30 Jun 2017

I’ve liked the idea of writing week notes for ages, but I’ve never managed to get started. When you’re busy with work, without taking the time to reflect on what you’ve actually done, you can look up and realise half the year has already passed. Hi July!

In the past, there has always been too much I can’t talk about publicly which has made it hard to write anything meaningful. But now I have a new job, a new purpose and a new found energy to write here more.

Between my Developer Advocacy role and running the Node-RED project there will be plenty I can write about. There will undoubtedly be things I can’t talk about directly, but that shouldn’t get in the way.

The main thing I need to remember is who I’m writing these week notes for. I’m sorry, dear reader, but it isn’t you. Whilst I hope you find them interesting, if you chose to read them, they are primarily here for me to record just what it is I spend my time doing. Sometimes there will be a story to tell, sometimes there will be a collection of bullet points. The main thing is to get that rhythm going.

Given the slightly blurred lines of when I formally moved from ETS to the Digital Business Group, I’m going to call Monday June 12th as the start of Week 1. Which does mean I’m already 3 weeks behind on my notes. So lets catch things up.

Week 1 was spent juggling three things; trying to get Node-RED 0.17 finished and released, preparing and delivering a talk on Node-RED Dashboard and preparing three separate workshops on Node-RED and IBM Watson IoT to be delivered the following week.

We try to do regular releases with Node-RED, but inevitably, things get in the way and more time passes than we’d like between them. 0.17 was overdue but there were a small number of outstanding issues that needed squashing. I wanted to get them done and released before the workshops the following week as I knew they’d benefit from it. But in the end, it had to give way.

The Node-RED Dashboard talk was an internal call with a community of technical sales folk to introduce them to Dashboard and show them it can do. Whilst we have a standard set of slides for the main Node-RED project, we didn’t have an equivalent set for Dashboard. So I spent a day pulling those together. (Note to self: we really should make our standard intro slides available publicly somewhere)

The workshops were part of large education event for the senior technical architect community across the whole of Europe. I was running the IoT stream and had three workshops to prepare to take the participants through the whole process of using Node-RED on a device, getting it connected via Watson IoT into Bluemix and then controlling it using the Watson Conversation service. The material I produced was a set of high-level exercises that addressed each step in the process. I have to admit I wasn’t sure on how high-level or how detailed I had to make the material, but decided I’d be able to improvise once I got a better sense of the participants at the event. Which leads me neatly on to…

Week 2 was spent in Lisbon, Portugal, at the Future Skills event to deliver the workshops. 250 Technical Architects from across Europe converged on this event to participate in one of four streams; Cognitive, Blockchain, Data Science and IoT. In all, we had about 60 colleagues in the IoT stream. Across the first day and a half, we delivered the workshops and they then had to take what they had learnt and produce a demo/project/poc that was relevant to their clients. With all the usual challenges of unusable wifi at big events it was great to see a genuine variety of projects at the end.

My main takeaway was the workshop material I had produced was too ambitious for the time available. It also left too much for the participants to figure out for themselves. A good start for the material, but needs more work to be properly reusable.

Week 3 was back in Hursley focusing on 0.17. The remaining issues had been mostly resolved and the last task was to get the release notes written and some final documentation updates done. For a release that had over 300 commits, that took some time. Some releases have obvious headline features – this one was much more a sum-of-its-parts type release. That made it a challenge to decide what things to pull out into the release blog post. But I got there eventually and 0.17 was released today.

Being back in Hursley also meant catching up on things that I’d had to put to one side whilst in Lisbon. Conversations around our plans for developer advocacy activities, discussions with other teams to ensure we’re working in the same direction and the usual time spent help out colleagues with their random questions about Node-RED that pepper my time.

With the move to the DBG group, I knew I’d still spend a lot of my time on Node-RED, but it was the pieces around the edge that were going to change. Based on the conversations this week, there’s lots of interesting things to get done.

Finally, I got confirmation that I’m speaking at Node Summit in San Francisco at the end of July and also just managed to submit both a talk and workshop proposal for NodeConfEU in November before the deadline today.

Next week is more planning; with Node-RED 0.17 I’m working on the plan for the next release and beyond. I also need to start preparing my talk for FullStack conference two weeks from today. And it looks like we have a couple issues to tidy up and get a 0.17.1 released sooner rather than later.

That’s it. First set of week notes done, spanning three weeks and almost hitting 1000 words. Expect a few scrawled bullet points next time.

