linux.conf.au 2017 Hobart – The future of open source

This year, linux.conf.au 2017 headed to the picturesque state of Tasmania, to Hobart’s Wrest Point convention centre, and the theme of the conference was ‘the future of open source’. My key takeaway from the conference was that:

The future will be built on trust, and trust takes many forms –
  1. Trusting that data and systems have confidentiality, integrity and availability – traditional security
  2. Trusting that digital experiences will be pleasant, safe and as frictionless as possible – user experience and community experience
  3. Trusting that people will build the future that they want – agency and empowerment

This blog post is going to explore some of my picks from the conference through these lenses.

Security, privacy and integrity

Security, privacy and integrity was a recurring theme of the conference.

Michael Cordover – The Future of Privacy

Michael Cordover‘s talk, ‘The Future of Privacy‘, was perhaps the most thought-provoking talk around privacy. Michael provided a history of privacy, underscoring how technology has shaped notions of what it means to be left alone, and what it means to have personal data remain private. In our ubiquitously-connected, always-on world, it’s becoming harder to delineate what informed consent means – given that data can be inferred by association (which is exactly how Tapad‘s technology is designed). It’s also harder for people to be aware of how apps and platforms are using data – terms and conditions are hard to read, and detract from usability. Practically, it’s hard to own your own data – you essentially have to run your own services. Open systems, decentralisation, federation and non-permissive by default are Cordover’s answers to these problems – but these all pay a usability price. In Cordover’s words,

There’s no easy path forward that ordinary people can take.

David Bell – In Case of Emergency: Break Glass – BCP, DRP, & Digital Legacy

As a first time linux.conf.au Speaker, David delivered a solid presentation covering business continuity planning, disaster recovery planning and digital legacy. His focus was on ensuring that appropriate planning was done before business interruption events. He also covered personal digital legacy – an almost-unexplored topic – for example – would the people you leave behind when you die know how to access your passwords?

George Fong – The Security and Integrity of the Internet

George Fong (previous Chair of Internet Australia, current Deputy Chancellor at Federation University) delivered a very strong presentation which advocated for the defence of security and integrity of the internet, largely because governments and other non-technical actors in the ecosystem don’t trust the internet – the “cybers”.

The key takeaway from George’s talk that continued to resonate for days afterwards was:

Trust is the byproduct of integrity

Using examples such as Dirty COW and Heartbleed, Fong opined that we as an opensource community need to make sure that Linux – which the foundation of the internet rests upon – is trustworthy. Bugs are only shallow if many eyeballs are on them, and all too often there aren’t enough eyeballs. Using the analogy of seatbelts, and how few of us would ever feel safe and secure driving without one, he articulated how the internet in many ways is still a frontier, devoid of strong security measures and protocols that ensure safety and integrity – and therein, trust.

Touching on another key theme of the conference – agency and empowerment – he urged the audience to grasp that they, we, the open source community are the voices of the internet. Fong encouraged us to use those voices to better educate the public on what we do – we need to promote our activities to strengthen integrity. Things are broken – and we’re not helping. It’s up to us to fix the problem.

On a side note, as the recently-elected President of Linux Australia, I’m looking forward to working with George, and recently-appointed Chair of Internet Australia, Anne Hurley, to identify how we can work collaboratively together on some of these aims – as Internet Australia and Linux Australia have some overlap in mission, values and remit.

Jon Oxer – Network Protocol Analysis for IoT Devices

Nowhere is security, privacy and integrity more pressing that in the field of Internet of Things. There were several IoT related talks this year, but two that stood out. Firstly, Jon Oxer‘s talk on Network Protocol Analysis for IoT Devices was an eye-opener into the history of the radio frequency spectrum, how some of it is unregulated, but moreover how device protocols can be reverse engineered with simple equipment and a penchant for code-breaking. Oxer showed how simple it is to launch a man-in-the-middle attack on IoT devices on the RF 422 MHz band by intercepting their transmissions, decoding their protocols and then using a playback attack. We definitely need better encryption in IoT.

