An Expensive View of SF’s Science Hack Day

Photo by Matt Biddulph

I have poor eyesight. But thanks to this handicap, I got to experience some San Francisco style innovation coinciding with my visit to Science Hack Day in San Francisco on October 24 and 25, 2015.

We were a bunch of foreign science communicators there embarked on a tour thanks to swissnex.

This story perfectly illustrates how Silicon Valley’s web and sharing economies can make people’s live easier. Provided that certain conditions are met.

A series of misfortunes led to this discovery. They included bad organization, bad timing, and cultural differences. But to cut to the chase, I left home without enough daily disposable contact lenses and without glasses. That’s the bad organization.

Once in San Francisco, I realized that I had only a few days left ahead before I would run out of my reserves and become almost blind. I tried to buy some lenses here and got my first surprise: in the US, you need a medical prescription to get disposable contacts, whereas in Switzerland you can buy them freely in any optician shop. That’s the cultural gap part.

I called my husband and asked him to send me a box of supplies, which he did on Wednesday morning. At this point we get to bad timing: the parcel was delivered on Friday afternoon at my niece’s place, but the person at the housing department of her building, who signed for the delivery, promptly left for the weekend without further notice.

The contact lenses were in San Francisco but I couldn’t get them before Monday. So on Saturday I slipped on my last pair of lenses and, while I was supposed to be participating in the Science Hack Day, I did nothing but worry about being in the dark on Sunday.

No simple task

In an attempt to ease my panic, my niece Christelle who lives here reached out to all the contact lens wearers she knows in the area to ask if someone had some spares. She found a colleague, Elizabeth, with the same eye correction, who agreed to offer me a pair of two-week disposable lenses.

The problem was, Elizabeth lives 45 minutes away from the city and I did not want to bother anyone with my trouble (except you, readers). There I was, fulminating, when Megan from swissnex passed by and gave me a clue.

“You could try TaskRabbit?!” she said.

As the website states: TaskRabbit allows you to live smarter by connecting you with safe and reliable help in your neighborhood. Outsource your household errands and skilled tasks to trusted people in your community. It’s an old school concept — neighbors helping neighbors — reimagined for today.

All you need is an Internet connection, a local phone number and a credit card. That allowed April (a good bunny name) to come to my rescue. She’s the person who agreed to drive to Elizabeth’s house, pick up the lenses and bring them over to the Hack Day venue, while I hung out at the venue and quietly started writing this story from a comfortable sofa.

This convenience came at a cost. I had already spent 65 Swiss francs on the DHL delivery (apparently for nothing), and now I was adding the TaskRabbit fee (42 USD for the job and round trip). Of course I also needed the mobile phone equipment (subscription and device), but who hasn’t got that nowadays ? All of this, I figured, was the price of sight.

But all the technology and money combined would have meant nothing without the people, in this case a chain of dedicated ladies (Christelle, Elizabeth, Megan, and April). Network is energy, as the California Academy of Sciences planetarium show the day before had shown.

Unfortunately, there is more: April took a wrong turn. She had searched for directions in San Francisco instead of San Rafael, where the lenses were waiting. Same street name, wrong city. Seems like human error will always create surprises and new problems.

That was a minor one, however, compared to what follows.

On Sunday morning, when I tried to put on the lenses I had finally procured, guess what? They were the perfect correction for farsightedness. I am nearsighted. I was stuck in a blur and had wasted money and time and stress for nothing.

And while I was discovering TaskRabbit, which has been running here in the Bay Area for years, participants in Science Hack Day were inventing tomorrow’s technologies.

One of the brainstorm projects that was suggested by the community in the run-up to Science Hack Day was a Backpacking Planner app, which could avoid much of mess I’d gotten myself into.

That project was never implemented, but another group formed and developed a way of raising awareness about pollution through a “Smog-ifying Photos” app, showing how the world would be with more carbon emissions.

No need for me, I’m already seeing through a fog. But thanks!