16 Jun 2017

Last September, as I marked my 15 years with IBM, I ended a post wondering what the next 5 years would hold in store. Perhaps a bit sooner than I had planned, it’s time to find out.

I’ve been in IBM’s Emerging Technologies Services group for close to 6 years now. In that time I’ve worked on a host of projects, including:

  • writing embedded MQTT code for smart energy meters
  • connecting a Scalextric to a mind-reading headset
  • 6 weeks spent in a 7th floor conference room writing custom Dojo UI widgets (not a highlight, but you’ve got to pay the bills)
  • wiring up some Arduinos and Pis in an Ice Cream factory (a highlight)

And of course, the main thing I’ve focused on for the last 3 years, Node-RED.

The client-funded nature of the work ETS does has meant I’ve only been able to work on Node-RED because someone has been willing to pay me to do so. I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have been in that position; being able to turn a side-project into a job.

I’ve enjoyed my time in ETS, but the time has come to make a change.

I have now moved over to IBM Digital Business Group to be a Developer Advocate, focussing on IoT. This is a new part of IBM where all of our work around developer advocacy is being brought together in one place.

Making our products, APIs and services attractive to developers is vital to the future of the business. Long gone are the days that software is sold to the CIO. Developers are far more empowered than they ever were to make their own technology choices. Go read Stephen O’Grady’s The New Kingmakers for a far more insightful take on how this has been the trend for quite some time now.

In my new role I’ll be working to help developers engage with our technology. Whether that’s through hackathons, conferences, blog posts, stack overflow questions, videos, Coursera courses – really anything and anywhere that developers are.

So what does this mean for my time on Node-RED?

Well, truth be told, the group I now work for is the group who was previously funding my time on Node-RED. So whilst I have changed departments, the primary focus of my work stays exactly what it has been: leading the Node-RED project and working hard to grow the community and eco-system around it.

Everything changes. Nothing changes. On to the next 5 years.

3 Sep 2016

In a previous post, I wrote about how I ended up at IBM. I finished that post with a question: Will I still be here in another 10 years? Well, I’m half-way to finding out, but I’m no closer to an answer.

The last 5 years in the Emerging Technologies group have flown by. The last three years of which have been pretty much dominated by my work on Node-RED. It’s been a lot of hard work, but it has been incredibly satisfying work. I’m very fortunate to be in this position; not everyone gets to turn a side-project they created into a job.

That said, as I spoke about in my Monkigras talk this year, when a side-project becomes a job, it risks becoming a chore. I have to continually make sure I strike a balance between the fun and the not-so-fun parts. I don’t always get that balance right which can make it harder work than it should be.

So what of the next 5 years? No doubt Node-RED will continue to be my focus for now, but that doesn’t stop me wondering what else I could be doing.

4 Dec 2014

Earlier this year, Tom Coates wrote a blog post about his session at this year’s O’Reilly Foo Camp. Over tea with colleagues, we talked about some of the ideas from the post and how some of our research work might be interesting when applied to them.

One thing led to another and I found myself talking about it at ThingMonk this year. What follows is a slightly expanded version of my talk.


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Humanising Things

We have a traditional of putting human faces on things. Whether it’s literally seeing faces on the Things in our everyday lives, such as the drunk octopus spoiling for a fight, or possibly the most scary drain pipe ever.

Equally, we have a tendency to put a human persona onto things. The advent of Twitter brought an onslaught of Things coming online. It seemingly isn’t possible for me to do a talk without at least a fleeting mention of Andy Standford-Clark’s twittering ferries; where regular updates are provided for where each ferry is.

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One of the earliest Things on Twitter was Tower Bridge. Tom Armitage, who was working near to the bridge at the time, wrote some code that grabbed the schedule for the bridge opening and closing times, and created the account to relay that information.

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One key difference between the ferries and the bridge is that the ferries are just relaying information, a timestamp and a position, whereas the bridge is speaking to us in the first-person. This small difference immediately begins to bring a more human side to the account.
But ultimately, they are simple accounts that relay their state with whomever is following them.

This sort of thing seems to have caught on particularly with the various space agencies. We no longer appear able to send a robot to Mars, or land a probe on a comet without an accompanying twitter account bringing character to the events.