Christopher Biggs – How to Defend Yourself from your Toaster

Christopher Biggs also gave an excellent security talk around IoT – ‘How to defend yourself from your toaster‘, however he tackled it from the perspective of an IoT device manufacturer or developer – clearly articulating what features and functions should be included in new IoT devices. Although he didn’t frame it as such, his talk was basically outlining a maturity model for IoT devices. For example, devices with low maturity have poor user interfaces, no provision for maintenance, and employ poor security practices – such as having insecure protocols (such as telnet) available. He provided useful advice for improving maturity, for instance port-scanning devices to see which ports are open, and what data is being transmitted. One of the key takeaways here was that if you are designing an IoT device, or managing a fleet of IoT devices, that you need to get someone else to do the hard parts. Apple, Amazon and Google all now have SDKs available for IoT, but the drawback is that most of them are not open sourced.

Biggs spoke of a metric that I hadn’t heard before in this space – MTT1C – mean time to first compromise – or the length of time it takes an IoT device to be compromised once it’s placed on the public internet. This got me thinking that I haven’t seen anywhere a capability maturity model for enterprise IoT – for instance the practices, support, metrics and continuous improvement that would be used in a large organisational deployment of IoT. Perhaps this is something that the standards bodies in this space – Open Connectivity Foundation, BITAG and Resin.io – will develop in time.

Dr Vanessa Teague – Election Software

Dr Vanessa Teague gave one of my favourite talks of the conference on e-voting systems, and the general problem of end to end verification. Using a number of examples of how companies have (or have not) implemented verification, she articulated a number of anomalies with current e-voting systems in NSW, which are soon to be used in both WA and Victoria. Given the recent controversy around United States elections, this talk was particularly timely, and gave rise to a number of uncomfortable questions – such as just how many votes does it take to change an election result, and possibly the course of history?

One of the most resonating points within Dr Teague’s talk was the rejection of an e-voting system – V-Vote – which had superior verification capabilities, but poor user experience and usability qualities. This touches on the second theme which emerged from #lca2017 – it is not sufficient for a product, tool or platform to be functional – it must also have form. People are persuaded by the shiny – and rather than scoff at this – default behaviour for a lot of our community – we need to recognise and respond to this.

Dr Teague was an engaging, humourous and articulate speaker, and I’d really like to hear more from her in future conf lineups.

User experience and community experience

It may be unusual to relate user experience and customer / community experience to trust, but I see it as fitting. Our experience with a task, a process, or an interaction either enhances or erodes our trust in the organisation, platform or person with whom we’re interacting.

Donna Benjamin – I am your User, why do you Hate me?

Donna Benjamin‘s excellent talk aimed to bring a user experience / human-centred design element to open source developers by questioning some of the fundamental ‘defaults’ we tend to hold. Using project onboard experiences as a lens to explore how we treat newcomers, she demonstrated that our actions are turning people away from opensource – exactly the opposite effect that we’re aiming for. She outlined how contributions in triage, review and testing are not valued as highly as code contributions, again presenting a barrier to increasing participation and diversity. Benjamin argued for the open source community to see users not in terms of what they can’t do – develop software – but as people – with needs and emotions.

This talk highlighted for me the lack of design thinking, human-centred design and user experience practices that are adopted not just on open source products, but to communities in general. Lowering ‘friction’ – the antithesis of good user experience – is something that both open source products and open source communities need to get better at.

Rikki Endsley – The proper care and feeding of communities and carnivorous plants

Rikki Endsley‘s talk likewise touched on how managing communities is a complex task, often fraught with pitfalls. The key takeaway was that you can’t change everything at once – you need to change elements of the community carefully, then have the metrics available to measure the impact of the change.

VM Brasseur – The Business of Community

VM Brasseur‘s talk was a practical guide for people working inside companies to ‘sell’ support of open source projects to management. This talk was framed along three key topics – benefits, costs and implementation. Benefits such as word of mouth marketing, stronger brand recognition, and more effective upstream support are all selling points. One of the strong points of this talk was the recognition of in-kind / non-monetary support to open source communities by business, such as the provision meeting space, marketing, guidance, leadership and mentoring. In particular, Brasseur cautioned that businesses should ask the community what it needed – rather than making assumptions – and providing, for instance, unwanted promotional goodies. Although implementation plans will vary across companies, Brasseur provided some generic advice, such as having clear goals and objectives for community support, setting expectations and being transparent about the company’s intentions.

