On 21st and 22nd of October we participated in the Microsoft Open Government Data Hackathon. The theme around this hackathon is that you build/develop something over these two days that make use of the openly available government data. There has been numerous hackathons like these all over the world. The prize was R50000! That is the kind of money that could mean a lot for BinarySpace in terms of getting tools and equipment for the space.
While we were a bit uncertain about what exactly we were going to do, we decided to form a team and enter the hackathon (this required some emails and a few leave forms).
Before the hackathon we started looking at various open data sources to see what is out there and what we can do. After lots of discussions on our local telegram group we decided on an idea. The requirements for this hackathon was basically; build something over the two days that use the government data to give it a better meaning and make it available to everybody. There was also a mention to make it fun!
From the beginning we knew that most of the open data hackathons ended up in various cool websites and apps. We wanted to do something more physical and different. We got the inspiration from the Points Sign, which is essentially a smart street sign. The hack was to build something like that from scratch over a period of 2 days, and using government data in a meaningful way. From the beginning this was a very ambitious hack in the timeline we had. We settled on a more basic government data set which was the positions of every public government facility in the country. This includes Hospitals, Home Affairs offices and even schools.
So the plan was to create a smart street sign. It would have a control panel so that you can select which government facilities you are looking for and also have some emergency feature. Press the button for the facility you wanted and the signs would point to the 3 closest facilities while showing how far each one is from the sign.
We are calling it Pointr! The smart logo you see above was designed by our Isobar assigned team member and new friend of BinarySpace Rico Smith.
The biggest challenge in this project is the mechanical side of things. Making 1 sign rotate is easy, add 2 more on top of that and it becomes more difficult. Each sign needs a motor, power and communication lines for the sign. That is a lot of wires that need to go through the same pipe with the rotation mechanism. Granted we could have left the wires hanging on the outside (it’s a hack after all), but we wanted it to look nice.
Andre and Chris handled the mechanical side in terms of design and printing. Andre made a very cool design that involved a pvc pipe, a steel pipe welded onto a base and some 3d printed parts
The motor is essentially offset on the inner side of the pipe, a belt/pully mechanism used in 3d printers is used to do the rotation. This leaves space to bring through the wiring for the next rotation mechanism. Our sign can do a full 360 degrees, but not continuously. This means that if the sign is pointing at 340 degrees and needed to go to 10 degrees, it would basically move counter clockwise to 10 degrees instead of just moving forward over 360 to 10 degrees. For our purpose this wasn’t an issue at all.
The sign was cut from 6mm acrylic, and the plastic parts were printed with PLA.
On day 1 we had the first movement up and running, and we were very happy with how smoothly it went
Unfortunately on day 2 we decided to spray paint the pole. The not-fully-cured paint messed that up and we spent a while scratching off paint where the rotational parts go. Lesson learned 😉
For the main control panel, we had originally planned on just drilling a few holes in the pipe and mounting buttons with a printed piece of paper indicating which buttons to press. We are however suckers for a challenge so we decided to 3d print panels, and while we were it 3d print the icons as well
Rico designed the icons, which Andre converted into something printable, which Chris then printed … good teamwork 😉
Since there are lots of various government departments we decided to only take a few for our prototype. We decided on 4 emergency buttons; panic button, police, hospital and fire department. For the information side we chose Home Affairs, Libraries, Child Services and Courts. Press the panic button and police would be notified that someone needs help close to the sign. Press any of the other buttons and it would point the 3 signs to where you want to go.
All in all our mechanical side worked and looked beautifully
For this hack the electronics were relatively simple. Michael and myself (Tom) tackled that part of the challenge.
The electronics side basically have to decode the location data and then depending on which button was pressed it needs to to calculate the rotation of the motors (ie. the location of the destination) and send a message to the led displays.
Our biggest problem was the led displays. For our size we needed a lot and the few places that had them at an affordable price didn’t have enough. The suppliers that had enough were not cheap.
After some searching Andre came across a place that sold these car displays. They were on special (leftover stock from a previous bigger order). At R200 these were a bargain so we cleared out their stock.
Upon arrival I opened one up to see how easy it would be to hack it to our purpose. Luckily the electronics were pretty simple. Basically a micro controller with some shift registers. We desoldered the micro, soldered some wires onto the pads to connect it to an arduino. A bit of code later the led display was working.
We did however have some issues with getting the scrolling and font characters to work properly so for our demo we pre-programmed a few messages for the demo.
For driving the stepper motors we settled on a ramps 1.4 shield with an arduino mega (the exact same electronics you find in most 3d printers). Our original idea was to use a raspberry pi that would decode the data and control the ramps board. Michael wrote python code that would handle all that. Again, we ran out of time and decided to hard-code the data and process directly on the arduino mega.
Most of the other teams did a mostly software project (Except the Bushveld Labs/Isobar Team) and I think we scared them with our impromptu makerspace table.
I’m very proud of what we as a team managed to accomplish in those two days. And even though we didn’t win the prize money we had loads of fun, learned a lot and made some new friends. We have a nice project and we are taking it back to the space to make improvements and finish the parts we couldn’t at the hackathon. It will be a nice project to show off at the space and future events
Congratulations to #TeamBaby who won the Hackathon. We’ll see you guys next time!
Thanks to Kerry and the other peeps from Isobar and to Microsoft for the grand prize sponsor. Hope to see more hackathons with this kind of prize money 😉
- The hackathon was held at the same building where the Diz MakerSpace is located. This place is awesome! If you in the area go say hi to Rick, Jarred, Daniel and all the others at the Space (111 Smit Street, Johannesburg)
- A few days before the hackathon I put together a little event cam that would allow the other BinarySpace members to join in the fun. It’s basically a raspberry pi with webcam. On it was a modified version of our BinaryBot. All the members in our Telegram group could request a picture from it at anytime. There are some improvements to be made but this was a good test for it and you can expect to see our event cam at future hackathons and events.