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about the author: Horst JENS runs spielend-programmieren.at, an afternoon programming school for children in Vienna, Austria. He makes a weekly podcast in German language and is interested in everything about teaching Python, game programming and open source/ free sofware values to children.
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My trip to Maker Faire Rome 2015 started in Vienna, Austria on Thursday, 15. October 2015. Together with traveling author Derek Breen took the night train from Vienna to Rome, where we arrived Friday morning. Good to know: If you book in advance, night trains (Sparschiene-tickets) can be very cheap. Also good to know: The night train crew offers you beer, wine and (hot!) meals at very reasonable prices, even all night long.
first day: Friday, 16. october 2015
After checking out our AirBnB apartment (a converted garage in a giant garden with lemon trees, roaming turtles and a very charming old landlady) we took a walk from piazza Bologna to the Sapienza university area were the Maker Faire Rome 2015 took place.
The purpose of our trip was not crystal clear: Derek wanted to meet some of the educators from CodeWeekEU he met before at the Scratch AMS conference in Amsterdam. He also hoped to have chances to promote his book Scratch For Kids For Dummies and to do some Scratch-Workshops for children.
My own interest were to meet interesting people, gather stories for the international open magazine, check out free software/ free hardware / open source projects and generally to have a good time. My very own version of holiday for Nerds. As the preparation for the trip was a bit hectic (I had to teach late at Thursday) I managed to forget my most important tool, my microphone, at home. So I made no interviews... this time.
I never was in Rome before so I had no idea what to expect. My only Maker Faire experience so far was a visit to Maker Faire Munic some years ago: nice, but not very impressive. In contrast to warnings of train travelers and natives, we were not robbed by bands of criminals while asleep and we also did not become victim of pickpockets.
Screenshot taken from Maker Faire Rome website without permission
Maker Faire Rome took place inside the whole areal of Sapienza University: a very wide area, with big parks inside, several buildings and even a church. As typical tourists we managed do walk around the whole area before finding the correct entrance. At Friday morning, the Maker Faire Rome was reserved for schoolkids and only at the afternoon the university was opened for the public. While standing in line to show our tickets, I noted police riot control vehicles with mounted water-cannons manoeuvring around busses full of excited school children and kid-herding teachers. As i heard later, some students protested against having to buy a maker faire ticket to access their own university.
Finally inside the Maker Faire Rome area, i was impressed by the sheer size of all: So many incredibly peaceful, elegant and cheerful Italians, so many tents to visit, so many tables with exhibitors in each tent. Most of the universtity buildings were closed; around two dozens giant tents were erected in the open space between the buildings, each housing 50 or more tables with exhibitors. Each table had a big poster in English and Italian language describing the project.
Some tents were so full with people that I never managed to get in, but the tents that I did visit were without exception full of interesting projects: countless 3d-printers, music-making robots, remote-controlled drones, electronic gadgets of all sort and a lot of excited makers happy to show off their projects.
toilet situation and claustrophobia
I do not want to criticize an otherwise very rewarding experience too much; of course a big event like Maker faire left room for improvement:
Out of habit I spent the first hours finding the perfect location with easy access to the 3 big nerd necessities of life: W-Lan, electricity and good toilets. I eventuelly managed to find a spot with good access to everything but it was a long quest.
While the Maker Faire Rome organizers did a good job of placing a lot of portable toilets at strategic locations between the tents, I was very disappointed by the lack of water (to wash hands) and the lack of access to non-portable toilets. There were small fountains in the area but not always near the portable toilets. I finally got lucky and found an area with indoor toilet (already damaged at saturday), water and wireless internet access.
While I do understand that the maintainers of the university buildings are not enthusiastic about the idea of letting thousands of visitors roam through their buildings, I wish that in the next years more high-quality toilet options are available. I must confess that I have seen nobody complain and the thousands of visitors (many families with children) had either more sophistocated preparations or lower expectations than I did.
My second (and last) critique of the Maker Faire Rome is the topic of claustrophobia: As an ardent user of city-mass transport vehicles I tend to not have any fear of densly packed people. However, during Maker Faire Rome I simply avoided entering some of the very interesting tents because far too many visitors were already stuffed inside. If a suggestion can be made, I propose a system of redirecting families with baby buggies during rush hours toward less frequented tents. Also a one-way visitor stream system would surely make the experience inside the tents far more pleasant (like allowing people to have actual conversations without being pushed from both sides).
cool maker projects and connecting people
I was hugly impressed by the sheer amount of different maker projects presented at Maker Faire, as well as by the masses of visitors attracted. I did not understand if the Maker movement in Italy was already very popular, very unknown (attracting the curious crowd) or if the Maker Faire was just the best (or only?) family event in town this weekend. In any way, the masses of elegantly dressed families visiting the technogogy-packed tents were quite a sight.