Nadia Eghbal – Consider the Maintainer (keynote)

Nadia’s keynote brought to the fore many simmering tensions within the open source community. Essentially, the burden of maintaining open source software falls to a few dedicated maintainers, who in some cases may be supporting a product with a user base of tens or thousands of uses.

Eghbal set out four freedoms for open source producers / maintainers, being:

  • The freedom to decide who participates in your community
  • The freedom to say no to contributions or requests
  • The freedom to define the priorities and policies of the project
  • The freedom to step down or move on from a project, temporarily or permanently

Whether these freedoms are embraced and used to support open source maintainers remains to be seen.

Nadia Eghbal keynoting linux.conf.au 2017
Nadia Eghbal keynoting linux.conf.au 2017

Agency and empowerment

The third key theme that was reflected in the conference programme was that of agency and empowerment – being the changes that we want to see in the open source world.

Pia Waugh – Choose your own adventure

Pia Waugh kicked off this theme, delivering the first conference keynote, where she gave a retrospective on human evolution, and then extrapolated this to the future of open source, articulating how we’re likely to see a decentralisation of power in order to strengthen democracy. She went on to challenge a number of existing paradigms, calling them out as anachronisms as the world has evolved.

This talk was full of Waugh’s trademark energy and vibrancy, and was an excellent choice to open the conference.

Dr Audrey Lobo-Pulo – Publicly Releasing Government Models

Dr Audrey Lobo-Pulo’s talk extended the open data movement by advocating for the public release of government open source models – financial and economic models used to assess public policy decisions – in essence, virtual worlds to explore the implications of policy.

The key takeaway from her talk was that industry and business also stand to benefit greatly from the release of these models, as they could then be combined with private data – in a unique public private partnership. Lobo-Pulo put forward the four components of government policy models (shown below) – and how each contributes the accuracy and validity of the model.

Karen M. Sandler – Surviving the Next 30 Years of Free Software

Karen‘s sensitive and tactful talk recognised the fact that as a community, many of our pillars and key contributors are aging, and that over the next few years we are likely to bid goodbye to many in our community. Her talk explored the different ways in which copyrights can be assigned after death, and the key issues to consider – empowering us to make informed and well founded decisions while we are in a position to do so. Few presenters could have handled this difficult topic with such aplomb, and as usual Karen’s grace, wit and wisdom shone through.

Closing thoughts

Again, linux.conf.au delivered engaging, thought-provoking and future-looking talks from a range of experienced, vibrant and wise Speakers – and again it was an excellent investment of time. The diversity of Speakers this year was excellent, if perhaps erring on the non-technical side.

Open source still faces a number of challenges – the ecosystem is often underfunded, maintainers are prone to burnout and we still haven’t realised that UX needs to be a key part of what we’re all about. But that’s part of the fun – we have the power to evolve just like the rest of the world.

And I can’t wait for a bit of history repeating at Sydney 2018!

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Australian Internet Governance Forum 2016

The Australian Internet Governance Forum – #auigf – was held at the Park Hyatt, Melbourne, October 11th-12th, 2016. This was the first time I’d had an opportunity to attend the #auigf, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. Internet users are a diverse cohort – and auDA – regulator for the .au namespace, and the body which auspices #auigf classifies members into supply class – those providing internet services – and demand class – those consuming services.

My first impression was one of surprise. The #auigf theme for the forum was ‘a focus on a competitive digital future for Australia’  – and given the significant influence that digital technology, policy and communities will play in an era of digital disruption, I couldn’t help but wonder why more key players weren’t passionate about driving the future of the internet in Australia.