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There’s always a sense of excitement when these inanimate objects start to have a conversation with one another. The conversations between the philae lander and its orbiter were particularly touching as they waved goodbye to one another. Imagine, the lander, which was launched into space years before Twitter existed, chose to use its last few milliamps of power to send a final goodbye.

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But of course as soon as you peek behind the curtain, you see someone running Tweetdeck, logged in and typing away. I was watching the live stream as the ESA team were nervously awaiting to hear from philae. And I noticed the guy in the foreground, not focused on the instrumentation as his colleagues were, but rather concentrating on his phone. Was he the main behind the curtain, preparing Philae’s first tweet from the surface? Probably not, but for the purposes of this talk, let’s pretend he was.

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The idea of giving Things a human personality isn’t a new idea. There is a wealth of rigorous scientific research in this area.

One esteemed academic, Douglas Adams, tells us about the work done by the The Sirius Cybernetics Corporation, who invented a concept called Genuine People Personalities (“GPP”) which imbue their products with intelligence and emotion.

He writes:

Thus not only do doors open and close, but they thank their users for using them, or sigh with the satisfaction of a job well done. Other examples of Sirius Cybernetics Corporation’s record with sentient technology include an armada of neurotic elevators, hyperactive ships’ computers and perhaps most famously of all, Marvin the Paranoid Android. Marvin is a prototype for the GPP feature, and his depression and “terrible pain in all the diodes down his left side” are due to unresolved flaws in his programming.

In a related field, we have the Talkie Toaster created by Crapola, Inc and seen aboard Red Dwarf. The novelty kitchen appliance was, on top of being defective, only designed to provide light conversation at breakfast time, and as such it was totally single-minded and tried to steer every conversation to the subject of toast.

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Seam[less|ful]ness

In this era of the Internet of Things, we talk about a future where our homes and workplaces are full of connected devices, sharing their data, making decisions, collaborating to make our lives ‘better’.

Whilst there are people who celebrate this invisible ubiquity and utility of computing, the reality is going to much more messy.

Mark Weiser, Chief Scientist at Xerox PARC, coined the term “ubiquitous computing” in 1988.

Ubiquitous computing names the third wave in computing, just now beginning. First were mainframes, each shared by lots of people. Now we are in the personal computing era, person and machine staring uneasily at each other across the desktop. Next comes ubiquitous computing, or the age of calm technology, when technology recedes into the background of our lives.

Discussion of Ubiquitous Computing often celebrated the idea of seamless experiences between the various devices occupying our lives. But in reality, Mark Weiser advocated for the opposite; that seamlessness was undesirable and self-defeating attribute of such a system.

He preferred a vision of “Seamfulness, with beautiful seams”

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The desire to present a single view of the system, with no joins, is an unrealistic aspiration in the face of the cold realities of wifi connectivity, battery life, system reliability and whether the Cloud is currently turned on.

Presenting a user with a completely monolithic system gives them no opportunity to connect with and begin to understand the constituent parts. That is not it say this information is needed to all users all of the time. But there is clearly utility to some users some of the time.

When you come home from work and the house is cold, what went wrong? Did the thermostat in the living room break and decide it was the right temperature already? Did the message from the working thermostat fail to get to the boiler? Is the boiler broken? Did you forgot to cancel the entry in your calendar saying you’d be late home that day?

Without some appreciation of the moving parts in a system, how can a user feel any ownership or empowerment when something goes wrong with it. Or worse yet, how can they avoid feeling anything other than intimidated by this monolithic system that simply says “I’m Sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that”.

Tom Armitage wrote up his talk from Web Directions South and published it earlier this week, just as I was writing this talk. He covers a lot of what I’m talking about here so much more eloquently than I am – go read it. One piece his post pointed me at that I hadn’t seen was Techcrunch’s recent review of August’s Smart Lock.

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Tom picked out some choice quotes from the review which I’ll share here:

“…much of the utility of the lock was negated by the fact that I have roommates and not all of them were willing or able to download the app to test it out with me […] My dream of using Auto-Unlock was stymied basically because my roommates are luddites.”

“Every now and then it didn’t recognize my phone as I approached the door.”

“There was also one late night when a stranger opened the door and walked into the house when August should have auto-locked the door.”

This is the reason for having beautiful seams; seams help you understand the edges of a devices sphere of interaction, but should not be so big to trip you up. Many similar issues exists with IP connected light bulbs. When I need to remember which app to launch on my phone depending on which room I’m walking into, and which bulbs happen to be in there, the seams have gotten too big.

