Trip Report from “Meshing with Data” Hackathon 2018, Bayamón, Puerto Rico

Robert L. Read
Jul 2, 2018 · 8 min read

This is a trip report of the Meshing with Data 2018 Hackathon:

Summary

This was a great hackathon; I was honored to be one of several professional mentors. I particularly enjoyed that this hackathon was extremely well organized and devoted to humanitarian efforts in the form of emergency communications and communication resiliency — the theme was radio meshing, but after Hurricane Maria everyone seemed to interpret that in a humanitarian light.

The projects were on the whole more successful than most hackathons I have been to — though as always, many of the projects were nascent and a few teams even dropped out. I personally learned a lot about modern radio technologies, though I’m happy to say I also helped a few teams in some circumstances, although they didn’t keep me busy the whole time. I was able to use programming, breadboarding, and brainstorming skills. I would have been happy to do more than I did, which was spend about 1/3rd of my time actively helping teams.

Thanks to IBM and the University of Puerto Rico for great food and good leadership, as well as the other vendors, such as Skynet, AltheaMesh, and AlleyOop. Unfortunately there were only about 30 competitors, and we probably could have handled 100. However, this was the summer after a hard semester, and many students were probably off the island; but the hachathon could hardly have been better hosted and supported. Correction: The food was also provided by the UPRRP’s grant from the NIH. IBM paid for the coffee and was supposed to pay for the dinner on Friday night.

If I ever get to organize an event like this in the future, I will try to somehow make it less competitive while retaining the prize money. I’m not sure how to do that — we may need to get creative.

I was very honored to be allowed to help, and have begun discussing possible next steps with the leaders of the technical community that I met there.

Journal

Flight diverted to Boston, making for more air time. Arrived just a few minutes late after a nap.

About 8 teams of 1 to 4, maybe slightly more.

