Category Archives: Achievements

Dev8D and community networking

If there is one stereotype that Dev8d well and truly banishes it is that developers are unsociable nerds who prefer to code alone. The community, networking and collaboration at Dev8D is one of the most immediately noticeable features of the event and, according to the participants, the most valuable.

“I really enjoy drive-by debugging when you just happen to be able to solve a problem for that chap coding next to you, that’s really satisfying,” explains University of Southampton developer Chris Gutteridge. Another, Steve Coppin from the University of Kent, describes how, through collaboration, his team has been able to work more efficiently on a project they brought to Dev8D.

“Creating the plug in back at the university would have taken us two weeks. But we’ve actually been able to do it here at Dev8D in two days, and we’ve done it better. That’s definitely saved us time in the long-term,” he says. “Everything at Dev8D just fell into place for us, from discovering LTI to being able to work directly with the expert who developed the tool. And I imagine what happened to us has also happened to many other people at Dev8D as well.”

Community networking and collaboration means that more gets done in a shorter space of time because resources and expertise are pooled. Connections between developers are made that can be drawn on again in the future, and links are made between projects and people working in similar areas, or with complementary or contrasting skill sets. Developers benefit by learning from each other, institutions benefit from the wider knowledge base their developers have access to, and, ultimately, society benefits from the way in which the creativity and innovation of these developers both supports the researchers they work with and helps to make the internet is a better space for everyone.

“I would argue that mixing talented people together in such a fashion is definitely very good for the software industry in the UK,” says Pascal Belouin, who is researching social science for software developers.

According to Bradley McLean, chief technology officer of Duraspace, events such as Dev8D prove themselves to be of value in “fostering innovation and making efficient use of resources. They enable you to find out what’s going on in other institutions and that saves time and money and gets a better product. Dev8D demonstrates that you can set out to have that as your sole goal – it doesn’t have to be a secondary effect of some other goal.”

The success of Dev8D in this respect has led to calls for the concept to be replicated in other parts of the world, and at more regular intervals. One idea is to make the event quarterly and international because, says McLean, “it would allow the ideas and concepts that emerge to get a refresh every few months and you could track areas you are interested in through tweets and blogging”.

But could the Dev8D community also work virtually? Graham Klyne, from Oxford University, is part of the Developer Focus group that is looking at ways to build the community. He’s exploring the possibility of extending the notion of “developers training developers” – which is better and more cost effective than most of the alternatives – beyond the relatively small number who can physically attend Dev8D and move it into a virtual space, with a focus on the particular kinds of problems facing higher education and further education developers.

“We’ve identified the fact that vibrant communities of interest already exist but, in many cases, there are not easily exploited links between those communities. For example, I’m fairly well connected with the linked data community but when I’m working with single sign on security I don’t know where to go outside my institution,” explains Klyne.

The notion behind what he has dubbed “who you gonna call” is that when a developer hits a technical problem that might be particular to higher and further education institutions, then they always have a community to turn to for advice.

Dev8D offers proof in action that this approach works, on many levels. As one participant describes it, “Met with a developer on the first day who fixed a problem I was having. Now I have a contact any further problems.”

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.

Dev8D challenge ideas and winners

One of the more unusual and exciting aspects of Dev8D is the idea of ‘bounties’,  where developers create something during the event in response to a specific challenge. It calls for fast and furious coding, collaboration to draw on others’ expertise, and…a lot of caffeine.  The coding-collaboration-caffeine combination produces some impressive results.
MuMoMaCo image 2
This year there challenges in ten categories:

  1. Linked Data API/Data Challenge
  2. EDINA – The Unlock Places API & Geo/Data Challenge
  3. Building the best IMS Basic LTI Tool Blackboard / Learning Tools
  4. Interoperability API/Data Challenge
  5. Memento: Time Travel for the Web
  6. Internet Archive API/Data Challenge
  7. Mobile API/Data Challenge
  8. Microsoft Zentity Challenge
  9. EPrints 3.2 API/data challenge
  10. MLA Challenge

There were entries in all categories – read on for all the ideas and to find out who won.

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What makes a book a book?

Makers and till roll versionIf you’ve ever wondered what a book would look like printed out on a till receipt roll, like a digital age On the Road, then ponder no longer. Ben O’Steen has done just that with Cory Doctorow’s latest novel, Makers.

First point to note is that this experiment is possible because Doctorow releases all his books under a Creative Commons licence, which makes such coolness both straightforward and legal. Anyone can download the book for free, reformat it to suit their needs and then print it – or not – as they wish.

