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Nov 14

Reading Lives – Beyond the book

Explore how reading has impacted people's lives.

Explore how reading has impacted people’s lives.

Over the summer and early autumn I had the opportunity to continue work on the Reading Lives project. The project has grown over the last few years from a discussion at a ‘hack-day’ about a column of data in a survey result-set that nobody knew what to do with, to a web based application that allows people to explore the answers given to the question “What role has reading played in your life?”. The fact that you are reading this now suggests that you too could answer that question, and share a short summary of the role that reading has played in your life.

About the project

The project has become what it is through some funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council via the CATH (Collaborative Arts Triple Helix) project lead by do.collaboration at the University of Birmingham in partnership with the University of Leicester. CATH consists of several teams, each one of which is made up of a developer, an arts organisation and researchers. Our team consists of researchers Danielle Fuller (University of Birmingham) and DeNel Rehberg Sedo (Mount Saint Vincent University, Canada); myself Tim Hodson (the developer) and Writing West Midlands (the arts organisation).

Reading Lives word cloud at the Birmingham Literature Festival

Reading Lives word cloud at the Birmingham Literature Festival

At the time of writing this, the project is not only allowing people to explore the existing survey answers, but to contribute their own answers. The app presents a user profile which people can fill out with their own survey answers. Recently the app featured at the Birmingham Literature Festival, and was seen on the big screen at several of the events.

About the Data

The Answers as I call them are the answers to the question “What role has reading played in your life?”. Each answer is analysed for it’s word content by using a (relatively) simple algorithm called Term Frequency – Inverse Document Frequency. This algorithm allows me to decide how important a word is in a particular document based on it’s frequency in the Answers and it’s frequency in the corpus of all answers. To quote Wikipedia “The tf-idf value increases proportionally to the number of times a word appears in the document, but is offset by the frequency of the word in the corpus, which helps to control for the fact that some words are generally more common than others.”. This calculated importance of words is used to build a word cloud which is meant to act as an alternative way to explore the frequently occurring themes of peoples Answers. We also have demographic data for the Answers which was collected through the original survey. It is planned to use this to allow further empathetic connections between the viewer of the app and the original Answers, but we haven’t got to build that bit yet :).

About the app (warning – gets technical!)

As developer to the project I have been exploring several different ways to ‘do something’ with the answers. This exploration has tried out a number of different technologies with a view to finding a happy medium between ease of use and flexibility.  I have also deliberately challenge myself by forcing myself to learn something new. The app is written in HTML, CSS and Javascript, and uses the AngularJS framework to provide the app structure. There is a whole heap of build streamlining provided through use of Node, Bower, Less and Grunt and I’m using Live Reload to enable quick iterations in the browser when developing. For the backend I am using Firebase (an event driven cloud database) which updates when data in my app updates and — with Firebase’s Angular integration — any variables bound in Angular can also be bound to Firebase.  This three way binding means that as soon as a client app updates some data, it is sent back to the cloud — and — sent to any other clients that are also viewing the same bit of data.  Each app client is always kept up to date as soon as the Firebase server is updated. This kind of event driven database makes it really easy to create both a realtime app, and an app which is more tolerant of bad network connections. I chose to store all my assets for the app in Amazon’s Simple Storage Service (S3), so that Firebase and S3 are the only external services the app needs. Everything else runs in your browser. Although there were some late nights to get everything ready for the key events, it has been a lot of fun to build.

Apr 14

RPi Sensor Network – Collecting the data


The realtime sensor display live!

In a previous post I talked about how I put together some temperature sensors to log temperature in the green house and lounge. The sensors use XRF radio modules to send the data back to a Raspberry Pi (also sporting an XRF module) and are running from a 3.3v button cell battery.

The XRF module on the Raspberry Pi is sending the messages from the sensors to the RPi’s serial port, and this is where we start to talk about code…

The plan was to build a realtime display of the data from the temperature sensors.  You can now see the live temperature from our green house and lounge, along with a history of readings over the last 1, 12 and 24 hours.

