At ThingMonk 2013

I attended ThingMonk 2013 conference partly because IBM’s doing a load of work around the Internet of Things (IoT). I figured it would be useful to find out what’s happening in the world of IoT at the moment. Also, I knew that, as a *Monk production, the food would be amazing.

What is the Internet of Things?

If you’re reading this, you’re familiar with using devices to access information, communicate, buy things, and so on over the Internet. The Internet of Things, at a superficial level, is just taking the humans out of the process. So, for example, if your washing machine were connected to the Internet, it could automatically book a service engineer if it detects a fault.

I say ‘at a superficial level’ because there are obviously still issues relevant to humans in an automated process. It matters that the automatically-scheduled appointment is convenient for the householder. And it matters that the householder trusts that the machine really is faulty when it says it is and that it’s not the manufacturer just calling out a service engineer to make money.

This is how James Governor of RedMonk, who conceived and hosted ThingMonk 2013, explains IoT:

What is ThingMonk 2013?

ThingMonk 2013 was a fun two-day conference in London. On Monday was a hackday with spontaneous lightning talks and on Tuesday were the scheduled talks and the evening party. I wasn’t able to attend Monday’s hackday so you’ll have to read someone else’s write-up about that (you could try Josie Messa’s, for instance).

The talks

I bought my Arduino getting started kit (which I used for my Christmas lights energy project in 2010) from Tinker London so I was pleased to finally meet Tinker’s former-CEO, Alexandra Dechamps-Sonsino, at ThingMonk 2013. I’ve known her on Twitter for about 4 years but we’d never met in person. Alex is also founder of the Good Night Lamp, which I blogged about earlier this year. She talked at ThingMonk about “the past, present and future of the Internet of Things” from her position of being part of it.

Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino, @iotwatch
Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino, @iotwatch

I think it was probably Nick O’Leary who first introduced me to the Arduino, many moons ago over cups of tea at work. He spoke at ThingMonk about wiring the Internet of Things. This included a demo of his latest project, NodeRED, which he and IBM have recently open sourced on GitHub.

Nick O'Leary talks about wiring the Internet of Things
Nick O’Leary talks about wiring the Internet of Things

Sadly I missed the previous day when it seems Nick and colleagues, Dave C-J and Andy S-C, won over many of the hackday attendees to the view that IBM’s MQTT and NodeRED are the coolest things known to developerkind right now. So many people mentioned one or both of them throughout the day. One developer told me he didn’t know why he’d not tried MQTT 4 years ago. He also seemed interested in playing with NodeRED, just as soon as the shock that IBM produces cool things for developers had worn off.

Ian Skerrett from Eclipse talked about the role of Open Source in the Internet of Things. Eclipse has recently started the Paho project, which focuses on open source implementations of the standards and protocols used in IoT. The project includes IBM’s Really Small Message Broker and Roger Light’s Mosquitto.

Ian Skerrett from Eclipse
Ian Skerrett from Eclipse

Andy Piper talked about the role of signals in the IoT.


There were a couple of talks about people’s experiences of startups producing physical objects compared with producing software. Tom Taylor talked about setting up Newspaper Club, which is a site where you can put together and get printed your own newspaper run. His presentation included this slide:

IMG_1534Matt Webb talked about producing Little Printer, which is an internet-connected device that subscribes to various sources and prints them for you on a strip of paper like a shop receipt.

IMG_1550Patrick Bergel made the very good point in his talk that a lot of IoT projects, at the moment, are aimed at ‘non-problems’. While fun and useful for learning what we can do with IoT technologies, they don’t really address the needs of real people (ie people who aren’t “hackers, hipsters, or weirdos”). For instance, there are increasing numbers of older people who could benefit from things that address problems social isolation, dementia, blindness, and physical and cognitive impairments. His point was underscored throughout the day by examples of fun-but-not-entirely-useful-as-is projects, such as flying a drone with fruit. That’s not to say such projects are a waste of time in themselves but that we should get moving on projects that address real problems too.

IMG_1539The talk which chimed the most with me, though, was Claire Rowland‘s on the important user experience UX issues around IoT. She spoke about the importance of understanding how users (householders) make sense of automated things in their homes.


The book

I bought a copy of Adrian McEwan‘s Designing The Internet of Things book from Alex’s pop-up shop, (Works)shop. Adrian’s a regular at OggCamp and kindly agreed to sign my copy of his book for me.