I used Friday to orientate myself, marking most interesting projects for a visit next day. Naturally, i was attracted towards the open source projects. To my delight, i found a table manned by Thomas Amberg (@tamberg) from Internet of things Zürich (@iotzh) and could chat a bit in german language. On his table was also a very busy Andreas Kopp (@andreaskopp) from Fablab Munic (@FabLabMuc) trying to do Minecraft modding workshops (he spoke no Italian). I offered to help with translating and was very proud to have my first "workshop" before Derek had even found his colleagues. In the end it turned out that translation was not really necessary: The tent was a bit too loud to have much of a meaningful conversation and Peter managed very well to show off his skills and inventions while talking in German and English.
During the day, I kept coming back again several times to this specific table. Thomas asked about the difference between Iot Vienna and Iot Austria. I could answer that just the logo is different. Thomas also showed me (on Saturday) a sticker from Maker Faire Vienna - I was not aware of their existence. At this moment, the trip to Rome had already paid for itself: I was making useful connections and had to travel to Rome so that a guy from Zürich could tell me that a Maker Faire event is planned in my city, Vienna. I also decided to apply for a table at the next Maker Faire Rome 2016: I learned that the table is cost-free as long as you do not sell things. So in 2016, look out for a table full of cool projects from Internet of things Vienna group!
The topic of the Maker Faire Rome 2015 was music and a lot of projects had connections to music or were at least successfully making all kind of noise. For a full list of all projects, see the link at the Maker Faire Rome Homepage.
Various projects coupled robotics with a small computer (like the Arduino) to make music-making robots. A band of (literally) heavy metal robots attracted a huge crowd at each performance:
I wished to spend more time inside the Maker Faire Rome bookshop where lots of (english) intersting books and Maker kits were on display. Finally I decided that I could do my shopping here as well on the next day or on the evening so to not have to carry around a lot of books and arduino and genuino-sets. As it turned out, I never found time to visit the shop again and the shop was even more packed with people at Saturday than at Friday. Lesson learned: If you have to impulse-buying, do it at once.
Both me and Derek were a bit worn out from traveling and walking all day.. After a long and exciting afternoon at Maker Faire Rome we finally headed home towards the nice restaurants and pubs near Piazza Bologna.
second day: Saturday, 17. October 2015
On Saturday morning, we marched (literally) fully recharged toward the university area. Because the day was beautiful we walked on the street instead of using the overcrowded Metro line. The reward was that we stumbled into a market hall. I love markets! I was very fascinated by the marble (!) tables of the market-stalls and spent a happy time curiously looking at the diversity of fresh food stalls. Some free wine later (i met an nice old wine-seller) we bought provisions and had a first coffee break inside the market hall.
As it turned out, we were a bit too early at the university area where a long line of visitors waited in line for entrance. We decided to use the good weather for a picnic under the trees. The nearest green place we found was the cemetery of Verano - a beautiful and pleasantly calm place. Populated mostly by cats, the cementary has an unusual lot of geography (small hills and gorges), very old trees, and many small, chapel-like grave-buildings. The most magical moment for me was discovering a flock of green parrots flying high in the trees. We speculated that the parrots were liberated when their owners passed away. I hope the parrots will survive any cold winters and out-smart the cats.
trolling the press center
The Saturday crowd at the entrance to Maker Faire Rome at Saturday was even bigger than on Friday (no school?) and I discovered a "press center" booth next to the entrance. I could not resist asking for a set of official press photos that I could use under a free licenses (like creative commons share-alike). One of the reasons was that my smartphone (because I took a lot of pictures) was loosing energy fast despite Derek's recharge-battery-pack. The other reason was that I had already seen some pictures of the Maker Faire Rome made with drones flying high over the crowd.
While my Italian language skill is not too bad I decided to play it safe and ask in English. My question was (quoting from memory). "Hi, i'm a blogger from Austria, do you have any free licensed official photos from the maker Faire Rome that i could use?". The incredibly stunning looking fashion models at the press center (I suspect technical students volunteering for Maker Faire Rome but I know no details) spoke far better English than I did and passed the question along and back and forth for some time. After some phone calls later and after more and more organisers got involved I overheard sentences like "is an Australian journalist allowed to make photos?" and I was assured that I am allowed to make as many photos as I want. I finally gave up before explaining what a press kit is, or going into the details between creative commons licenses and press kit pictures. The press center girls and organisers clearly tried to help me as best as they could and I did not wanted to annoy them. The event highlighted for me even more the necessity of having an magazine to popularize the concepts of open source and free software to non-programmers.
open source, unheard of?
Sadly the whole concept of openness, free software or free hardware licenses was in my eyes very under-represented during the Maker Faire Rome. The whole Maker-movement would be unthinkable without it close ties to the Open-source idea: Sharing ideas and blueprints, improving and tinkering, building up on the work of others. While many exhibitor tables had the word "open" or even "open source" in their name and project description, I doubt that a non-tech visitor of Maker Faire Rome would have even seen this concept or learned about it outside private conversations with exhibitors.
However there were several official talks in Italian language and I'm sure an interested Italian speaker would have learned as much about open source as he wanted - if he know that he wanted to learn about it at all.