The code I used is available in a public Github repo – but is considered to be ‘alpha’ code – in that it is not tested end to end or from build to deployment. So you use at your own risk and with an assumption that you’ll have to tinker with it to get things running for you.

The steps below give an overview of the architecture, and each of these steps is explained in more detail in the sections which follow. However, this is not intended to be an in-depth how-to guide.

  1. Sensor sends LLAP message to RPi serial port
  2. Python script is listening to the serial port every minute
  3. LLAP Messages from the sensors are parsed into a simple JSON document which is posted to a Firebase database
  4. Firebase is an event driven database where all additions and updates fire events.
  5. An AngularJS app (served from Amazon S3 backed storage) shows the latest readings in a live updating display by listening to those Firebase events.

Sensor Sends LLAP messages to RPi serial port.

This is the easy bit, as the hard work of programming the sensors is already done for you by the Ciseco people.  The sensors send messages using a simple 12 character message system called Lightweight Logical Application Protocol. The actual sensor setup and connection to the RPi is covered in the previous article.

Python script listens to serial port

I wrote a small python module to parse LLAP messages into a simple JSON document which could then be stored or otherwise manipulated as necessary. The module is available as part of the Github repo. The LLAP python module treats every message received as an event, and if you have registered a callback to a particular type of LLAP message, every time that message is received your callback will be notified and whatever your callback does – it will do! The LLAP module simply deals with the parsing of a string of messages captured from a serial port, and passes those messages on to your callbacks. This means that you can react to each temperature reading or battery low message as and when that message arrives.

It is up to your callbacks to decide whether to make a note of the time the message was received, and what action to take based on the message.  But using this method it would be simple to have a temperature change over or under some threshold trigger some action. For example, if it get’s too warm in the green house, a motorised window opener could be triggered to let in some fresh air.

The code which listens to the serial port and registers the callback is up to you to write, but you can see the code in the Github repo which I am using to listen to the sensor messages.

LLAP messages sent as JSON documents to a Firebase database


The readings as seen in the Firebase database.

This is where it starts to get fun!

Firebase is an awesome cloud based database which allows you to post and get data using simple HTTP requests.  Because the database is event driven, and because it already has deep integrations with Angular JS, you can quickly build a responsive, data driven site which instantly responds to many events happening in different browsers all over the web. For our purposes – we want to show a live updating latest temperature displayed in a webpage – this is ideal.

The python code mentioned in the previous section simply takes the parsed LLAP message, adds a timestamp, a priority (used for ordering the result sets in Firebase) and a reading id which is just the timestamp float with the period (.) replaced with the sensor id (you can’t have periods in a Firebase key!). The resulting JSON object is then posted as a reading to the Firebase database.

Firebase is event based and fires events that you can monitor

Every time a new reading is added to the database by the python script, Firebase fires off some events to any other clients which are listening for those events.

This means that we can write a web app which listens to those events and updates it’s display with the new readings.  This essentially means we can have a realtime display of the sensor readings.

So the next step is to build that interface…

AngularJS app to show readings in near realtime

sensors_timhodson_com___In the Github repo, you’ll find the code for an AngularJS app which shows the sensor readings for the sensors in my network.  Now it has to be said that the app has not been written to be generic, and if you decide to fork the repo to build your own, I suspect you’ll have to do a fair bit of ‘hacking’ to get it to work.

The app was an opportunity for me to play with the following tools and what you see here was built in a weekend – just goes to show how useful these tools are.

  • Yeoman – for building the initial angular and firebase app skeleton.
  • Grunt – for automating some of the build and preview.
  • Bower – for managing Javascript dependancies
  • AngularJS – for realtime binding of variables in the HTML to variables which are fed directly from Firebase data.
  • angularFire – for the abstraction of the code needed to actually talk to the Firebase database.
  • Bootstrap 3 for reactive presentational elements to make it work on mobile and desktop.

I don’t pretend that this code is pretty – and there are no proper tests, but it works and it was fun to build!


Finally, apologies to all those whom I have bored with recounting the current temperature in the green house!



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