But while O’Steen’s book-as-a-till-receipt is funny, quirky, and also surprisingly aesthetically pleasing, he is making a more serious point about the way we read, online and offline.

“I’ve been experimenting with a different form of printing with no pagination, where you are effectively printing a stream,” explains O’Steen. “Books are printed out because physical books are comfortable objects to use. This book is printed out but it isn’t at all comfortable to use and it’s not browseable either. So even though this contains the same words on paper, it is a far less useful thing in real life than the actual book.”

“I’m looking at how books are digitised and drawing the allusion that if you take a book and scan it in you shouldn’t necessarily try to replicate that exact version of the book on the screen. People are used to scrolling down on computer screens, not to left or right. The only applications that do this kind of scrolling are books put online by digitisation projects and this can make them unintuitive to use.”

Makers and till roll version 2

O’Steen is also intrigued by the trust that people put into receipts and signatures. They really shouldn’t, he argues, when “for fifty pounds on eBay you can buy a receipt printer that can completely replicate the average receipt.” Anybody wanting to fake a receipt simply needs to scan one in, so that it can even have the right logo and other shop or restaurant details, add in their own sums and then print it off.

These printing experiments are part of a wider exploration of the spectrum between physical and digital. He demonstrates a cute mini Polaroid printer, a mobile Bluetooth device that prints on small cards. While these may seem ideal for children’s parties, O’Steen has ideas of how this neat little gadget could be put to more educational uses.

“If a class of kids are on a school trip to a museum, the teacher could have one or two of these printers,” he suggests. “The students could take pictures of exhibits using their cameraphones, the teachers prints them out and then they can stick them into their workbooks and write about them underneath. Again, it’s about looking how at the physical and the digital can complement each other.”

The final part of O’Steen’s digital/physical project was to take an object that was born digital – in this case his blog – print it out and turn it into a hardback book. Find out how the experiment fared on O’Steen’s blog, Random Hacks.

Interview: Katie Pekacar, policy advisor at the MLA

Museums need to stop building websites and start taking a stealth approach to getting their content out to new audiences, says Katie Pekacar of the Museums Libraries and Archives Council (MLA).  At Dev8D she issued a challenge to developers to come up with ideas to take the rich collections offered by the cultural heritage sector and find ingenious new ways to open them up. Here she explains the thinking behind the challenge.

What is the MLA?

The Museums Libraries and Archives Council (MLA) provides strategic guidance on a regional and local level to around 1800 accredited museums that range from national museums, such as the Tate, to tiny little organisations with really specialist collections such postal, weaponry, shoe and button collections…

Why are you at Dev8D?

The issue we keep coming across is that there is a lot of amazing content out there but much of it is hidden. The answer is not to build more websites but to find ways to bring content together so that it makes sense to people, and to put it in unexpected places, places they more commonly go to where it is not necessarily signposted as museum content. We want to be able to get this stuff into people’s lives – infiltrate it, you could say!

To do this, we need to make links between those who can do this stuff and those in the sector who are less digitally inclined. We’re thinking about some kind of ‘buddying’ scheme for the sector where people can work together to see what can be done, and we will end up with better quality data at the end.

Image from Durham Oriental MuseumWhat kind of datasets are on offer?

There’s a wide range. For example, Culture 24, which is a bit like a cultural Time Out, covers 3400 venues with mapping geo data, images and editorial for them. Also included in the dataset on offer at Dev8D are images from the Women’s Library and Durham Oriental Museum (right).

What kinds of ideas have developers here been talking to you about?

The response has been fantastic! One idea has been to use facial recognition techniques against some of the old paintings in the collections so you can find out which figures from history you most look like, and then maybe put it on your Facebook page as your profile picture. Or using Google Maps and uploading collection images relating to areas so that when look at the map, interesting images from the collection appear rather than a picture of the building. It’s a very simple way of piquing interest.

It’s these kinds of ideas and creativity we’re looking for. It’s about finding a hook, different ways of engaging.

How have you found Dev8D?

I expected it to be lots of geeks with computers and didn’t expect it to be so easy to engage with people. I thought that they would be peering at computer screens full of lines and lines of code but I’m seeing stuff I recognise. I also wasn’t expecting there to be so much networking. I thought I would hover around feeling confused for most of the day so it’s been great not to feel like that.

