Kate's Comment

Thoughts on British ICT, energy & environment, cloud computing and security from Memset's MD

Hacking Britain’s Recovery

As we enter 2012, and the world economy continues to stutter, teetering on the brink of another global recession fuelled this time not by the banks defaulting, but the prospect of entire governments being declared bankrupt. In my last post I described how I believe that the time is nonetheless ripe for a technology revolution, and indeed one befitting times of austerity thanks to a resurgence in hardware hacking (ie. do it yourself electronics).

Looking back over my lifetime the superstars of technology in some ways did us disservice. I applaud Mr. Gates, the late Mr Jobs and others’ achievements in making technology seamless and universally accessible, but by doing so they distanced us from it, making it mysterious. Most kids have little understanding of how the machines that infest their lives work, which is a shame. It is also undesirable to most since we end up in a world where a few are able to exploit the many with their clever wizardry – look only to Apple’s eye-watering profits which recently surpassed mighty Google’s revenues!

An old passion reignited

I was fortunate to have been brought up by an electronics engineer (my Dad) who had a keen interest in computers. I have fond memories of him teaching me how to mock things up with a bread board (a rapid prototyping system for designing electronic circuits) and the nuances of good soldering. Aged 9 I was making simple burglar alarm systems so I could tell when my sister was trying to sneak into my bedroom, by 11 I was making my BBC Master computer do real world interactions via its parrallel port and some circuitry I’d rigged up and at 12 I built a model hovercraft. Making such devices is not actually that complicated!

I’m ashamed to admit that I allowed those passions to fade. I moved on to programming instead and immersed myself in the virtual world, then the Internet, but in the last year my passion for real-world electronics and computer interfacing have been rekindled. I’m delighted to report that I am also very much not alone in this! Perhaps the best known “movement” are Hackspaces – places where like-minded hackers can get together, pool ideas and resources and make cool stuff.

One of the technologies that has really helped us hackers is Arduino – a programmable, open source, simple to use board for under £20 that you can hook up to your own electronics to do all sorts of things. Combining computing and home-brew electronics just got practical again, whereas during the age of the PC it was frankly rather impractical for most since you needed quite advanced skills to directly interface basic electronics with a PC and they are expensive and large so you can’t stick one in a box to run your door bell, for instance.

In short, modern personal computers had distanced the user from the underlying technology compared to my old BBC Master which has made them accessible to a wider audience but also limited innovation to a small number of well-resourced companies. Even Linux did not help much since although the operating system is more accessible to a hacker the underlying hardware was still a PC and not really designed to have bits of DIY circuitry attached. But that is changing.

The Internet of Things

I’m not suggesting that hacking with home-brew electronics and small computers will bring the UK out of a double dip recession. What has changed though is the addition of ubiquitous network connectivity into that mixture along with an acceleration of innovation.

What I am in fact predicting is that 2012 will be the year that the Internet of Things really takes off, driven by the hacker community.

It is already here, but what will rocket-boost it is the hacker community empowered by cheap open source hardware platforms. There are two platforms in particular I’d like to highlight: Nanode and Raspberry PI. Nanode is an Arduino with the capability to speak over IP built in conveniently. It is actually quite a pain to make an Arduino communicate via IP or even serial by itself (I’ve tried, trust me!) but Nanodes make it easy, and they are dead-cheap – under £20 for a kit and about an hour to solder the components onto the PCB.

Even more exciting is the British Raspberry PI; an ARM GNU/Linux computer for $25. ARM are the British central processor chips that used to be in Acorn computers and are now powering the world’s smart phones, tablets, netbooks and more. With such a cheap and powerful computer available the possibilities are no longer limited by money, but rather by one’s imagination. I am not suggesting that all those new devices will be one-off non-commercial affairs either. As we have seen with the ‘Web and with smart phones many of the services and apps that have been developed have gone on to become major commercial offerings, and I would expect the same of the exponentially-increasing network-connected devices littering our lives. The revolutionary aspect will be, I believe, that everyday people will drive the innovations rather than established corporations.

Limitless possibilities


To give you some examples, I have a few Nanode projects on the go myself – the image to the right is of the first one I built. First I’m using one to monitor the moisture level in the soil of my sole houseplant which was inherited from my Mum who in turn got it from my grandfather. I’m hopeless at remembering to water things and it is a very precious plant, so I have applied technology to the problem. The circuitry is very simple and rather than worry about polling data and doing charts etc. myself my next step is going to be to get it publishing data to Pachube, a cloud-based service to do all the useful stuff you want with data like drawing charts, sharing it with people and delivering notifications to your phone.

Another more commercial project is a temperature and humidity monitor (a Nanode with a SHT15 sensor) to monitor the environment in my cupboard under the stairs which is my home’s nerve centre (I’ve noticed it is getting a bit hot thanks to the collection of IT kit in there). My plan is to use the eventual design in our data centres as well – why pay some vendor £hundreds for an IP data centre environmental sensor when we can get a job lot built for us on the cheap?

I’ve got numerous other ideas and I’m not alone. Hackers are out there working on cheap-and-cheerful solutions for everything from home-care for the elderly to asset tracking in the field to home and industrial energy management. It does not stop with the individual applications either though; looking at the likes of Pachube one starts to realise the enormous potential of pooling and analyzing all the data we are starting to collect.

British invention

Britons are fabulous inventors – our history is steeped with examples of ingenuity – but we have arguably lost our way. I believe that it is time to correct that and that these low-cost, flexible, open source, community driven platforms are an ideal vehicle to reignite the nation’s passion for invention and innovation. Further, many of the most inspiring developments are happening right here in Blighty – Nanode and Raspberry PI are British and if you want to see something really cool check out these Arduino-based aerial drones.

With the Euro-zone teetering on the brink of collapse and a new recession looming we should fall back on our strengths and look to technology innovation to drive our economy forwards. ARM is the perfect example; they don’t make anything, that is all done in Asia, but they are enormously successful at creating the intellectual property and licensing it to a hungry and growing global market.

So, hackers of Britain, get out your soldering irons, make your way to your local Hackspace, share your ideas, ask the “stupid” questions (there is no such thing ;) and have a go at bending technology to your will. We can all be wizards now!

 

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