I spent a busy Saturday at Maker Faire Rome, visiting countless projects, chatting about open source and having a very good time. Even after a full day at Maker Faire Rome I had not seen half of the projects and because of far too many visitors in some tents I was unable to speak with every exhibitor and learn more about the projects.
While Derek got involved into some Coder Dojo workshop for kids (helping out with Scratch) I managed to find some cool open source projects and even make photos. Generally speaking, I think the organizers of Maker Faire Rome did a lot to make the exhibition as attractive for children as possible. Whole tents were reserved for children workshops only, and especially the music generating machines and public concerts seemed to be attractive for young and old alike.
making makers happy
One (of many) project I instantly liked was an open source sojus spaceship docking maneuver simulator, to train astronauts on the procedures for the docking of sojus spaceships to the international space station.
Another cool (and of course, open-source!) project project was made by a guy who transformed his colleague into a cool-looking, live human avatar with body-webcam, microphone and speakers for enhanced remote-control possibilies. Imagine out-sourcing stressful non-nerd activities like going to school or having a social life or partying to human avatars while sitting in comfort behind your computer! You can hear all, speak with everyone, hopefully remote-control your avatar to do pranks, greet friends or dance wildly. . . All it took is a simple mouseclick!
Beside many, many 3D-printers I noted an impressive number of biology/computer projects like automated fishtanks, mini-greenhouses and indoor plant centers:
I discovered that I had the pleasant power of making exhibitors very happy: by just being interested in their project, chatting, taking photos and promising to blog and write about them. It was well wort the entry fee just to see the faces of the exhibitors light up as soon I expressed admiration for their projects or talked nerdy with them about open source hardware licenses. I toyed with the idea of making a big series of mini-video-interviews with exhibitors for youtube. While it would be a great and worthwhile project, I had neither the equipment nor the room nor the necessary silence for it. Also, the Maker Fair website has done a good job listing every exhibitor with picture and project homepage.
Both Derek and I had spent the full Saturday at the Maker Faire Rome so we decided to do not return for Sunday but instead visit Rome a bit. In the end we did not even manage to do that properly but instead we spent most of the day hanging around in parks and cafes until finally taking the night train back home to Vienna. I made good use of Derek's design and art creativity by talking endlessy and excited about my International Open Magazine project. Among other things, we finalized ideas for the logo and made plans for articles.
photo album and podcast
All the photos Derek and I took on Maker Faire Rome can be found in this Flickr album (of course cc-by-sa licensed). Click inside the picture to browse the whole album:
We also made a podcast fresh after arriving back in Vienna, which you can listen to here:
A trip to Maker Faire Rome was well worth the time and money spent. I hope to be back in 2016, having a table for IoT Vienna, handing out Internatinal Open Magazine and interviewing makers like crazy.
Some random observations and lessons learned:
- Romans of all age and kind are incredibly well dressed and elegant. In contrast, Italian maker-space nerds look only slightly overdressed for more northern European standards, possibly the equivlent of Italian Geek-(un)-chic
- Traveler, if you visit Rome, walk by foot. So much to see!
- When traveling by night train, an upgrade from 6-bed coach to 4-bed-coach is very good invested money. In the 4-bed coach, you can actually sit instead of only crouch.
- There seem to be several free WLan spots in Rome - if you happen to have a phone with an Italian phone number.
- I did not manage to solve the mystery of Italian book street vendors. According to the one I asked, selling books with mobile stalls is more profitable than having a fixed book store. Or, in his own words, "you starve slower." I strongly suspect a case of magical appearing / disappearing shop.
- Bring your own food to Maker Space Rome, or visit one of the surrounding restaurants. It may be faster than waiting in line before the foodstalls.
- Romans took several times pity on us for our attemtps to stand in line. Despite countless counter-evidence (take-number-and-wait-until-called systems) Romans assured us that "Italians can not stay in line" and the very idea of staying at the end of a line instead of muscling forward is pointless. We managed however to get extra free pizza near Piazza Bologna for our out-of-Rome-overcorrect line waiting behavior.
- Using 4 different keys and passing 3 iron gates just to go into your room at night seems a bit like self-inflicted imprisoment. While we did indeed not lose anything to thieves at night, I wonder if not a simpler system could be invented: You leave your no-longer-fashionable clothes and travel equipment (like everything older than 24 hours) outside the door for thieves to inspect and in turn not get your money and documents stolen.
- Whatever they bring with them, travelers will feel underdressed in Rome anyway. Maybe some clever makers could invent a cheap system of handing out waiting-list numbers to smartphones, so the thieves do have to wait in line for inspecting the luggage.
update (2015 October 29)
Maker Faire Rome responded via Facebook comments to some of the points:
- According to Facebook Maker Faire Rome, the student protests had mostly other reasons than the Maker Faire fee
- press kit pictures and other privileges were given to official registered journalists
- only comanies pay for tables, makers get a free table even if they sells stuff (if i understood correctly)
See the original comments direct in Facebook or in this screenshot:
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