I can imagine bringing curators to this kind of thing, and though they might not necessarily understand everything that’s going on, they would be able to talk to people here about the collections and find stuff out and people would be interested.

I’ve also been really pleased by how many people want to work on projects that you can sum up in a sentence, that can be explained so that anyone can understand, and that’s what we need in terms of outputs. People find it hard to understand what you mean by ‘code’ but if you say here’s a widget that helps you find images by keyword in your area then they get it. This idea of opening up data is tricky topic in the sector but the way to go about it is to show the benefits of doing it and then people will be queuing up to do it.

I have an idea: eco-game

Audawe ElesedyAudawe Elesedy, environmentalist

“My idea is for an eco game. It’s going to be open source from the very beginning, which means there is no fixed plan for exactly how it will look, or what it will do. It’s still very much in the concept stages and we need people to get involved and help us guide it.

The game needs to be centred around environmental issues. Perhaps we could use real-world data like Government statistics on climate change, or people’s individual carbon footprints.

We could look at aggregating tweets or allowing people to record their browsing history, we could even hook in with arduinos to help people bring the game into their real worlds and create sensors for their homes.

The game would be a challenge for players, with problems to solve and rewards to win – it would have to be a satisfying experience to make it fun to play.

We’re still at the very start of how we work on this, and we want it to be a shared open source development from the very start. So get in touch with me if you’d like to get involved!”

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.”

Interview: Sam Easterby-Smith and iPhone apps

Happiness Pipe iPhone versionI run a small consultancy business in Manchester called Spotlight Kid specialising in iPhone and mobile related stuff, generally focusing on applications for education, entertainment and the arts. I run training courses, strategic workshops and do actual real development work! In the old days I used to work for CETIS at Bolton.

Why iPhone apps?

I think the iPhone is interesting is because it changes the context of computing. Instead of it being a desk-based thing, or a sitting down in café with a laptop kind of thing, it becomes a wherever you are, stood on a street corner, always in your pocket kind of thing. While mobile devices, even with connectivity, have existed for years, the iPhone was the big game-changer in terms of making it usable and rather popular. Likewise, I think if the iPad has a niche it belongs on the sofa or the coffee table, again shifting the context.

And is the iPhone a Dev8D kind of thing?

There’s certainly interest here. I led a workshop yesterday where we took something like 30-40 people with no knowledge of programming in Objective-C from ‘hello world’ to building a very simple Twitter search client. That’s already had the result that one of the people doing the workshop has started using what he learnt to do to build a lightswitch into his phone in the Arduino workshop. Very impressive!

What iPhone projects have you been working on here?

I’ve been particularly thinking about navigation within buildings. This is a problem for most GPS-enabled hardware at the moment, it becomes very inaccurate within a building and so the accuracy of your location goes from 10m to anywhere up a kilometre or two.  I’ve been thinking about how to solve that problem and looking at data we can use in an augmented reality type of context, including the resources provided by the MLA and other bits of geo-tagged data we can find. It’s about using augmented reality techniques to visualise geo-located data of various kinds.

[Sam showed me the version of this he is working on: point the phone in a direction and  notes pop up on the screen displaying landmarks and their distances from that point, both within the building (such as the Project Zone) and outside (such as Russell Square tube station). In addition, a note about which event or talk is on in each location within the building appears.

The idea is that this will be a generic tool that could be used with any data set from a conference or even a music festival or arts event, such as Glastonbury or the Edinburgh festival]

Last year you made the Developer Happiness Pipe. Is it back again this year?

It’s back – with an iPhone version! Getting here this year I made a couple of minor changes – most important was adding a JSON output format so that can catch the data from it and export it. So I can pick that up from the iPhone up to work out what the current happiness rating is.  Anthony Seminara has made a set of Lego people images representing 10 different states of happiness.

What are your top 5 tips for building iPhone apps?

  1. Don’t make it too complicated
  2. Do your memory management properly
  3. Make something that people will want to use everyday
  4. Make something that works better on your phone than on your desktop
  5. Read Apple’s user interface guidelines otherwise they may reject it from the store

RepRap: the self-replicating 3D printer

For anyone who has read Cory Doctorow’s Makers (and if you haven’t then I urge you to. It’s free under a Creative Commons licence) the idea of a self-replicating 3D printer will not come as a surprise. However, there is still something mind-boggling about seeing one in action and thinking through some of its potential uses.

