This hackspace fuels a small town’s creativity and digital ambitions

Martin Bryant, August 17, 2016 3 min read

This article was originally posted on the Tech North website.

Sometimes the most interesting tech stories are off the beaten track, away from familiar big cities with their co-working spaces. In the small town of Leigh, one doctor’s frustration with NHS computer systems ended up leading to the foundation of a growing hackspace.

Situated on the edge the town centre, Leigh Hackspace plays host to a community of makers. From coding, to electronics, to fashion design, to 3D printing, this is a creative space with few clear boundaries.

“Think of it like a gym,” says founder Marcus Baw. “This is a community of people who want to make, and we give them the facilities.” The non-profit Hackspace charges a monthly fee that’s low enough to be widely accessible. But that comes with the expectation that members will give time back to the community to help improve the space. A number of small, creative businesses are now based there.

Leigh Hackspace

Leigh needs it

Baw founded the space in Leigh because, in his words “it’s towns like this that need it. You could put a hackspace in the Manchester Northern Quarter and people would just walk in off the street. But here, local schools don’t tell kids that tech is something they can do.

“Local tech companies struggle to hire. Wigan Council (Leigh’s local authority) believes in ‘digital’ as a hashtag and buzzword. They want to conjure ‘Digital Wigan’ into existence, but how does it happen?” It happens through accessible community initiatives like this, according to Baw. Indeed, when I visited last week, children were there taking part in coding and 3D printing projects.

Thursday night is #codeclub at #leighhackspace! Remember to bring your own device! #code #ruby #rails #coding #scratch

A photo posted by Leigh Hackspace (@leighhackspace) on

The Hackspace’s current location isn’t its first. In true grassroots style, the team behind it have worked upwards from the most basic of facilities. It first opened in a shop unit in the centre of town but the situation was hardly ideal. There was no running water on site for example, which meant events required considerable advance planning.

Now things are shaping up well, even if the space is a work in progress. There are plans for a media production area, a laser cutter, an upgraded 3D printer, a CNC milling machine and a kiln. Oh, and there will even be a cafe soon, too. A recently hired, dedicated staff member means the space is now better co-ordinated. Baw found it difficult to manage a growing community and do the freelance coding work that pays his way.

leigh hackspace saw

Doctor, coder, hackspace founder

The path Baw took to running Leigh Hackspace is unusual to say the least. A doctor in hospitals and then at GP surgeries, he drifted into the healthcare IT space in frustration at how poor many NHS systems were. He wanted to build an open source healthcare IT system, flexible and interoperable with other systems around the world. That would be a stark contrast to the often limited and proprietary systems built by NHS contractors.

Leigh Hackspace 3d printer

“Multinational IT firms prefer lock-in,” says Baw. “They’re contracted to provide open systems but work around the terms of the contract. They use underhanded tactics to shaft the NHS out of more money.”

Baw taught himself to code and now earns a living as a freelance developer. He’s still working towards his dream of an open health system and runs OpenHealthHub.org as a resource for others interested in the movement.

A side effect of Baw’s journey into software development is that he also drifted into the maker community. Regardless of his healthtech plans, he’s already made an impact. Leigh Hackspace is a resource the whole town can benefit from, and one that has the potential to make a real impact on its future.

Read next: This startup wants to bring real-time smarts to the NHS

co-working, Manchester, North West, Early Stage