In a recent blog post, Tom Coates wrote about the idea of a chatroom for the house – go read it.

Much like a conference might have a chatroom, so might a home. And it might be a space that you could duck into as you pleased to see what was going on. By turning the responses into human language you could make the actions of the objects less inscrutable and difficult to understand.

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This echoes back to the world of Twitter accounts for Things. But rather than them being one-sided conversations presenting raw data in a more consumable form, or Wizard-of-Oz style man-behind-the-curtain accounts, a chatroom is a space where the conversation can flow both ways; both between the owner and their devices, but also between the devices themselves.

What might it take to turn such a chatroom into a reality?

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Getting Things Talking

Getting Things connected is no easy task.

We’re still in the early days of the protocol wars.

Whilst I have to declare allegiance to the now international OASIS standard MQTT, I’m certainly not someone who thinks one protocol will rule them all. It pains me whenever I see people make those sorts of claims. But that’s a talk for a different day.

Whatever your protocol of choice, there are an emerging core set that seem to be the more commonly talked about. Each with its strengths and weaknesses. Each with its backers and detractors.

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What (mostly) everyone agrees on is the need for more than just efficient protocols for the Things to communicate by. A protocol is like a telephone line. It’s great that you and I have agreed on the same standards so when I dial this number, you answer. But what do we say to each other once we’re connected? A common protocol does not mean I understand what you’re trying to say to me.

And thus began the IoT meta-model war.

There certainly a lot of interesting work being done in this area.

For example, HyperCat, a consortium of companies coming out of a Technology Strategy Board funded Demonstrator project in the last year or so.

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HyperCat is an open, lightweight JSON-based hypermedia catalogue format for exposing collections of URIs. Each HyperCat catalogue may expose any number of URIs, each with any number of RDF-like triple statements about it. HyperCat is simple to work with and allows developers to publish linked-data descriptions of resources.

URIs are great. The web is made of them and they are well understood. At least, they are well understood by machines. What we’re lacking is the human view of this world. How can this well-formed, neatly indented JSON be meaningful or helpful to the user who is trying to understand what is happening.

This is by no means a criticism of HyperCat, or any of the other efforts to create models of the IoT. They are simply trying to solve a different set of problems to the ones I’m talking about today.

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Talking to Computers

We live in an age where the talking to computers is becoming less the reserve of science fiction.

Siri, OK Google, Cortana all exist as ways to interact with the devices in your pocket. My four year old son walks up to me when I have my phone out and says: “OK Google, show me a picture of the Octonauts” and takes over my phone without even having to touch it. To him, as to me, voice control is still a novelty. But I wonder what his 6 month old sister will find to be the intuitive way of interacting with devices in a few years time.

The challenge of Natural Language Parsing, NLP, is one of the big challenges in Computer Science. Correctly identifying the words being spoken is relatively well solved. But understanding what those words mean, what intent they try to convey, is still a hard thing to do.

To answer the question “Which bat is your favourite?” without any context is hard to do. Are we talking to a sportsman with their proud collection of cricket bats? Is it the zoo keeper with their colony of winged animals. Or perhaps a comic book fan being asked to chose between George Clooney and Val Kilmer.

Context is also key when you want to hold a conversation. The English language is riddled with ambiguity. Our brains are constantly filling in gaps, making theories and assertions over what the other person is saying. The spoken word also presents its own challenges over the written word.

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“Hu was the premiere of China until 2012”

When said aloud, you don’t know if I’ve asked you a question or stated a fact. When written down, it is much clearer.

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In their emerging technology report for 2014, Gartner put the Internet of Things at the peak of inflated expectation. But if you look closely at the curve, up at the peak, right next to IoT, is NLP Question Answering. If this was a different talk, I’d tell you all about how IBM Watson is solving those challenges. But this isn’t that talk.

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A Conversational Internet of Things

To side step a lot of the challenges of NLP, one area of research we’re involved with is that of Controlled Natural Language and in particular, Controlled English.

CE is designed to be readable by a native English speaker whilst representing information in a structured and unambiguous form. It is structured by following a simple but fully defined syntax, which may be parsed by a computer system.

It is unambiguous by using only words that are defined as part of a conceptual model.

CE serves as a language that is both understandable by human and computer system – which allows them to communicate.