Adrian McEwan and the glamorous life of literary reknown.
Adrian McEwan and the glamorous life of literary reknown.

The food

The food was, as expected, amazing. I’ve never had bacon and scrambled egg butties that melt in the mouth before. The steak and Guinness casserole for lunch was beyond words. The evening party was sustained with sushi and tasty curry.

Thanks, James!

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The Ambient Kettle

Back in 2007, my Mum and I got a pair of Internet-connected Nabaztag bunnies. Aside from all the online content we could subscribe to using the bunnies, the most fun thing for me was that we could ‘pair’ our bunnies so that they would talk to each other. If I moved the ears on my bunny, the ears on my Mum’s bunny would move to match, and vice versa. The 250 physical miles disappear for a few seconds when you see the ears move and know that it’s because Mum is physically moving the ears of her bunny. I know exactly what she’s doing at that particular pointing in time, as if we’re briefly in the same room. The technical term for this is, apparently, ambient awareness.

My Nabaztag bunny
My Nabaztag bunny

The bunny ears experience of ambient awareness inspired my first (and, so far, only) Arduino project: Monitoring electricity using Christmas lights. The red/orange lights indicated the current electricity usage of my house and the blue/green lights indicated the current electricity usage of Mum and Dad’s house. The more electricity currently being used, the faster the lights flashed. Again, it was just that tiny tiny insight into what was happening 250 miles away. Just the mundanity of everyday life shared.

So I was curious about the Kickstarter project for the Good Night Lamp. The Good Night Lamp is a really nice and simple concept. One person has a Big Lamp (shaped like a  house) and they give Little Lamps, associated with the Big Lamp, to friends and/or family anywhere in the world. When the owner switches off the Big Lamp (when they go out or go to bed), the associated Little Lamps also switch off. An appealing part of it is that you can collect a Little Lamp from each of your family or group of friends and arrange them on a shelf so that before you go to bed at night, you can see each of them ‘say goodnight’ as their respective lights go out.

Good Night Lamp

The problem I see with the Good Night Lamp is similar to the one with the Nabaztag. While I think it’s great having simple devices that do just one thing well, it doesn’t half clutter up the place. These kinds of devices need shelf-space. And it has to be shelf-space you can see easily in a place you’ll often be or they don’t work. Maybe as people replace all their books with the more easily stored ebooks, living-room bookcases will become filled with ambient devices instead. I got to chatting with Ambient Orb fan Andy Stanford-Clark about it.

While my and my Mum’s’ Nabaztags have now died or gone into hibernation and the Christmas lights never made it as far as the tree, our more lasting providers of ambient awareness don’t even have their own physical forms. Instead, they’re software on our smartphones and tablets, devices that we have around anyway, wherever we are. In particular, SMS updates of my Mum and Dad’s Tweets.

Every morning, my Mum wakes up, has a coffee with my Dad, and reads interesting articles on her iPad. I know this from when I’ve visited them and because when she reads an interesting article, she tweets or retweets it and I receive about half-a-dozen txts in quick succession. Later in the afternoon, after they’ve got home from wherever they’ve been that day (or have found free wifi somewhere while they’re out) and are drinking another cup of coffee or tea, I receive another half-a-dozen txts pointing to interesting articles online. Just receiving the txts gives me an awareness of them waking up or sitting down to read the paper. Clicking the links to the articles gives me an insight into what they’re reading and how they’re probably feeling about the topics of the articles. The fairly mundane, everyday things that we wouldn’t remember, or bother, to talk about on the phone a week or so later.

As drinking coffee or tea seems to play a regular, if side, part in the activities I’m notified about, Andy and I came up with the idea of the Ambient Kettle. In my house, we have a whole house Current Cost monitor that is connected to a server out on the Internet. It was the feed from this server that we used in my Christmas Lights project. Since then, though, I’ve added individual appliance monitors (IAMs) to a few of the appliances around the house, including the kettle. The feeds from these IAMs also go to the server and so can be used by applications that know which data to request.

