Hacky Hour: “Tech support and a master class in one”

With just one visit, University of Southern Queensland PhD student Paul Webb experienced the benefits of the Toowoomba Campus’ new QCIF-run weekly Hacky Hour.

“I reckon I got tech support and a master class in one,” said Mr Webb. “I would recommend any student to drop into Hacky Hour, and the earlier in the research process the better. No amount of email exchange and self-training can cover all the territory you can cover by chatting with experienced operators who know their subject and the academic requirements of a researcher.
“The 45-minutes I spent at the Hacky Hour, plus some follow-up work by myself and Adam [USQ Hacky Hour “R Guru” Associate Professor Adam Sparks], has resulted in my thesis appendices going from bland lines of script coding to a tidy, knitted Word document with the script and the progressive outputs.
“My thesis, which will have about 10 of these R Script files included, will present a lot better now and will be a more auditable record of how I have derived some spatial data,” he said.
QCIF’s USQ-based eResearch Analyst Dr Francis Gacenga organises USQ’s Hacky Hours. The Toowoomba Campus Hacky Hour is held weekly on Wednesdays, 2pm­–3pm, at the Refectory, next to the blackboard. A Springfield Campus Hacky Hour is held monthly on Tuesdays (check QCIF’s website for precise dates), 10am–3:30pm, in room B319.
At Hacky Hour, IT experts help research staff and HDR students with research-related IT queries. Dr Gacenga provides advice on high performance computing (HPC), cloud computing, data storage and the technical aspects of data management.
Regular Hacky Hour helper Associate Professor Sparks, a plant pathologist, botanical epidemiologist and ecologist at the USQ Centre for Crop Health, provides expertise in software program R, Git, multivariate statistics, network analysis, geographic information systems (GIS) and simulation modelling.
Fellow helpers Richard Young, HPC Systems Engineer from the eResearch team within USQ’s Office of Research Development, provides expertise in HPC, data storage and scripting, and Mathieu Clerte, from USQ’s ICT Services, provides advice on Python, Linux and software programming.
Mr Webb attended Toowoomba’s Hacky Hour on Wednesday, 27 March, and just two days later, he presented some of his research to Queensland Government Department of Environment and Science staff. “The knitted Word document will make it a lot easier for me to follow up their questions about data derivation and associated confidence margins,” he said.
Mr Webb’s thesis is about sustainable agricultural landscapes and whether natural resource management incentives and extension programs have led to improved land management.
His research will affect a review of outcomes from significant public and private investment in natural resource management over many years, and will gain insights into what works and what inhibits moves towards sustainable land management practices. This in turn will enhance efforts to support sustainable agriculture for social, economic and environmental benefit.
With a career in hydrography and natural resource management (NRM), Mr Webb is a full-time PhD student and works part-time as a Climate Project Officer with USQ's Centre for Applied Climate Sciences, and part-time as a Project Officer (Land and Water) with Southern Queensland NRM.
Mr Webb’s attendance at Hacky Hour that day was purely by chance: “I was aware of the Hacky Hour from the ReDTrain Bulletins [a weekly USQ newsletter about training and development opportunities for researchers], but thought I was probably past the stage where I needed help with writing and running R scripts. When I saw the [Hacky Hour] team in the Refectory, I thought I would just touch base with them to let them know how I was going. I think it was 45-minutes later that I walked away!
“The casual chat transpired into some in-depth discussions about documenting R Scripts for presentation, including some template options and clues for anything from a basic “Commodore” to a “Rolls Royce” version.
“The R Guru, [Associate Professor] Adam Sparks, then introduced me to Richard Young to talk about HPC access. Richard then showed me on his laptop how I could run some of my resource-hungry scripts on a HPC, leaving my PC available for routine work while scripts were running.”
Any USQ staff or HDR students with questions about Hacky Hour may contact: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..
QCIF eResearch Analysts help run Hacky Hours at USQ, The University of Queensland, Queensland University of Technology and Griffith University.

Associate Professor Adam Sparks (left) giving R tips to Paul Webb (right) at USQ's Toowoomba Hacky Hour. (Photo: Dr Francis Gacenga.)