FOSSCON 2018: Where Open Source and LEGO Collide

It probably won’t come as a surprise to anyone reading this, but hackers and makers absolutely love LEGO. We think you’d be hard pressed to find a Hackaday reader, young or old, that hasn’t spent some quality time with the little plastic bricks from Billund, Denmark. So it follows that there’s a considerable community of individuals who leverage their better than average technical prowess to utilize LEGO in new and unique ways. But the activities and history of these LEGO hackers is not exactly common knowledge to those who aren’t heavily vested in the hobby.

During the recent FOSSCON 2018 in Philadelphia, Daniel Pikora gave attendees a comprehensive look at the intersection of open source development and the world’s most popular brand of construction toys. A software developer with a penchant for open source code by trade, he’s also an avid member of what’s known as the Adult Fan of LEGO (AFOL) community who’s exhibited his creations at shows across the United States and Canada. Such a unique perspective, with a foot in both the FOSS and LEGO camps, makes Daniel an ideal tour guide for this particular microcosm of toys and tech.

In a whirlwind presentation that took attendees through 49 slides in about as many minutes, Daniel covered LEGO’s beginnings in the 1930s to the rise of 3D printed custom bricks, and everything in between. Some of the engineering-centric product lines, such as Technic and Mindstorms, were already fairly well known to the types of folk who spent a beautiful Saturday in Philadelphia at an open source conference. But Daniel’s deep-dive into the long history of open source LEGO projects brought to light the work of so many dedicated developers that everyone walked away with a newfound respect for the amount of work the AFOL community has put into elevating LEGO from a child’s toy to a legitimate tool. Join me below for a look at the particulars of that deep dive.

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FOSSCON 2018: Developing the FreedomBox

The modern Internet can be a dangerous place, especially for those who might not have the technical wherewithal to navigate its pitfalls. Whether it’s malware delivered to your browser through a “drive-by” or online services selling your data to the highest bidder, its gotten a lot harder over the last decade or so to use the Internet as an effective means of communication and information gathering without putting yourself at risk.

But those are just the passive threats that we all have to contend with. What if you’re being actively targeted? Perhaps your government has shut down access to the Internet, or the authorities are looking to prevent you from organizing peaceful protests. What if you’re personal information is worth enough to some entity that they’ll subpoena it from your service providers?

It’s precisely for these sort of situations that the FreedomBox was developed. As demonstrated by Danny Haidar at FOSSCON 2018 in Philadelphia, the FreedomBox promises to help anyone deploy a secure and anonymous Internet access point in minutes with minimal user interaction.

It’s a concept privacy advocates have been talking about for years, but with the relatively recent advent of low-cost ARM Linux boards, may finally be practical enough to go mainstream. While there’s still work to be done, the project is already being used to provide Internet gateways in rural India.

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FOSSCON 2018: Hacking the Indego Bike Sharing API

It’s often said that necessity of the mother of invention, but as a large portion of the projects we cover here at Hackaday can attest, curiosity has to at least be its step-mother. Not every project starts with a need, sometimes it’s just about understanding how something works. That desire we’ve all felt from time to time, when we’ve looked at some obscure piece of hardware or technology and decided that the world would be a slightly better place if we cracked it open and looked at what spilled out.

That’s precisely the feeling Eric O’Callaghan had when he looked out the window of his Philadelphia apartment a few years back and saw something unusual. Seemingly overnight, they had built an automated Indego bike sharing station right across the street. Seeing the row of light blue bicycles sitting in their electronic docks, he wondered how the system worked, and what kind of data they might be collecting. He didn’t need to rent a bike, he hadn’t even ridden one in years, but he suddenly had a strong urge to go across the street and learn as much as he could about this system.

He recently presented those findings during FOSSCON 2018 at the International House in Philadelphia, in the hopes that others might be interested in getting involved. Currently Eric is one of the only people who’s investigating the public data Indego offers, and as his personal MySQL database has now surpassed 15 million rows of data, he’s hoping to get some developers with big data experience into the fray. His approach to making this data useful is an interesting one which I’ll dive into after the break.

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