 

Stuart Benjamin, Chairman of auDA

The regulator has been the subject of criticism in recent years, particularly around its engagement and consultation practices, and long-serving CEO Chris Disspain left the organisation in March, being replaced by former Liberal state parliamentarian, Cameron Boardman. This #auigf was therefore a symbolic opportunity for Boardman to signal to stakeholders the organisation’s new focus.  auDA chairman Stuart Benjamin in his opening address tackled this head on, outlining a renewed focus on stakeholder engagement, particularly in the area of building international partnerships, and relatedly, cybersecurity. He framed this strategic shift as auDA ‘growing up’ – moving from adolescence into maturity. In particular he flagged a shift from reactive approaches to domain administration, to more proactive approaches, underpinned by stronger relationships, renewed processes and systems and more innovative thinking. Linking board performance as critical to the success of the organisation, he introduced new Board Directors, Michaella Richards and Dr Leonie Walsh. Continuing the theme of advancing women in the organisation, Benjamin congratulated lawyer Rachael Falk on her appointment as Director of Technology, Security and Strategy, a newly created role tasked with catalysing auDA’s new directions. Acknowleding that auDA needs to win back the trust of the community it serves, Benjamin emphasised higher expectations of auDA – both externally from stakeholders and driven internally by the organisation itself, announcing he will be “seeking a lot more”.

Prof Paul Cornish, former Professor of International Security at Chatham House and independent consultant and author

Prof Cornish outlined how auDA is heading towards a more international posture and developing a number of partnerships. His main argument was that the future of the internet – and the digital economy – needs to be secured. Cybersecurity needs to evolve as the internet does, using a capability maturity model.

Cybersecurity Plenary – Chaired by Rachael Falk, with Alistair MacGibbon, Laura Bell, Prof Chris Leckie, Simon Raik-Allen, Craig McDonald

Rachael Falk opened by drawing attention to the National Cyber Security Strategy, urging attendees to become familiar with it. The discussion quickly turned to why there wasn’t more focus on cyber security, and Prof Cornish had a very incisive response – “interest follows money”. Money is starting to flow to cyber security, and interest will follow. Prof Leckie outlined challenges getting cyber security research from the lab into mainstream commercialisation. Researchers are challenged by the rate of change – for example, hypothetical attacks are quickly becoming reality. Academia is also confronted by getting business and industry to recognise the threat that cyber security presents. The other challenge is getting boards to recognise that cyber security is many different problems – which need many solutions. This is overwhelming for small businesses who “just want it to work”.

One of the best insights on the plenary came from Laura Bell – @lady_nerd on Twitter – who recounted the example of big corporations acquiring smaller firms – who may have a very different security posture, thus putting the larger corporation at risk.

The plenary used the term “happy clickers” to denote people who click on phishing emails without critically assessing their validity. This was the first time I’d heard that term, but it captures the psychological state accurately. Interesting, there was discussion around how people who are disengaged in their roles being more likely to be ‘happy clickers’ – because the phishing email represents a welcome distraction – another reason to ensure positive employee engagement.

Another very interesting discussion thread in this plenary was the paradox of cyberware – people personal information freely with services like Google and Facebook, but resent government intrusion as seen recently with the census. This may come down to the compulsion element – it’s about giving information freely versus being compelled to disclose. There’s an element here for government design of online services – another job for the DTO! – around information design. Imagine a census that was voluntary rather than mandatory, but got people to participate because of the social good involved. I think it would be a much more positive process.

This led into a discussion around corporate use of data – and whether consumers understand the value of their own data – essentially we’re trading our data for ‘free products’. For many online services we have to consent to data disclosure to get access to the service, but in the background there’s data matching going on – there’s a ‘creep factor’. The link was drawn from ‘creep factor’ behaviour to band value – trust and transparency are linked to the public’s view of the brand.

Key takeaway: The pub test for data use – “is it creepy?” If so, don’t do it.

This plenary also covered the practice of ‘hacking back‘ – where individuals or businesses use information security counter-measures to retaliate. The consensus in the room is that this is a poor response, largely because identifying the aggressor is so difficult. The group also highlighted that Australia has an offensive cyber capability – again linking cyber security to an international, nation-state based context. The lack of a standard response protocol for dealing with hacking incidents was also covered – many businesses are afraid of disclosing and are reluctant to do so, but having a standard response protocol would allow businesses to respond in a mature way.

In summary, cyber security is hard – there’s lots of layers and issues to consider, there’s a lack of general awareness in business and industry, the field is rapidly changing and no defined response protocols for business to use.

Women in STEM Plenary – Dr Rowan Brookes, Renee Noble, Dr Catherine Lang, Dr Leonie Walsh, Luan Heimlich

Dr Brookes introduced the plenary with an apology for not being able to include more women of colour and from the LBGQTI spectrum, particularly on Ada Lovelace Day. The key themes of needing to address systemic issues and create a pipeline for women in STEM were prevalent throughout the conversation.