  • At first had a hard time breaking into any discussions.
  • Eventually broke the ice talking to Jim, who had come from California like myself, about LoRa based on the grant we applied for with DARPA.
  • After a while started working with a team that wanted to hear about LoRa, but had their own very bright ideas about meshing WIFI routers together.
  • A guy overheard my description and wanted to talk. Javier’s English and my Spanish were equally clumsy, but with muddled through by making a big diagram of his proposal. He had brought 5 LoRa chips with him, and showed me a thing or two about using them for point to point communication.
  • I worked with a team that explored using GoTennaMesh’s to create a mesh for reporting landslides and floods.
  • Took an Uber back to my hotel at 1:00.
  • Saturday At 9:30 we started again — they had very nice food. IBM was a host, and they consistently are great supporters of hackathons and open-source work in general; many thanks to them, AltheaMesh, AlleyOop and other vendors who supported it.
  • I went to a workshop on https://www.ushahidi.com/, a great map-based system of great interest to me in my work for Engineers Without Borders.
  • He stayed up all night — -when I spoke to him on Saturday, he had a demo working — -I took the small LoRa chip plugged via micro-usb into a battery outside the room and it worked. Then I walked 50meters and it worked. Then 100. Then 250 meters, about as far as I could walk in the parking lot. It was a great demonstration of LoRa technology.
  • I tried to get Javier to demo it to all of the conference early, but he was a bit shy about it, and decided to wait until the end. Perhaps he made the right decision, but I can’t helping thing that if Hackathons emphasized cooperation instead of competition, the whole group would have benefited from his demo early. I don’t mean that they would have copied his work, but would have better understood LoRa.
  • I helped one team figure a little pushbutton that they didn’t have documentation for — -it is typical of the .10 pitch American through-hole standard. Luckily I had some experience and could get the schematic, which we verified with a borrowed multimeter.
  • I tried to help a team with a Python client-server system running on an ESP8266 WIFI system, but in fact they solved the problem while I working with them, unrelated to anything advice that I offered them.
  • I then met a bunch of leaders in the hall, and we had a great discussion, which we decided to turn into a flip-chart session to create a “Puerto Rican” branded specialty in technologies. The result is an awesome, actionable approach to focusing on specific technologies in which Puerto Rico has some structural advantages.
  • I kept constantly working the room, offering my help to teams, but by this time nobody seemed to have any problems I could help them with, so I started writing.
  • I download EXIF.js and show the extraction of geolocation of data from images and show it to a few times who might be interested.
  • Not for the first time, I cursed my poor Spanish. Let me tell you, knowing some Spanish is better than knowing none, but I can’t really have a deep conversation in Spanish. About 70% of the people here spoke perfect English, and maybe 20% probably would have preferred Spanish, but could speak English with me, and 10% really struggled with English. We all got by, I appreciate the patience people showed me.
  • I took a picture of Ruth, Froi, Derrick and Sasha busting up — — I’m not sure what the joke was, but it must have been a good one.
  • Pedro asked me about the best antenna for a LoRa — I referred him to Javier, who explained the best way to solder on the antenna — -it is simple once you know what to do!
  • At 8:36 I’m pretty tired and nobody is asking me anything. Trying to work on writing, but it’s a little hard.
  • One team discovers a mysterious 20.5 KHz electromagnetic interference — -maybe. We walk the computer out into the parking lot to test and It still exists in the parking lot as well as the building. Could it be a weird software bug? I can’t conjecture — -I barely understand what they are doing, they haven’t need any mentoring. The world may never know. We’re in to aluminum-foil hat territory here, folks.
  • I visit Javier, and he is now transmitting geolocation from the phone over the LoRa, with hopes of flagging on a map by the time we are done — -a very impressive performance.
  • Apparently a BSOD occurred right at a moment of braggadocio, leading to peals of laughter.
  • At 9:30 I go home to my hotel. I would stay longer, but nobody is asking me anything.
  • At 8:30 in the morning, I arrive and count 15 apparent all-nighters. These admirable souls are looking a little bleary-eyed and slow, but hopefully their efforts are worth it. I feel a little guilty for having slept in a nice hotel bed. Perhaps I will challenge myself to pull some all-nighters when I am home working on my own projects.
  • IBM providing 24 hour coffee and muffins. The University provided high-quality meals; potatoes, bacon and eggs for breakfast, salad and chicken alfredo pasta for dinner.
  • Enjoyed meeting Dan Degrazia and the IBM crew. Dan gave a good talk about how to make a final presentation. This is important in competitive hackathons, but also would be valuable even if we weren’t making it competitive, as I hope in the future.

Presentations:

  1. Javier- Team iComS — I think Javier spent too much time — — he tried to present in English which was probably a mistake. He’s extremely knowledgeable but didn’t spend enough time on his demonstration. He ran out of time long before completing his talk. I think he won third place anyway.
  2. Young lady from LA used open source tool from India, Cognicity. Interested in WIFI plazas. Nice approach but she seemed to be solo.
  3. Pedro and 2 other guys — WeMesh Network — An emergency weather network. Gave a clear demo and clear explanation. Not sure the plan was that good. The got an honorable mentions
  4. Team Spider. Hard for me to understand their presentation but I asked about it later. They provided an audio encoder to transmit digital data via Ham (amateur) radio systems. They did the whole system, and included integration of geolocated data on a map. They took first place.
  5. Imaginary Sense — Lora Based mesh network for Disaster Data aggregation. Integrated with Ushahidi.
  6. Jim’s team — 3 people — Adept — Used emojis and drones to deploy special app meshed with RaspberryPi delivered by Drones.
  7. Mesh network improvement and incentives — researched Althea mesh — — Conceptual about payments to use blockchain to allow system to pay for mesh service, including putting bounty on providing service.
  8. Final team — TwinKey Wallet — Maria cut people off from all their money. Idea to create a wallet web application to download to provide payments when offline. When next online, transaction can be completed. Idea to create a QR Code. Basically this was an offline wallet.

I don’t remember precisely who won what.

I’m really glad I came, and that some teams seemed to appreciate me as a professional mentor.

The only two things that I really don’t like about hackathons are the competitive mature and the fact that they are not generally focused toward a unified goal.

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