Streuth. Hot on the heels of last week’s UnLtdWorld award, I was amazed to experience the web application that I created with Tom Leitch being awarded the top two prizes Yahoo’s OpenHackLondon. And this, after winning a prize with ‘HackHUD‘ at the previous Hack Day London, two years earlier (the famous one, when it rained inside Alexandra Palace).
OpenHackLondon is an opportunity for web developers and programmers to get together, to collaborate and experiment with new ideas in technology. The focus is a 24-hour (overnight) hacking challenge, with a two-minute demo by each team, and prizes in several categories.
Our entry was OpenFreecycle – an itch that I’d been wanting to scratch for a couple of years. This was an attempt to make community sharing of free, unwanted items much more easy and accessible. Sort of like eBay, but for free.
There are around 10,000 local “Freecycle” mailing lists (all of them are hosted on Yahoo Groups). They offer an extremely useful service: a way for people to offer or find unwanted items amongst their local community. Got a spare mattress? Put it on Freecycle. Need a chest of drawers? Find one on Freecycle.
The Problem: Closed
The system, however, is far from ideal. Each group is initially private and closed. You need to request membership and await approval for each group before you can see what’s available. Prospective browsing in neighbouring groups becomes a painful task.
And then there are the emails – hundreds in your inbox every day. And, because each group is just a plain and simple, private email list, there is no way to expose all that interesting content to other places on the web. That is, until now…
The Solution: Open
A simple, searchable, open system, with the option to subscribe to feeds for specific search terms in specific area (e.g. ‘baby’ in Leeds), the possibility to subscribe to alert notifications for specific items and the ability to integrate all this content around the web, for example with Greasemonkey in shopping sites, to inform you when an item is available for free in your local area:
What we built was a rough proof-of-concept. It only handles the Leeds group – and very simplistically, at that – but it gives an idea of what is possible when you start to open up data.
(Of course, there are merits in selected aspects of the system being closed, or guarded – e.g. in protecting user’s contact details, and the ability to identify potential exploiters, such as tradesmen scooping up everyone’s free offerings. These need to be preserved, for the health of the community.)
How we did it
Here are the slides from our demo:
We used the Yahoo Mail API (via PHP) to log into a subscribing mailbox, then converted the emails to Atom feeds (with Perl), imported these into Yahoo Pipes and performed geo-location, term-extraction and some other bits and bobs, drilled down into the resultant feeds with YQL and then presented the lot using the Google Static Maps API and a smattering of jQuery. Voilà!
We Won the Double!
OpenFreecycle won both the “Hackers’ Choice” prize, as voted by the 300 participants, as well as the “Best In Show” prize, unanimously awarded by the competition judges:
- David Filo, co-founder of Yahoo
- Tim O’Donoghue, vice-president of engineering at Yahoo
- Sophie Major, head of international at the Yahoo Developer Network
- Pascal Finette, Mozilla Europe
- Matt Biddulph, co-founder of Dopplr
- Daniel Ek, co-founder of Spotify
Take OpenFreecycle for a spin. Have you got any ideas? How would you improve the experience of local sharing?