What struck me first up with this plenary was the range of initiatives, groups and organisations that are working to further women in STEM, and I wondered whether this fragmentation is actually a disservice – so many voices have less volume.

Key takeaway: Are there too many women in STEM groups that are too fragmented? Do we need an Australia ecosystem map of women / females in STEM / ICT

Luan Heimlich opened the plenary by asking the audience who young girls look up to; met with responses of pop stars, sports celebrities and models. Not a science or technology role model in sight! She followed up by questioning whether these role models are going to solve the problems of tomorrow – digital disruption, climate change and public health, and let the audience ponder on the gap.

Dr Leonie Walsh covered efforts to help encourage early to mid career researchers to further their careers, noting that it’s difficult for women to step out of their careers to have a family – as this often puts them several years behind. She also noted that employers are looking for candidates with more well rounded skills, and her program provides exposure to work environments. Dr Catherine Lang highlighted the influence of pre-service teachers in promoting STEM. Another key thread in this discussion was that professions are socially constructed, and that this can be changed – but it’s an uphill battle because ICT careers are not even on the radar as a career choice for young women.

While programs are having localised success, there are still major gaps at a systemic level, and better consistency and co-ordination is required at a national level.

Behavioural insights panel – Kirstan Corban, Dr Alex Gyani, Christian Stenta, Helen Sharpley

This panel was a series of vignettes centred around how behavioural insights had led to social change. The standout piece was by Alex Gyani, who ran the audience through examples of where minor changes had a major impact – using a framework of

  • Easy – interventions should be easy for people, but this is hard to do
  • Attractive – the intervention has to be attractive for people
  • Timely – try something, see if it works – don’t be caught in analysis paralysis
  • Social – social norms are a powerful influencer for change

A key concept from Gyani’s talk was the concept of cognitive budget – we have so many choices to make every day we need to think critically about choice architecture.

The other three speakers, from health and government, highlighted case studies that showcased design thinking, co-design, and approaches to difficult problems.

Key takeaway – minor changes can make a big impact

Internet of Things Plenary – Pablo Hinojosa, Matthew Pryor, Phil Goebel, Lorraine Tighy, Dr Kate Auty

Hinojosa opened proceedings by outlining how the internet has reached 3.5 billion users – half of this volume in Asia – and there are double the number of internet connected devices than people. We’re on the cusp of a revolution.

Matthew Pryor outlined the use of IOT in agriculture and agribusiness, and emphasised how IoT helps with decision making. He highlighted how it’s hard to scale infrastructure in regional and rural areas – and questioned whether we should be investing in networks that connect people or devices or both? He gave the example that as soon as farmers leave the farmhouse, they have no internet – they need to go back to the farmhouse to make better decisions, and this reduces their ability to deliver economic benefit. We need to consider the principle of universal access as we build out infrastructure.

Phil Goebel used the Disneyland Magic Band example to highlight how IoT has taken a purely physical experience and used connectivity to enhance that – leading to “augmented experience”. For example, the band allows Disney to know where the longest queues are, how the park is being used, what facilities are important for which demographics – very granular marketing data. He outlined that there are multiple users of the data – different actors in the ecosystem – administration, marketers and the users themselves – using the data gathered by wearables for different purposes. He flagged the issue that there are no guidelines around how the data is being used – for instance is it being sold on – we need to consider transparency.

Lorraine Tighe is the Smart City and Innovation Manager at City of Melbourne, and outlined how vendors she mets present the IoT as a silver bullet. She outlined the use cases for IoT in smart cities, including parking sensors – to reduce traffic that is searching for a car park – leading to traffic efficiencies. She positioned local government at the coalface of the community, and bringing the community along on the journey – using the City Lab as a vehicle to test and prototype solutions. As part of this, the City of Melbourne made the decision to go open by default with their data, encouraging smart people to co-create with the City.

 

Dr Kate Auty spoke on projects like RedMap and Atlas of Living Australia providing citizen scientists with tools to protect biodiversity. She related how ‘super science’ projects like AURIN and NECTAR are important for understanding how cities work.