So Andy hacked up a (private) Twitter account, @ambientkettle, which my Mum follows. Each time the kettle boils in my house, the @ambientkettle account tweets to my Mum:

@ambientkettle tweets
@ambientkettle tweets

Without being physically present or explicitly letting her know that I am making a cup of tea, she can get a sense of what I’m doing. The messages in the tweets that @ambientkettle sends are pre-canned and chosen at random but made to be chatty enough that it seems a bit like the start of a conversation. Indeed, Mum sometimes tweets back to it to say that she and Dad are also having a cup of tea or are looking forward to one when they get home, or whatever. As I say, it’s mundane but it’s those kinds of mundane things that make everyday life.

I’ll be interested to see how the Good Night Lamp gets taken up. It was featured in the very mainstream Daily Mail yesterday and its founding team has a good record of startups, product design, interaction design, and Internet of Things creativeness. And there’s something very appealing about having ambient awareness of friends and family when we’re geographically spread apart.

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Monkigras 2013: Scaling craft

The work of William Morris, my GCSE history teacher said, was a bit of a moral dilemma. Morris was a British designer born during the Industrial Revolution. British (and then world) industry was moving rapidly towards mass production by replacing traditional, cottage-industry production processes with the more efficient, and therefore profitable, machines. One thing that suffered under this move to mass production was the focus on function and quantity over decoration and quality. Morris reacted against this by designing and producing decorations like wallpaper and textiles using the traditional craft techniques of skilled craftspeople. My history teacher’s point was that although Morris, a passionate socialist, was able to create high quality goods by using smaller-scale production methods, only wealthy people could afford to buy his designs; which was hardly equality in action. On the other hand, the skills of craftspeople were being retained, quality goods were being produced, and the craftspeople were getting paid for that quality of their work.

My pretty, handcrafted latte
My pretty, handcrafted latte

Monkigras 2013, in London last week, took on this theme of ‘scaling craft’ in the context of beer, coffee, and software. All parts of this trinity of software development can benefit hugely from a focus on quality over quantity. Before I went to Monkigras, I wasn’t really sure what to expect from a tech event advertised as having a lot of beer. It did have a lot of beer (and coffee) available but if you didn’t want it you could avoid it (several people I talked to said they didn’t usually drink beer). And no one seemed to get ridiculously drunk. And there were a lot of very cool talks.

The beer was also a fun analogy to apply to software development. Despite pubs in the UK closing hand over fist at the moment, microbreweries are on the rise. Microbrewing is about producing beer in small quantities on a commercial basis so that quality can be maintained whilst still viable as a business. One of the things we learnt from a brewer at Monkigras is that the taste of water varies according to where it comes from. Water is a major component of beer so if the taste of your water supply changes, the taste of your beer changes. To maintain the quality of the beer you brew, you must work within the natural resources available to you and not over-expand. Similarly, quality comes from skilled and knowledgeable people who need to be paid for their skill. If you take on cheaper staff and train them less so that you can make more profit, you will end up with a poorer quality product. You get the idea.

Handcrafting a wooden spoon.
Handcrafting a wooden spoon.

This principle applies to all areas of craft, whether it’s producing quality coffee, a quality wooden spoon, quality conference food, or organising a quality conference, you have to focus on quality and ensure that if you scale what you do so that it’s more readily available to more people, you don’t sacrifice quality at the same time. And, importantly, that you know when to stop. Bigger doesn’t necessarily mean better.

Software is misleadingly easy to produce. Unlike making physical objects, there is very little initial cost to producing software; you can make copies and then distribute them to customers over the Internet at very little cost. Initially, at least, it’s all in the skill of the craftspeople and their ability to identify their target users and market. If they can’t make what people will buy, they will go out of business very quickly. As software development companies get larger, the people who make the software inside the company become further removed from the selling of their software to their customers. So they become more focused on what they are close to, the technology but not who will use it.

Phil Gilbert on IBM Design Thinking
Phil Gilbert on IBM Design Thinking

Phil Gilbert, IBM’s new General Manager of Design, comes from a 30-year career in startups, most recently Lombardi, where design was core to their culture. IBM has a portfolio of 3000 software products so, when Lombardi was acquired by IBM, Phil set about simplifying the IBM Business Process Management portfolio of products, reducing 21 different products to just four and kicking off a cultural change to bring design and thinking about users to the centre of product development. Whilst praising IBM’s history of design and a recent server product design award, he also acknowledged at Monkigras: “We are rethinking everything at IBM. Our portfolio is a mess today and we need to get better”. Changing a culture like IBM’s isn’t easy but I’ve seen and experienced a big difference already. Phil’s challenge is to scale the high-quality user-focused design values of a startup to a century-old global corporation.

