Hack Darmstadt

Hacking for a Better City

On June 9, the first workshop of the newly founded “Hack Darmstadt” community took place in Darmstadt. Hack Darmstadt’s goal is to develop technology solutions — including software and hardware — that provide responses to the challenges of modern urban regions. Based on the technical infrastructure and philosophy of the “The Things Network”, participants develop ways of measuring nightlife noise levels or pollution, among other things, focusing on the useful side of the Internet of Things (IoT). Yatta was part of the organizing team and accompanied the first successful Hack Darmstadt event last Friday.

The Things Network (TTN) is something like a grassroots movement within the global IoT community. The TTN manifesto, freely accessible on GitHub, starts with the following passage:

Everything that carries power will be connected to Internet eventually. Controlling the network that makes this possible means controlling the world. We believe that this power should not be restricted to a few people, companies or nations. Instead this should be distributed over as many people as possible without the possibility to be taken away by anyone. We therefore founded ‘The Things Network’.

In other words, whoever owns the network is in control. To make sure that the power over technology and data does not fall into the hands of only a few people, organizations, or governments, the The Things Network Foundation strives to build a decentralized, open-source Internet of Things data network, powered by crowdsourcing: It is driven by the TTN community of the respective city. Instead of WiFi or LTE, a low-bandwidth wireless technology called Low Power Radio Frequency (LoRaWAN) is used. In addition to its low power requirements, this protocol allows devices to be connected to the Internet at low cost and independently of WiFi codes and mobile contracts. Under good conditions, ranges of more than 40 km have been measured. Bluetooth 4.2 is used for shorter ranges.

Amsterdam — Honolulu — Darmstadt

It all started in Amsterdam in 2015: Within six weeks, the local IoT community succeeded in developing a city-wide data network based on the TTN approach. Today, the TTN community spans the entire globe from Hawaii to New Zealand. Even in Frankfurt, there is already a small local group — but not yet in Darmstadt. Time to build a community!

Many TTN gateways are located in Zurich. Therefore, it was no coincidence that in February 2017, the hackathon “Make Zurich”, which also inspired “Hack Darmstadt”, took place in Switzerland’s largest city. The makers of Make Zurich were also kind enough to provide the organizing team of Hack Darmstadt with a self-built gateway (feel free to imitate). In addition, LoPy-based nodes were used in Darmstadt, and apart from Python, Java was the programming language of choice.

Blinking LEDs = sparkling eyes

After a brief introduction by workshop instructor Matthias Zimmermann (BSI Systems Integration AG) to TTN, LoRaWAN technology, and the IoT protocol MQTT, Hack Darmstadt participants were ready to get their hands dirty. But getting started is not always easy when you are a software developer and you need to wire the hardware together before you can program it. At least the gateway was already set up. The nodes, however, turned out to be the first entry barrier for some participants. But after about half an hour, everything was all set, so that the hardware could be connected to the TTN backend, and the first LEDs started blinking. Every (visible) success triggered happy “heureka” calls in the room. Participants’ motivation increased from challenge to challenge, culminating into first experiments with light and sound sensors to measure the ambient light and the real-time sound level (s. video below)— first steps toward an inner-city collection of relevant data. Nearly everything is documented on Twitter. All demos are freely accessible via GitHub.

Next steps

At the end of the day, workshop participants discussed possible next steps: potential gateway locations in Darmstadt and use cases for the nodes such as measuring air particles, temperature and noise at different locations within the city.

Despite the overwhelming response online and the support of several companies, the (offline) community is still in its infancy and looking for participants and supporters. A follow-up hacking event is planned for later this year. Even a two-day hackathon, as originally planned, is thinkable, provided there are enough registrations. So check back on the website http://hackdarmstadt.de/ once in a while and stay tuned for more Hack Darmstadt!