Scott Seely had the quote of the panel though;

 

Conclusions

In summary, the #auigf reflected many of the contemporary themes of digital society. Digital disruption and digital society are changing at a rapid pace, and we have a dearth of tools, approaches, standards and response protocols to handle them. We need to start by clearly defining the problems we’re trying to solve, and approach solving them with new types of problem solving approaches, such as design thinking, co-creation and open data. Many of the problems we’re trying to solve require national and international co-operation to build ecosystems, standards and agreed approaches – and the #auigf is a good starting point.

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The Light Clock

My Light Clock arrived on Friday, and the weekend was a great opportunity to set it up and learn more about how it worked.

I’d backed this project for two key reasons;

  • The project was run by an Australian hardware and software engineer – Chris Carter – who was recommended by colleagues in the opensource community. I’m passionate about opensource development, and I wanted to help back an Australian project, particularly given the success of LIFX.
  • The project was based on open hardware and open software. The base board for The Light Clock appears to be the arduino-compatible ESP8266 which is fast becoming the go-to board for open hardware developers. The lighting is based on AdaFruit’s neopixel range.

The box was very plain and simple, and the device itself was packed with polystyrene peanuts and bubble wrap – very secure nonetheless. The Australian adaptor was included in the box, however the lead on the device was only about 1.5m long. The Light Clock sticker on the back of the device was a nice touch, however I would have liked a Light Clock sticker separate in the box for say laptop stickering. Being one of the first 200 people to receive a Light Clock device, a ‘Kickstarter Edition’ engraving or similar would have been a welcomed addition, but understandably not part of minimum viable shippable product.

First steps with #thelightclock, a @kickstarter project I backed.

A photo posted by @kathyreid_id_au on

The short lead presented the first design and installation challenge; ostensibly this device is aimed at replacing existing analogue clocks that are wall-mounted. However, it’s rare that someone would have a general power outlet (GPO) high up on their wall, necessitating a fairly long lead run to a ground-level GPO. This may not be the case in say corporate offices, which may already have networked clocks in place, or existing infrastructure for digital signage.

Connecting to the network

The next challenge was connecting to the Light Clock, and getting it on to my home wi-fi network, so that it could use NTP to keep in sync. The Light Clock correctly appeared as an advertised SSID in my Network Manager, however every attempted connection to this SSID failed. Rather than spend the time diagnosing it, I used my Nexus 5X mobile phone, running stock Android, to connect to The Light Clock SSID. This was successful on the first attempt, and I was able to join The Light Clock to my home wifi network. As expected, The Light Clock could not see my 5GHz SSID, and could only see my 2.4GHz SSID. This appears to be pretty normal for most IoT devices at the moment, but I suspect we’ll see more support for the 5GHz frequency over time. The service that joined The Light Clock wasn’t responsively designed, so it was a bit tricky on a mobile device.

Once I got the device on the network, I then went back to try and diagnose why I couldn’t connect to The Light Clock SSID via Ubuntu, and found something very interesting. The MAC address picked up by the router, shown in the image below, was;

18:fe:34:e2:14:43

however, the MAC address picked up in dmesg (the Ubuntu Network Manager log) was

1a:fe:34:e2:14:43

So, I think there may be an issue with the MAC address it’s broadcasting, or how my machine was picking up the MAC address. Here’s a link to the dmesg logs in case anyone is curious. For the record, I’m using an Atheros network card in my ASUS N76. It’s otherwise generally pretty reliable.

How The Light Clock appears as a device on the router
How The Light Clock appears as a device on the router

Configuring The Light Clock

Configuring The Light Clock proved much easier than getting the device on the network. You simply connect to a web interface to the device over your WiFi network and adjust the settings.

Another observation was that clear setup instructions were at thelightclock.com/setup.

/setup is becoming the default setup URL for devices such as this
The Light Clock settings screen
The Light Clock settings screen

Experimenting with colours yielded some interesting conclusions. The colour settings tended to work best when both colours – the hours colour and the minutes colour – were heavily saturated and bright. Neon type colours – bright pinks, yellows, blues and greens – tended to work best in terms of contrast between hours and minutes. For someone whose house is pretty much all neutral shades – stones, earthy colours – finding a colour palette that was both clearly readable but resonant with the rest of the interior design was very challenging, and I couldn’t settle on a palette that met both requirements.