One of the things that struck me most at Monkigras, and appealed to me most as a social scientist, was the focus on the human side. Despite it being a developer conference, I remember seeing only one slide that contained code. The overriding theme was about people and culture, not technology; how to maintain quality by maintaining a culture that respects its craftspeople and how to retain both even if the organisation gets bigger, even if that naturally limits how much the organisation can grow. Personal analogy was also a big thing…

Laser-scanned model of the engine
Laser-scanned model of the engine

Cyndi Mitchell from Logspace talked about her family’s hog farm and working within the available resources. Shanley Kane from Basho used Dante’s spheres to describe best product management practices. Steve Citron-Pousty from RedHat use his background as an ecologist to manage communities and ‘developer ecosystems’ (don’t just call it an ecosystem; treat it like one). Diane Mueller from ActiveState talked about her 20%-time project to build a crowdsourced database of totem poles and the challenges of understanding what gets people to want to contribute to such projects. Elco Jacobs talked about his BrewPi project: automatically managing the temperature of his homebrewing fridge using a RaspberryPi based controller, and how he has open-sourced to build a community to kick start it as a potential small business. Rafe Colburn from Etsy more directly makes the link between craft and software engineering in his slides.

3D printer making a spoon
3D printer making a spoon

I don’t know much about William Morris so I don’t know which presentations he would have enjoyed or disagreed with. Morris was a preservationist and started the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings to ensure that old buildings get repaired and not restored to an arbitrary point in the past. So maybe he would have found laser-scanning and 3D printing interesting. Chris Thorpe is a model train geek and likes to hand-make his own models of real-life objects. He too is interested in alternatives to mass manufacturing and has started to look at how to make model kits. He uses a laser to scan the objects and a 3D printer to prototype the models. He can then send the model to a commercial company who can make it into kits for him to sell. He has recently used his laser-scanning technique to scan a rediscovered old Welsh railway engine to preserve it, virtually at least, in the state in which it was found.

I had a great time with lots of cool and fun people. Well done to @monkchips for scaling a conference to just the right level of intimacy and buzz. The last thing I saw before I left was the craftsman making a wooden spoon pitted in competition against the 3D printer making a plastic spoon.

You can find many of the slide presentations and more about the conference Lanyrd.

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UX hack at London Green Hackathon

At the London Green Hackathon a few weeks ago, the small team that had coalesced around our table (Alex, Alex, Andy, and me) had got to about 10pm on Saturday night without a good idea for a hack, in this case a piece of cool software relevant to the theme of sustainability. We were thinking about creating a UK version of the US-based Good Guide app using on their API to which we had access. The Good Guide rates products according to their social, environmental, and health impacts; the company makes this data available in an API, a format that programmers can use to write applications. Good Guide uses this API itself to produce a mobile app which consumers can use to scan barcodes of products to get information about them before purchase.

Discussing ideas

The problem is that the 60,000 products listed in the Good Guide are US brands. We guessed that some would be common to the UK though. We wondered if it would be possible to match the Good Guide list against the product list so that we could look up the Good Guide information about those products at least. Unfortunately, when we (Andy) tried this, we discovered that Amazon uses non-standard product IDs in its site so it wasn’t possible to match the two product lists.

The equivalent of the Good Guide in the UK is The Good Shopping Guide, of which we had an old copy handy. The Good Shopping Guide is published each year as a paperback book which, while a nicely laid out read, isn’t that practical for carrying with you to refer to when shopping. We discovered that The Ethical Company (who produce the Good Shopping Guide) have also released an iPhone app of the book’s content but it hasn’t received especially good reviews; a viewing of the video tour of the app seems to reveal why.

Quite late at night

By this point it was getting on for midnight and the two coders in our team, Andy and Alex, had got distracted hacking a Kindle. Alex and I, therefore, decided to design the mobile app that we would’ve written had we (a) had access to the Good Shopping Guide API and (b) been able to write the code needed to develop the app.

While we didn’t have an actual software or hardware hack to present back at the end of the hackathon weekend, we were able to present our mockups which we called our ‘UX hack’ (a reference to the apparently poor user experience (UX) of the official Good Shopping Guide mobile app). Here are the mockups themselves, along with a summary of the various ideas our team had discussed throughout the first day of the hackathon:

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