London hackspace is a club for people who want to make things out of electronics,  a perfect city-centre shed. The kind of place where Fred Dibnah would be comfortable if he were born in 1998. Rather than steam and wrenches and grease, there are soldering stations, 3D printers and circuit boards. During one of the presentations the inventor of a device called Nanode explained how much time he’d given to the project. Someone reverently whispered “he’s got a wife!”. I suspect he may have been in the minority.

Hackspace is important and it knows it, as was attested by an incongruously sharp suited man who ask questions about commercial prospects. It’s important because the residents are exploring the border between the physical and the virtual worlds. There’s a device that calculates the number of people in the building using two laser beams to detect comings and goings. A label on it says “do not hack”, presumably because if it didn’t someone would take it pieces and turn it into something else. It’s symbolic, even as you walk in your physical presence is turned into data.

There were two presentations, both on the theme of the turning the physical environment into data. Before we went I explained to two friends that came with me that I thought the Patchube website (talk No. 1) was like YouTube, only for physical data: a place where anyone can upload time-sequenced information about the temperature of their greenhouse, the location of their smart phone, whatever takes their fancy. This description turns out to be pretty accurate, but in fact that Patchube is pronounced Patch-bay, so I’d just made the analogy up. When the nuclear disaster happened in Japan, people started using Patchube to stream data from Geiger counters they had bought. Patchube served as an aggregator, and others produced visualisations of the data. The resulting maps of radiation were apparently more accurate than any data the government realised.

Patchube relies on there being lots of sensors in the world. The Nanode (Talk No. 2) is the answer to this problem. It is a circuit board about 5×5 cm with an ethernet connection so you can plug it into a network just like you would a laptop. What’s really special about it is that it runs as a web server, so if you know how to make web pages (which must be the most widespread type of programming knowledge) you can understand the data Nanode produces. It can send data straight to Patchube, at which point anyone can start using it. The Nanode retails at £18.

Invention is the mother of necessity, but it’s clear that Patchube and it’s associated network of sensors haven’t quite found their necessity yet. They’re exciting, but it’s hard to put your finger on why.

To give an example of permeability  between real and virtual, Usman Haque, the founder of Patchube told us of a gardener trying to grow a particular breed of Indian chillis, requiring very precise conditions. He has sensors measuring soil PH, humidity etc. What he needs is for someone in India to do the same, and then he will be able to copy the environmental natural conditions precisely, thus successfully growing his chillies. Physical stuff -> Data -> Physical stuff, it’s a fax machine for topsoil.

We accidentally turned up an hour early for the talks, and decided to get something to eat before we went in. Conversation turned to the hotdog man at Old Street (apparently they’re great hotdogs) who tweets his location. If we’d have known then what we know now, perhaps we’d have talked about him streaming data from his grill into Patchube to give it genuine physical context (queue length, remaining sausages etc.)

The Nanode is open source hardware,  in the sense that you can order the components and make it yourself using the freely available design. The process is such that it doesn’t involve any complex industrial tools.  Preassembled and kit versions will all be shipped from China. Some might think this morally dubious, but I’m impressed by the fact that Ken Boak, it’s inventor, went to stay in Shenzhen to meet the companies who would manufacture it. He also pointed out that, unlike some other similar devices, the Nanode will be affordable to Chinese workers who are paid in the region of £150 a month.

The missing killer app, the creative approach that will make Patchube’s practical appeal manifest, probably isn’t going to be thought up exclusively by the current Hackspace residents. Making it all function is nerd fun, but put to good use needs wider participation.

I know that that Hackspace does a lot of work to embed itself in the community, but I suspect a lot of people who would be fascinated by its multifarious possibilities don’t know about it. I mean this in kindness, but precisely because it’s where computers interface with the real world Hackspace should also be a place where nerds do the same.

An aside: The Hackspace toilets have a sign saying “Techhub memberships – please take one” above the bog roll. A rivalry? I’m backing Hackspace. (For the uninitiated, Techub is the more commercially oriented hot desking space for tech startups in Old Street.)

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