Embracing Experimentation at AstroHackWeek 2016

November 22nd, 2016

There is something very freeing about experimentation—the ability to fail without fear, and move on. At SVDS, we encourage experimenting as part of our agile practices.

The last week of August, I saw experimentation in action at AstroHackWeek 2016, which is billed as a week-long summer school, unconference, and hackathon. It is part of the Moore-Sloan Data Science initiative being sponsored by three universities: UC Berkeley, New York University, and the University of Washington.


While the first half of each day of AstroHackWeek was spent on more traditional lectures, I would like to focus on the “hacks.” Operating as a form of hackathon, the hacks were well organized and structured.

The first day after lunch, everyone participating in the unconference stood up, introduced themselves, and either proposed a hack idea or mentioned some skills they had that others might find useful for their own hacks. While the event and attendees were rooted in astrophysics, everyone was encouraged to explore any idea they liked, which helped contribute to that atmosphere of being open to the unexpected.

Then, everyone simply self-organized and worked on whatever projects they found interesting. Each hack group ended their days by giving a short recap of what was accomplished, what failed to work, and calls for help. I want want to note that second piece—the encouragement to speak to what failed, or ask for help from others, created a very positive environment for trying new and difficult projects.

Structuring experimentation

I found it striking how important having structure around the freeform process of proposing and working on “hacks” was to the success of the week.This rapid reassessment and evaluation of each of the hacks, and a deliberate calling out of what did not work and why reminded me of the daily standups in our agile data science projects at SVDS. During a project, we meet in the morning to quickly mention what happened yesterday, what is planned for today, and whether something is blocking progress.

The engagement from the whole group at the unconference was incredibly high—people stayed late every night, working at different locations (from bars to restaurants to nearby houses) to continue working on different hacks. Hacks ranged from projects like creating a “Made At AstroHackWeek” GitHub badge in ten minutes, to an analysis investigating exoplanet periods from sparse radial velocity measurements (this one is currently being written up for submission to a journal).

You can find the full list of hacks here (and all the materials here), but I’ll link to a couple of my favorites:

Concluding thoughts

Experimentation is one of the engines that drives scientific inquiry. The rapid turnaround on hack projects throughout AstroHackWeek were of a different kind than is typical in academia, and felt more similar to an agile project. The freedom to fail, to iterate quickly, and the cross pollination of having researchers in different astrophysics disciplines made for a powerful and productive week.

What have you experimented with lately? Let us know in the comments, or check out our agile build case study with Edmunds.com.