code but has only worked with C++, Python and Java. “I couldn’t write a web page really to save my life,” he says. “But I’ve got friends. They know how to do that. And if they know how to do that, they know how to teach me. And that’s the important part.”
First-time Hackerspace visitor Cory Tate also finds value in the brain trust. Tate, who has a strong interest in electronics, wants to learn and better himself. Recently, he’s been studying more about electronics and is making the hobby a big part of his life. “It’s a good community,” Tate says about Hackerspace. “If you’re interested in electronics at all, they’re pretty cool. If you have experience in electronics but you don’t have the equipment, they got it.” He hopes that the organization will inspire him to create more ideas for projects.
Hackerspace Charlotte, founded in October 2010, originally opened in a NoDa warehouse but moved to a larger location on Hawthorne Road, near the Plaza Midwood neighborhood. On Tuesday evenings, they conduct an organizational meeting while on Thursday nights, the group hosts OpenBuild Night, where anyone can come in and work on a project.
While Hackerspace Charlotte builds unique technology – they currently hold the Guinness World Record for the longest QR code – most of the hackers are not looking to build companies around their inventions. The group’s primary motive is to share knowledge and ideas, not to make money. “It’s an academic environment more than a business environment,” says Mkacik.
Address: 1111D Hawthorne Ln, Charlotte, NC 28205
Mailing Address: Hackerspace Charlotte, P.O. BOX 34451, Charlotte, NC 28234-4451