For example,

there is a thermometer named t1 that is located in the room r1

A simple sentence that establishes the fact that a thermometer exists in a given room.

the thermometer t1 can measure the environment variable temperature

Each agent in the system builds its own model of the world that can be used to define concepts such thermometer, temperature, room and so on. As the model is itself defined in CE, the agents build their models through conversing in CE.

there is a radiator valve v1 that is located in the room r1
the radiator valve v1 can control the environment variable temperature

It is also able to using reasoning to determine new facts.

the room r1 has the environment variable temperature that can be measured and that can be controlled

As part of some research work with Cardiff University, we’ve been looking at how CE can be extended to a conversational style of interaction.

These range from exchanging facts between devices – the tell

the environment variable temperature in room r1 has value "21"

Being able to ask question – ask-tell

for which D1 is it true that
      ( the device D1 is located in room V1 ) and
      ( the device D1 can measure the environment variable temperature ) and
      ( the value V1 == "r1")

Expanding on and explaining why certain facts are believed to be true:

the room r1 has the environment variable temperature that can be measured and that can be controlled
    because
the thermometer named t1 is located in the room r1 and can measure the environment variable temperature
    and
the radiator valve v1 is located in the room r1 and can control the environment variable temperature

The fact that the devices communicate in CE means the user can passively observe the interactions. But whilst CE is human readable, it isn’t necessarily human writeable. So some of the research is also looking at how to bridge from NL to CE using a confirm interaction:

NL: The thermometer in the living room has moved to the dining room
CE: the thermometer t1 is located in the room r2

Whilst the current research work is focused on scenarios for civic agencies – for example managing information exchange in a policing context, I’m interested in applying this work to the IoT domain.

With these pieces, you can begin to see how you could have an interaction like this:

    User: I will be late home tonight.
    House: the house will have a state of occupied at 1900
    User: confirmed
    House: the room r1 has a temperature with minimum allowable value 20 after time 1900
           the roomba, vc1, has a clean cycle scheduled for time 1800

Of course this is still quite dry and formal. It would be much more human, more engaging, if the devices came with their own genuine people personality. Or at least, the appearance of one.

    User: I will be late home tonight.
    House: Sorry to hear that, shall I tell everyone to expect you back by 7?
    User: yes please    
    Thermometer: I'll make sure its warm when you get home
    Roomba: *grumble*

I always picture the Roomba as being a morose, reticent creature who really hates its own existence. We have one in the kitchen next to our lab at work, set to clean at 2am. If we leave the door to the lab open, it heads in and, without fail, maroons itself on a set of bar stools we have with a sloped base. Some might call that a fault in its programming, much like Marvin, but I like to think its just trying to find a way to end it all.

This is all some way from having a fully interactive chat room for your devices. But the building blocks are there and I’ll be exploring them some more.

12 Nov 2014

Last month, I was fortunate enough to fly off to Austin with a group of colleagues for a week long IBM Design Thinking camp. It was an opportunity to get away from the day job, with laptops all-but banned, and have a deep-dive into what IBM Design is about and how it can be applied.

As a relatively new effort within the company, IBM Design sets out to bring a focus back to where it should be; the human-experience of our products and services. This isn’t just about making pretty user interfaces; it is the entire experience of our products.

As an engineer, the temptation is always there to create shiny new features. But no matter how shiny it is, if it isn’t what a user needs, then it’s a waste of effort. The focus has to be on what the user wants to be able to do. This is something I’ve always tried to do with Node-RED; we often get suggestions for features that, once you start picking at them, are really solutions looking for a problem. Once you work back and identify the problem, we’re often able to identify alternative solutions that are even better.

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It’s often just a matter of asking the right question; At Designcamp, the very first exercise we were asked to do was to draw a new type of vase. Everyone drew something that looked vaguely vase-like. Then (spoilers…) we were asked to draw a better way to display flowers. At this point we got lots of decidedly un-vase-like ideas that were much more imaginative. It’s the difference between asking for a feature and asking for an idea. The former presupposes a lot about the nature of the answer, the latter is focused on not just the what, but also the why.

This relentless focus on the user isn’t a new idea. GDS, who are doing incredible things with government services, have it as their very first Design Principle. But it is refreshing to see this focus being brought to bear within a transformation of how the entire company operates.

Oh, and of course being in Austin, we got to screen print our own IBM Designcamp T-Shirts to commemorate the visit.

Go to Designcamp, screen print your own t-shirt. Obvs.

Lots more photos from the week over on flickr.