RepRap demo

That was the treat in store for Dev8D participants today when Adrian Bowyer from the University of Bath demonstrated the RepRap. It’s a 3D printer that will not only print out plastic objects – from children’s shoes to doorhandles – but will also print out most of itself. As Bowyer says, “anyone with a RepRap can make one for a friend!” What’s more, as it is licenced as open source, under GPL, with all the instructions available online, anyone with a RepRap can make one for a friend for free and with their own modifications and improvements.

RepRap printerThe RepRap can currently copy about half of its own parts and the others (such as nuts and bolts) are almost entirely available from general hardware stores with a couple of specialist components needing to be bought online. At its print rate of about 19ml an hour, it takes around 2.5 days to replicate itself. It costs about £300. To put that in perspective, the cheapest commercial 3D printer costs over £10,000. On top of that, non-open source 3D printers only allow their own, branded plastic cartridges to be used – at an inflated price. And, of course, the machines do not self-replicate.

“Companies have no commercial interest in making a machine that copies itself – as a company it’s the last thing you want your machine to do,” explains Bowyer.  “But the fact that it is not a commercial entity does not mean that it’s not in the interests of the end user.”

And the potential for the end user, particularly if that user is in a developing country, is where it gets really exciting.  At the moment, the objects people are making and sharing (see http://www.thingiverse.com) are interesting but are limited by the constraints of the material the RepRap can use (it works with a plastic, polylactic acid, made from starch). When the RepRap can deal with multiple materials, such as electronic components, the landscape will really open up.

“One of the things about making stuff is that you need a lot of capital to make almost anything – it could cost thousands or millions of pounds to set up a screwdriver factory, for example –  but a printer like this allows you to make them for a couple of hundred pounds. A small community could start putting a foot on the first rung of the manufacturing ladder and the ability to start manufacturing with low capital costs brings considerable benefits to the world’s poorest people,” says Bowyer.

“As it’s all open source they can do it without spending a penny apart from the materials and nobody can take it away from them – it’s on the web and all over the planet and nobody can kill it off,” he adds.

RepRap in action

There will undoubtedly be some commercial interests who might be very keen to try to kill off the self-replicating 3D printer. Bowyer compares the impact that printers like the RepRap will have on the manufacturing industry with the effect new digital technology had on photographic film. The difference is that, in this case, it won’t be one industry completely replaced by a technical innovation but chunks of all industries that are affected.

“It will be difficult to put this genie back in the bottle,” he says. “Industry will divide into two camps, just like with music and MP3s: those who embrace it and can see how they might benefit from having their designs replicated, and those who don’t and try to fight it.”

And what of Cory Doctorow’s point that “printing AK-47s is so much weirder and more interesting as a futuristic effect of the 3D printer than printing trademarked objects will ever be”? Is Bowyer concerned that he might have made a monster?

Bowyer smiles and takes a philosophical approach to the issue. “Every technology humanity has ever created has been used to make weapons. If I really wanted to cause mayhem, I’d buy a lathe, not one of these. But having said that, yes people may use this to make weapons but it is also human nature to make far more ambulances than we make tanks. It will not change human behaviour but will allow them to behave in different ways. There will be more medical equipment printed than weapons.”

RepRap shoe

All photos by Ben O’Steen, licensed under Creative Commons

How to make a low-cost electronic whiteboard

Wii remote 2Need an interactive, back-projecting electronic whiteboard? Build your own from household objects!

You will need:

1 sheet of tracing paper (70p)
1 Wii remote
1 customised crayon* (£5)
1 laptop
1 LED projector (£250)Crayon

*Take crayon large enough to take on AA battery. Open, remove all ink, insert switch-operated infrared light and battery, tape back together.

How it works:

1. Projector projects image from laptop onto paper (aka the screen)
2. Image is visible from other side of paper
3. Person uses infra-red crayon (aka the mouse cursor) to draw on the screen
4. Infra-red signal picked up by Wii remote (aka the infrared camera)
5. Wii transmits data wirelessly to laptop
6. Laptop adds cursor data to image
7. Image sent to projector, cycle repeats

projector setup

And as if that wasn’t enough, the team are also experimenting with depth. By adding simple infrared positioning lights (the same technology used in parking sensors and automatic toilet flushing sensors) the system will be able to add 3D positioning to the data displayed on screen.

Whiteboard system developed by Emma Tonkin (UKOLN, University of Bath), Andrew Hewson (UKOLN, University of Bath) and Greg Tourte (School of Geographical Sciences, University of Bristol). Photography by Andrew Hewson.