Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Random Hacks of Kindness - Exeter 1/2 December 2012

This year my blog seems to have turned into a Met Office hackathon noticeboard.   I'll have to make a real effort to get a better mix of stuff here next year as I never subscribed to the view that blogs should have a narrow scope -  unless your life is that way.

So the last Met Office hackathon of the year will be supporting the Random Hacks of Kindness global hackathon on 1st and 2nd December.   If all goes well, and we're all doing our best to ensure it does, then this will be much more than just offering a place for altruistic coders to come a do their thing for good causes, but also an occasion on when things will happen that might not have happened otherwise.  Broken things are fixed, new tools are forged and new friendships made.

If you're able to spend the weekend in Exeter and want to join us, please sign up here -

If you can't get to Exeter.  Wrong continent perhaps?  Then do look on for somewhere nearer.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Weather for fun (#wx4fun)

My hackathon project came third at the Met Office Weather for Fun hackathon in Exeter on 6/7 October.

The idea was to build a very low weight (less than 10 gram) temperature sensor that could be carried by a toy helicopter.   OK, not a very practical, or useful thing,  but an interesting challenge.   We did get it working using a Texas Instruments eZ430-RF2500 wireless micocontroller and TMP006 thermal infra-red sensor.  The ground station used an eZ430-RF2500 and Arduino Uno.

Read about this and the other projects on Storify

Sunday, June 24, 2012

bat detector hack

OK, for those who have been waiting for the bat detector schematics for the #FSCHACK bat detector, here's a sketch.
Here's what it looked like on a breadboard at the hack day.
And here's the prototype that I knocked up in my workshop near Okehampton and found its way to Slapton  via MozSpace London.

So what about the component values you ask?  Well I could post them here,  I might yet, but over the weekend I've been experimenting with another design which I believe will be cheaper, more sensitive and easier to use.
What is really exciting for me about the new design is that it replaces most of the electronics with maths.  I like maths!  Even better if the maths isn't right, or could perhaps be better, it can be changed and no soldering is required and no unwanted components are discarded - or more likely added to the junk box.
Part of my inspiration for this change was this diagram.

The diagram comes from a datasheet for a 3mm x 3mm integrated circuit sold to mobile phone makers to add FM radio receive, and transmit, capability to their phone.  That's very clever, and ridiculously tiny, but for those of us familiar with radio circuits, this is clearly not an FM radio.  So what is it?  Well it's a device for converting analogue signals to digital and digital to analogue with a DSP (Digital Signal Processor) in between.
So the plan now is to create something very similar for listening to bats.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Hack days, Space Apps, etc.

OK,  I'm not going to write much, because I've got too much to say and a cold that's making it hard to focus. So here come the links...

Space Apps Challenge  

Well done to all the winners.  See their videos, and hear their stories (thanks to Gov2.0 Radio).

Field Studies Hack Day

This was fantastic fun,  thanks to everyone at Slapton Field Studies Centre for being such wonderful hosts.
Read about it at
The bat detector project continues.  There's already a little bit of code at and more to come over the next few weeks.

Monday, May 07, 2012

Reflections on Space Apps

Firstly -  thanks to everyone who has said nice things about the Space Apps Challenge "hack-day" at the Met Office Exeter.  Yes, now it's over I think it's safe to use the hack word.

I should also thank those who have said unpleasant things, though fortunately any criticism has been private and constructive.  One day I'll write a blog post about "constructive criticism" as it's, yet another, topic on which I have a slightly non-standard position.

Secondly I should mention that the Space Apps Challenge isn't really over.  This week sees the start of global judging including a "peoples' choice" category, so expect to see lots of social media plugs for the nominated solutions.

Right now for my reflections on the event, which if nothing else might just serve as a reminder to me next time I do something like this.

Back in January I was thinking seriously about organising an internal hack-day at the Met Office; that hasn't happened yet because in mid-January I was asked if the Met Office would like to host NASA's Space Apps Challenge in Europe.  Which was extremely cool, not expected, and created all sorts of interesting things to deal with.   Fortunately I have, nearly, enough slack in my work and a willingness to work late and weekends for no pay to do interesting stuff.  So here was an opportunity to do something fun with like-minded people.

Before the event could go ahead I needed to get support and funding from the Met Office - NASA weren't going to pay for dozens of events around the world.  Fortunately hack-days aren't expensive to run, a few thousand pounds.  One of the things I did learn from the global teleconferences as  planning progressed is that there's a fair range of hack-day cultures around the globe.  Some places it's usual to pay an entrance fee,  others there's vetting to ensure participants are real coders - not just using events for networking.  Would I want to apply some kind of test?  Probably not, but time will tell,  as it was we had a few no-shows though a couple of these were people who knew me and so were good enough to let me know they couldn't make it.

