Gig connectivity, development community catch eyes
When the Public Library’s Gig Lab had its grand opening a few weeks ago, I spent some time with Jeff Branson, a technology educator who came in from Boulder, Colorado to give the keynote lecture and lead a workshop.
He travels the country doing technology education for Sparkfun, an open source hardware company based in Boulder that makes devices at all scales, from single LEDs and resistors up to satellite guidance systems.
He sees a lot of communities and what they doing with technology, so I had to pick his brain about Chattanooga.
“I travel around doing what we refer to as ‘K through NASA education,’” says Branson. “We teach everything from squishy circuits—insulating and conductive Play-Doh—all the way through professional development for NASA and civilian space endeavors.”
Chattanooga caught his eye through friends at the Vermont Public Library who knew about how library director Corinne Hill and assistant director Nate Hill (no relation) were transforming the Chattanooga Public Library. He got to know Nate at a conference in Colorado about year and a half ago, later hosted Nate and some people from UTC as hackers-in-residence in Boulder, then visited Chattanooga in April 2014 to do some programming work with the Library.
“I really wanted to find out what was going on in Chattanooga, and I immediately fell in love with the scene here,” he says. “The gig connectivity, the development stuff that’s going on with the civilian development corps that’s coming up here—it’s not like anywhere else. So I looked for opportunities to come back.”
When he made plans to attend a conference in Nashville, he decided to use some vacation days to come to Chattanooga and hang out at the Library. Which turned into giving the keynote and leading a workshop on “the Internet of things” at the Library’s ribbon-cutting for Gig Lab, a public access point for gigabit connectivity and computing tools. In his workshop, he showed people how to use a free, open source tool his company makes to work with data generated by Internet-connected devices.
“In an hour, we took people from never having touched any of this hardware or programming before to feeding data to the Internet through a micro controller,” he says. “And that’s, in a nutshell, what I do everywhere—take people and teach them how to teach machines to be more human.”
His interest in Chattanooga isn’t just idle curiosity. It’s more like looking for a glimpse of the future of the rest of the country.
“This is one of the first gig connections in the country, so everybody’s ahead of this idea of super-rapid connectivity and what do I do with it, how do I use it as a tool, how do I develop around it, how do I present it to the community,” he says.
“This is a really super advanced tool. It’s like the printing press on hyper steroids. So I want to come to this community and find out what people are learning about that, so I can gauge what I’m going to teach one, two, five years from now. As much as teaching, I’m here doing data gathering.”
He sees Chattanooga as a technological Galapagos Islands, where intense development of new species of plants and animals occurred as those new landmasses appeared in the ocean.
“Well, you can think of gig connectivity as new islands, and we’re going to get all this rapid speciation, which means new environments, new kinds of tech presenting themselves, new applications in that technology,” he says. “So I’m just out here on the islands seeing what’s springing up.”
I asked him to play anthropologist and tell me what he’s learning from Chattanooga.
“One of the things I’m learning is how important it is to be able to have a place for people to come in the community and learn that’s accessible, free, very public, and very citizen-oriented,” he says. “What I’m learning is another layer of how important the library can be in a community’s growth economically.”
Compared to Silicon Valley, he finds the social structure in Chattanooga to be very flat.
“You know, Silicon Valley is intellectually flat in a lot of ways, but it’s socially stratified,” he says. “Chattanooga seems like it’s socially flat and intellectually flat.”
The crowd for Gig Lab’s grand opening, for example, included people who programmed computers in assembly languages and had been retired 20 years, as well as Jake Brown, who’s leading the Gig Lab project and just graduated from high school.
“There’s a super bandwidth of people working with technology here, and I want to learn what that is,” he says. “There were 50, 60 people up there. I go to Boulder, which is one of the development hubs in the United States, and when I go to an event like this there’s the same amount of people. Nobody thinks of Chattanooga as a development hub, but they’re so wrong.”