We’re a little young to be writing our own history but a lot went on before we got here and most of that work was done by other people. Whether this project goes right or wrong, we have four people to thank for getting us this far. In chronological order they are: Mike Slocombe, Tom Stafford, Jeremy Keith and Sam, a mutual friend of Mark and I.
Mike ‘The Editor’ Slocombe founded Urban75 in 1995. The Brixton based “baby-eating anarchist bulletin board” was and is a community based project run on assiduously non-profit terms. It was where Lambeth police commander Brian Paddick used to talk to the community during the experiment with decriminalising cannabis. And where May day rioters were supposed to have coordinated their 2005 window smashing activities. Mike and his site are likely to be very high up on the list of those ‘Hated By The Daily Mail‘ and, more often than not, the feeling was reciprocated . But Urban75 has a lot more to recommend it than just that. It provides some of the best, most up-to the minute drugs information found anywhere on the internet. Mentioned in the The House of Commons as “a disconcertingly well-informed website “.
Mark, Sam and I have all been members of the site and it’s community since 2002. And through it we all experienced the strange interpenetration of the online and offline worlds. An experience which became ever more common with the rise of social networking.
I met Tom Stafford the old fashioned way. He was a friend of a friend, we met in about 2003 and we got along. I vaguely recall him mentioning some kind of MindHacking project, (I wonder what ever happened to that?) But at NCPW12 here in Birkbeck this April, he was studying networks of neural networkers. He presented a brilliant paper on what makes a brilliant (highly cited) neural network paper. Jay McClelland should know better than most but he was the member of the audience that question Tom most enthusiastically. So maybe it’s all about who has got the best learning algorithm?
Fast forward to June 19th this year, when Jeremy Keith organised the world’s first ScienceHackDay. It was a lovely sunny saturday and close to 100 scientists, hackers and entrepreneurs gathered in The Guardian’s deserted offices for 30 hours of getting excited and making things with science. All kinds of sciencey things. Not that any of us had any idea at the time. We started with heads full of ideas, blank IDE’s and open minds. I had only found out about it a few days before and prompted by the Mephedrone debacle, I revived an idea I ‘d been mulling for several years. Here was what I pitched before I got there:
Your Brain on Drugs – As sacked government advisor Prof. Nutt says the biggest danger of mephedrone and other ‘research chemicals’ is that there is no systematic research into their effects. A site would collect live data from actual users to benefit researchers, users and maybe even policymakers. Providing a straight-forward battery of cognitive, emotional and mood tests and questionnaires that could let users see directly the effects various drugs are having on them while they are on them (or during their comedowns and hangovers) either anonymously or with a personal history. Plus a set of filters and aggregators that give a real sense of the effects, popularity and dangers of new chemicals as they are actually used. An antidote to both random anecdotes and outright misinformation
As it turned out, no-one was interested in that at the time so inspired by Tom’s great talk at NCPW12 instead I fired up the text mining package in R and the SCOPUS API and hacked something that turned extracted trends from collections of developmental psychology abstracts and with the help of some more fun packages in R turned them into pretty clouds.
A few months of development later, the offspring of that hack was presented at the British Psychological Society Developmental section conference. Yet more proof that Science 2.0 happens faster. By the way, ScienceHackDay 2.0 just finished in San Francisco. I urge you to check it out.
Sam is a long time friend of Mark and myself, esrtwhile chorister and one time youth poster-boy for drugs culture. In 2002 Channel Four chose to follow him round London as part of a documentary investigating teenage drug use. After the director had met both his parents, filming began: talking to friends, singing at choir and gurning to bad Trance. It was broadcast in a primetime slot just as Sam was finishing his A levels, presenting one aspect of his final year at college to a national audience.
In July this year, Caspar told Sam his ideas for Your Brain on Drugs, which back then was just an idea. A few weeks later Sam and Mark met up in a pub in south London. Chatting about this that and the other, Sam sold the idea to Mark. Having just finished writing a book chapter about the way the internet is transforming human communication, Mark was fascinated by the concept behind the project. He and Caspar started talking and a few months later yourbrainondrugs.net went live. Our friends and networks made it happen.
In conclusion, thanks guys!
This project is not endorsed by or affiliated with either Birkbeck or the University of Warwick