Many of Azavea’s staff set aside 10% of their time to pursue either a personal R&D project or a structured training and learning program. The staff R&D program is aimed at enabling people to try out new technologies, improve our processes, contribute to open source projects or push the technical boundaries of our products. In order to both give people social permission to pursue their R&D projects as well as to share the results across the company, we do a few regular activities:
- Monthly R&D Code Sprint – On one Friday per month everyone has a chance to either focus on your R&D project or collaborate with others on theirs without feeling guilty that you’ll be interrupting them
- Monthly R&D newsletter – Short notes about what each person has accomplished
- Quarterly R&D Social – A chance to do some show-and-tell (with beers and snacks) on what you’ve accomplished, answer questions from your colleagues and get feedback on the work. Our staff from Minneapolis and Cambridge also make the trip to Philadelphia in order to keep the face-to-face ties.
This month we did something a little different. Instead of the quarterly R&D Social, we did a whole day in which we worked on some completely different projects. For this first Azavea Hack Day, we focused on sensors. The last couple of years have seen an explosion in the number of low-cost sensors and the range of phenomena about which data can be captured. Our smart phones are packed with sensors and there are now many low cost sensor systems with more appearing all the time: Twine, Air Quality Egg, balloon/kite mapping, DIY drones, Raspberry Pi, and Arduino to name a few. There are also more software systems for consuming and transforming the data that comes from these sensors – Cosm (Pachube), OpenRTMS and Funf – as well as new ways to display and respond to sensor information. I think we are headed to a time when our cities are constellations of millions of sensors that will remake urban life. Phil Silva, who works on TreeKIT and is one of our urban forestry partners, wrote recently about city, sensors and cyborgs, highlighting the combination of regulation, environmental justice and sensor innovation. And The Economist recently outlined the mathematical relationships between cities of different sizes and how the growth of sensor networks will turn cities into urban research laboratories. Well, we want in on this new urban sensor trend.
Our Sensor Hack Day was intended to not only try to build a sensor-related project in a day but also to encourage people to work with folks outside their team, try out new ideas, and cultivate new skills.
After a Soldering Boot Camp (which was also perhaps a sweltering boot camp after we opened all the windows a hot, humid Philadelphia day), people broke into five teams:
- Minority Report UI with Kinect – The team wired up Kinect sensors and used the KineticSpace toolkit to manipulate a map using hand gestures in the air. Josh suddenly bore a remarkable resemblance to Tom Cruise.
- Light motion sensor – Carissa and Matt D. got a motion sensor to control the power on a desk lamp
- RFID Inventory – Justin and Matt M. got an RFID tag reader to save a record when a device with the tag attached was nearby; built it with Node.js and MongoDB
- Botanicalls – A busted Botanicalls sensor was repaired with a prosthetic moisture sensor that Matt scrounged from the building. This was stuck in a plant and then wired up to report watering requirements via Twitter.
- iBusyBees – The original idea had been to develop a sound sensor for monitoring the health of a bee hive. However, this was abandoned as impractical and replaced with a visual sensor for “watching” a bee hive. The team managed to build a weather-proof housing and get a small phone to transmit photos and video to a database as well as build some sensor monitoring charts. Special guest, Daniel, was in town for a theoretical physics conference and lent a hand by developing an R routine to recognize bees against a background.
Early reports are that people had a good time, learned something and had fun. I also had some other ideas for future hack days, so stay tuned.