The blending option when set high tended to make the time much more difficult to read, and I settled on the lowest blending setting. The other feature that would be useful here would be the ability to adjust the brightness of the hours colour setting and minutes colour setting independently, so for instance you could have a very bright hours setting and a very dull minutes setting. I’m not sure if this is possible with the Neopixel hardware though. I did have a look at the source code to see if it was an easy pull request to do, but I couldn’t figure out how the brightness value is added to the pixel colours.

The settings also had three slots to save different colour schemes, which is a useful UX addition, however I would have liked to have seen more slots. In experimenting with the hour markers, I found that no hour markers at all actually made the time more readable, which was counter-intuitive.

With a little tweaking, I think this device could be integrated into other design projects, such as on canvas or with something like LilyTwinkle.

Integration with other IoT devices

One of the key drawbacks of The Light Clock is that it doesn’t appear to have any integration with other IoT devices, such as LIFX, Hue, Nest and so on. There are a number of use cases I can see for The Light Clock to have a lot of additional value if integrated such as;

  • Using The Light Clock as a visual indicator of notifications, phone ringing and alerts
  • Synchronising The Light clock as a wake-up device. Currently I use LIFX to slowly turn on my bedroom light in the morning, and I’d like The Light Clock to be synchronised with this, particularly given that it tends to work best with neon colours.
  • Integrating Light Clock control in to other apps – such as LIFX. I’m really glad that I don’t have to install yet another mobile application to control The Light Clock – because the IoT app market is already so fragmented.

I was also half expecting some sort of documented API for The Light Clock so that I could experiment with some integration myself, and although the source code is available, the device itself doesn’t appear to have a documented API or web service. From what I can tell, the settings page basically takes a bunch of GET variables and writes them to the board, so even knowing the range of GET vars would help to be able to integrate The Light Clock with other devices.

The verdict

This is a great product for people passionate about open hardware, and who like to tinker, but it’s not yet mature enough for a mainstream product. With some small design tweaks and attention to detail in the codebase, it would be a strong standalone product, however it’s key value lies in integrating with other IoT devices to provide meaningful and valuable interactions.

I’m not sure what I’ll do with my Light Clock – I don’t have a wall mounted GPO or GPO in range where I could mount one, unless I find a longer-lead adaptor.

List of feedback for next iteration of this product

  • Include an adaptor that has a long lead to cater for the use case where someone doesn’t have a wall-mounted GPO available, or allow this to be selected during the purchase process.
  • Alternatively, the product could be redesigned to run on batteries (wasteful) or better, power over ethernet – but again the same design limitation remains – just as people are unlikely to have a wall mounted GPO available, they’re even less likely to have a wall mounted RJ45 ethernet port available. I suspect this will change as more and more people have networked devices on their wall though, so I don’t see it as a major limitation. Note to self: I need to include wall-mounted GPOs and RJ45 sockets in my home renovation master plan
  • Chris Carter’s The Light Clock source code is available on GitHub, but isn’t in its own project. There also aren’t any license files for the different repositories, so I’m not sure if I’m allowed to fork it or issue pull requests.
  • In the settings, you manually have to set whether it’s daylight savings time or not. Given that it uses NTP for keeping network time, I would have thought it would be possible to get it to automatically accommodate daylight savings time. Could be wrong here, NTP may not store that data, or it may be difficult to pick up the geolocation from the home wifi network.
  • Have separate brightness settings for minutes and hours
  • The web interface for adjusting The Light Clock settings would benefit from being responsively designed
  • Can haz API plzkthx 😀

 

Update: trying to mount it to the wall

So, I gave mounting it to the wall a go. This was a nightmare. The two circular openings to hang The Light Clock with are flush to the back of the clock, meaning that I couldn’t mount it with cuphooks  as the hooks were too curved to snag into the openings. I also tried with the Command re-usable big hooks, and tried to assemble them so I stuck them in the openings first, then tried to stick the entire lot to the wall, with no success. Definitely frustrating. Even if I had got it to mount on the wall, I would have still had a cord trailing down the wall, and the 1.5m power cord is still insufficient to reach the GPO.

Was anyone else able to mount this successfully? How did you do it?