Workshops For Timid Solderers

As a hackspace member, it’s easy to fall into the belief that your own everyday skills are universal. Soldering for example. You’ve handled an iron since you were a youngster, the solder bends to your will as a matter of course, and since you see your fellow makers doing the same thing you might imagine that it’s a universal hackspace skill. Everyone can do it, can’t they?

Of course, they can’t. If you weren’t lucky enough to have a parent who tolerated your occasional propensity for acquiring burns on your fingers then you probably won’t have that innate experience with an iron. This extends to people you might expect to have those skills, indeed as an electronic engineering student a couple of decades ago your scribe was surprised to find that the ability to solder was her hotly tradeable skill, amazingly even a lot of EE students couldn’t solder.

So the ability to solder is not as universal as we might expect, and your hackspace will attract plenty of people for whom it is an as-yet-unknown art. What do you do about it? If you are Vancouver Hackspace, you run a workshop whose participants are introduced to soldering through building a simple AM radio. The kit itself is not too special, it looks like one of the Elenco educational kits, but it is what the workshop represents that is important. A hackspace lives or dies by how it shares its skills, and Vancouver’s workshop is a fantastic piece of community engagement. We’d like to see more spaces doing this kind of thing.

So, perhaps it’s time to put our money where our mouth is. How difficult would it be to run a hackspace soldering workshop for the uninitiated? Assuming your space is used to the mechanics of running events, the challenge is to find for each participant a soldering iron, some solder, and a radio or other kit without breaking the bank. An ideal budget from where this is being written in the UK would be £20 (about $29), into which a Chinese kit from AliBaba or similar and a cheap iron kit could be fitted. Some work to decipher the Chinese instructions with the help of an overseas student member and to write an English manual, and we’d be ready to go. If this comes together we’ll report back on whether the non-solderers of our hackspace successfully learned the craft.

We recently featured a similar educational initiative, a course at Swansea Hackspace teaching robotics through an Arduino robot. We would like to encourage this kind of thing, what is your hackspace doing in this line?

A Partwork As A Hackspace Course

If you watch a lot of TV just after Christmas, you will be familiar with partworks. Or at least, you will if you live in the part of the world this is being written from, and if you aren’t you should count yourself lucky. The premise is simple: buy this magazine once a month, and in each issue you will receive a fresh component which you can assemble over time into a beautiful model of a galleon, a Lancaster bomber, or a patchwork quilt.

The value for money offered by such publications is highly suspect, the quality of the finished item is questionable, and though the slick TV adverts make them sound alluring you’re much better off buying the Airfix model kit or just cutting your own patches.

There’s a partwork that caught our eye which may be worth a second look. It’s probably unfair on reflection to call it a partwork though as it doesn’t deserve to be associated with the scammier end of the publishing business. Swansea Hackspace are currently running a six-week all-inclusive course designed to introduce the participant to robotics through a step-by-step assembly of an Arduino based robot. Tickets were £60 ($85) to hackspace members, and all parts were included in that price.

At first sight it might seem a little odd to feature a course. It’s not a hack, you’ll say. And though the little Arduino robot is a neat piece of kit, you’d be right. It’s hardly ground-breaking. But the value here doesn’t lie in the robot itself, but in the course as an exercise in community engagement. If you are involved in the running of a hackspace perhaps you’ll understand, it can sometimes be very difficult to persuade timid visitors to come along more than once, or to join the space. Hackspaces can be intimidating places, after all.

The Swansea course holds the promise of addressing that issue, to say to an interested but non-expert newcomer that they needn’t worry; if they have an interest in robotics then here’s a way to learn. This community engagement and spreading of knowledge reveals an aspect of the hackspace movement that sometimes remains hidden, and it’s something we’d like to see more of in other spaces.

CitizenWatt And The Power Of Community

Depending upon where you live in the world, the chances are that your national or local government, or your utility company, has smart meters on their agenda. The idea is that these network-connected energy meters for your gas and electricity supply will allow greater control of energy usage and lead to lower costs through more efficient use of that energy. Bold plans have been advanced for meters that exert control over your higher-power appliances such as water heaters, washing machines, or home heating systems, able to turn them off or on depending on the time of day, spot price of energy, or load on the grid as a whole.

These devices are not without controversy though. Privacy concerns for example, centred on the amount of information about individuals that could be gleaned from the data they collect. Or security, that a vulnerability in an internet-connected electronic device fitted to millions of homes and with control over high-power appliances could be catastrophic if successfully exploited.

In a small area of Paris, they are trying to reap some of the benefits of smart meters for a community without some of those risks. CitizenWatt (French language, Google Translate link) is an open-source smart energy monitor that provides some of the benefits of a smart meter while allowing its owner to retain control of the data it generates by sharing data only with their consent. The entire project was born of an association between Citoyens Capteurs (Citizen Sensors, French language, Google Translate link), the hackEns (French language, Google Translate link) hackspace, the Fabelier FabLab, and the City of Paris.

The CitizenWatt system comprises an electricity sensor and a base station. The sensor is a simple battery-powered device that takes the output from a current transformer clamped onto the electricity supply cable and feeds it via an ATMEGA8 microcontroller to a 2.4GHz RF link. The base station is a Raspberry Pi which retrieves the data from the RF, stores it, and allows the user to view it through a web interface. Both the sensor code and hardware files, and the files for the Raspberry Pi base station are freely available on GitHub.

In keeping with the open nature on their project, the CitizenWatt team organised a series of events at which the families who were part of their trial in a Paris suburb were given the chance to build their own sensor boards, for many of them the first time they had handled a soldering iron.

We have seen quite a few smart meters on these pages over the years. There is this one based on a Spark Core, this one based on an ESP8266, and this one provided by a utility company, the data of which can be accessed. CitizenWatt is a worthy project to join them in its own right, but its involvement of a local community of non-makers is what sets it apart. We applad this aspect of the project, and we wish we saw more like it.