At this rate this post is going to be very, very long....   Short version of remaining thoughts.

The are some useful resources on how to run hack days, e.g.
These are NOT religious texts, so I reckon it's important to break some hack-day rules.  For example we did have bands playing.  I think this worked well for us,  as there are no other distractions locally and a little distraction is healthy,  as is standing up to eat if you're otherwise sitting for an entire day ( a tip for other organisers there maybe).

Also hackers, please give some thought as to what the host and sponsors are expecting from the event.  Chances are they're not expecting you to come up with a brilliant idea that will change the world.  Large organisations in particular would rather the world didn't change.  They just want to look good.  Right now hack days are "cool" and they want it.  The social media attention these events get is already seen as important by some, and chances are that will grow.

Therefore getting sponsors ought to be easy,  but it isn't. By the time the Space Apps Challenge was announced it was already too late to get sponsorship from most large organisations.  Yes I had some very nice people from some outrageously big organisations telling me they would love to help next time.   Seems marketing departments haven't gone "agile" yet.  Also I get the feeling that for most big organisations the marketing dept is small, probably not as well funded as it once was, and not familiar with these sorts of events.  Shame really, because a few freebies is all it would take -  oh,  thanks Red Bull!!  

I really am going to have to write a long version of this,  but here are a few closing thank you remarks -

To Exeter Girl Geeks and my female colleagues for believing that hack-days don't need to be all male, and making sure it wasn't.

To the Met Office senior management for their quiet support.  It was really great not having them there on the day, and not having government ministers or MPs, or other stuff that actually just gets in the way.  I'm sorry you didn't get to join in with the fun, but now we all understand better how to do this I reckon we can fix that next time.

To the judges - you were better than any prizes could have been.

To everyone who came.

To my Met Office colleagues who did their stuff behind the scenes, food, security, networks...

To the NASA Open Government team for believing it would work.

Thank you!

Monday, April 23, 2012

Launch Jon?

After just one day it's already hard to separate the truth from fiction of the Space Apps Challenge.

There's this

And then there's this

Maybe all will be clear soon.  Let's hope so.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Back to earth

Space Apps Exeter was great fun and a great success. Too tired to write much now but there will be more on the Met Office blog in the coming days.  See

And this is lots of fun -

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Counting down...

In a week from now if all goes well I should be back where I am now,  drinking beer and fending off a greedy cat with a great love of crisps.   Between now and then are the last few days of preparation and then Space Apps Challenge Exeter!  If you haven't heard about this (where have you been?) check out the Met Office blog and NASA blog

Thanks to the fantastic support and help from Second Muse, NASA and all my colleagues at the Met Office it's just possible that we haven't missed anything important . And now thanks to some London hackers we now have an extra checklist at  - if our PiratePads, UStream and the like all work out we'll be linking up with some at #nhtg12 on Saturday and also with our fellow Space Apps locations at ISIC Oxford and the rest of the world.

For those who haven't been to a hack day before, and I know there are many, because I've been pestering some really cool scientists and others to join us for weeks now, here's a useful blog post
To which I should add,  there are a couple of affordable hotels within walking distance of the Met Office building - so if you don't live locally it might be worth getting a room.  However we won't throw you out if you want to stay all night - well unless you upset the Chief Forecaster.  Remember you're hacking inside an operational weather service -  it's quite likely the is the first time this has been done anywhere in the world.  It's certainly the first time in over 150 years in the UK. Wow, we've broken another century plus record!

Keep an eye on these pages for more updates -

Monday, April 09, 2012

Get ready for Space Apps Exeter

If you've registered for the International Space Apps Challenge and haven't been back to the website lately then you might not know that you can now join the projects that form the challenges.

At Exeter we're fortunate to have the sponsors of five projects attending our event; so I'll be making sure they get a few minutes each on the Saturday morning to try and persuade those at Exeter to join their teams.  If all goes well videos of their presentations will be up on the web early UK time for those working on these projects virtually or at one of the other global locations. 

So please take a look at the challenges and start thinking about what you could contribute. 

The challenges

These two rather different sorts of project are from Jon Rogers and friends
WeLoveData Challenge

This one is from the UK Hazard Centre
#HazardMap - Real time hazard mapping by scraping social media

Last but not least two from Met Office scientists
Predict the Sky
Grower's Nation 

Oh, and if you've registered for Exeter you'll be hearing from myself and the team in the next few days with details of the schedule, questions about your dietary needs and stuff.   Oh and we do have showers, but please bring your own towel.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Space Apps Challenge 21/22 April 2012

For a while now I've been helping to organise the Met Office contribution to the International Space Apps Challenge.  On Monday the press release went out

Soon I'll write about the fun and challenging things we have planned for those joining us at our Exeter headquarters, but for now here are some links to friends old and new that are hoping to join us -

If you'd like to be there too sign up soon at