OpenFreecycle won at OpenHackLondon!


Our 24-hour hack: OpenFreecycle


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.

Yahoo Open Hack London 432 (by Jinho.Jung)

Our two-minute presentation to the crowd

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.

10,000 Freecycle Groups

Over 10,000 Freecycle mailing lists on Yahoo Groups

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:

OpenFreecycle on eBay, with Greasemonkey

A mockup for OpenFreecycle integration into eBay, via Greasemonkey

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!

Winning OpenHackLondon

Moment of glee

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:

Check out the other winners and all the Hack Day entries – there are some ingenius little gems to be seen.

Whatever Next?

Take OpenFreecycle for a spin. Have you got any ideas? How would you improve the experience of local sharing?

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20 CommentsRSS Feed

  1. Congratulations on the well deserved wins. It was great meeting you both.

  2. This is awesome Prem, congrats to you and Tom. You may have converted by *Arggghh! I want support/use Freecycle but it drives me mental” mindset. :-)

  3. Do Brighton now. Or I’ll come after you. I mean it.

  4. Thank you, Ryan. You were so helpful and patient in supporting us with the Yahoo Mail integration. Very much appreciated. I hope you enjoyed your visit – I look forward to seeing you at the next.

    Cheers, Emma. Indeed. There seem to be many people who love the possibilities with Freecycle lists, but wish it did things a different way.

    Good news! Tom and I are here at the Shine UnConference and have been shortlisted to appear tomorrow in the contest for ¬£5,000 worth of funding from UnLtd, head-to-head with two other projects. I’ll let you know how it all goes.

  5. Good work Prem! Sounds like a fantastic project.

  6. I really love this idea. I’ve used Freecycle a few times, but I always end up unsubscribing because of the huge amount of emails. Filtering can help, but only gets you so far.

    Your idea is one of those that seems so obvious in hindsight – usually a sign that you are onto something!

    Small note – maybe flag the location of charity shops and recycling centres on the maps too. I know that this is outside the remit of Freecycle, but it would make the service that much more useful.

    Cardiff next please!

    Geoff :)

  7. It would be great if you could do a version of this for Shrewsbury freecycle :)

    Congrats on an excellent and worthwhile mashup.

  8. Well done – this is a really useful mashup, elegantly executed!

    I really like the way you used the different technologies to pull this off. I’d tried something similar just using PHP with using Birmingham as a test case at and I can see myself adopting some of your techniques.

    Something that I’ve wondered is whether Yahoo! ToS has any issue with redistributing content. Have you discussed this? With this sort of content I think opening it up can only benefit users, so long as privacy is respected.

    One feature request that keeps coming up is a reputation system for eBay-style feedback. This would help people dodge no-shows and reward good freecycling karma when giving stuff away. Any idea whether you could add this?


  9. Thanks for your feedback.

    BTW – we didn’t win the pitch contest (my comment above), but UnLtd liked the project and suggested that we should anyway apply to them for funding.

    @Geoff and @Tarannau20 – thanks. Noted.

    @Si – I like what you produced for the Birmingham group. It’s a really nicely organised dashboard of activity, with easy access to the content. I also like how you have both obscured users’ email addresses, yet aggregated their “offered” and “wanted” posts under each address.

    On your question about Yahoo terms of service – there should not be an issue as long as the members of the group are happy with it. This would anyway have to be the case, since there would be no use in doing it if Freecyclers found it to be a problem. Quite the opposite, it’s intended to make everyone’s input more effective.

    The Yahoo representatives at OpenHackLondon were clearly supportive, since they gave it the top prize. I spoke with David Filo (co-founder of Yahoo) and he said he really liked what we had done and that he was aware that Yahoo Groups needed a new round of development, including RSS feeds for notifications and so on.

    So, I don’t think that satisfying Yahoo is an issue. However, it will be essential that this is an initiative fostered hand-in-hand with local Freecycle groups. If any group doesn’t want their content opened up, then that has to be fine. Si, what was your experience with the Birmingham group?

    I should also say that we’d be happy to have this as an open-source project, and it could be incorporated straight into, if so desired.

    On the idea of an eBay-style feedback system – yes, we discussed this and it does seem like it would solve a number of problems.

  10. Mohit

    Awesome stuff! Please make this global…. :)

  11. mel

    just a note… you do know it’s against yahoo’s tos to do this? and a violation that most of the members in the group probably wouldn’t be happy with, as it leaves them open to anyone…

    if you don’t want lots of emails, select daily digest or special notices, and log into the group… (which are closed to avoid spammers, hackers…)

  12. Jerome

    @ Si

    just came across this page, and funnily enough your test has just come up on the UK moderator discussion group a couple of days ago when the Birmingham moderators were made aware of it.
    tbh this had been done before, the problem here as mentionned in other comments is that the Yahoo ToS does specifically forbid reposting unless specifically authorised by the original poster, so even if you had contacted the Owner & moderators of the groups you would still had to get approval from each member individually to be totally legit, a massive headache as you can imagine.
    But yes, great projects here.

  13. These are valid concerns from Mel and Jerome so I’ll try to address them fully.

    Yahoo! ToS
    Not only has Yahoo! shown strong support at the highest level for the spirit of this development but the only related clause which I can find in the ToS seems to be limited to *commercial* uses (item 10 of ) which clearly excludes OpenFreecycle and freelist2web. Please let me know if I’ve missed something here.

    Mailing lists themselves have no way of protecting poster privacy, particularly when the users are unknown to the moderators. In such cases, moderator approval of membership can only be withdrawn to block known spammers. Any automated collection of poster e-mail addresses is undetectable (and actually unstoppable) in principle and practice via any random subscribed address.

    Both OpenFreecycle and freelist2web actually take a stricter line on privacy and withold the e-mail addresses from the web interface. OpenFreecycle just doesn’t show them and freelist2web strips the part after the ‘@’ (a similar approach to the Yahoo! Groups page).

    If privacy of identifying information is respected then we only have to consider the redistribution of the post content. The main reason for using Freecycle rather than other recycling services is that it has more members and so has a better chance of shifting or finding an item. In other words, the poster wants to reach as many interested people as possible. OpenFreecyle and freelist2web are designed solely to support this, using current ideas and technologies.

    I hope these points address the main worries facing these projects; I now need to put them to the Birmingham moderators. After being tipped off by Jerome I noticed that I’ve been recently unsubscribed from the local Freecycle group and Freecycle Cafe.

    I’m a bit surprised by this since the founder of the group seems generally positive about freelist2web and OpenFreecycle but will try to straighten it out so I can carry on working with Freecycle.

    Amongst other things, I have a kneeling stool that needs a new home…

  14. Si

    @Prem – if you could fix that broken link in my last comment I’d appreciate it. Thanks, Si.

  15. I am very interested in this mashup and wondered if you had any intention of opening this up to the wider UK Freecycle community… It would, we think, be well received at least in the UK which has a tradition of development in contrast to some other quarters…

    Having exited MyFreecycle recently, it would be nice to see if this has an application for us…

    Best regards,
    (Watford Mod)

  16. The Yahoo Groups Terms of Service discussion is interesting, and one on which I want to gain more clarity. Our development of the app has been put on hold until we get clear on this.

    For sure – there is no intention to run this as a big commercial venture, and it is only something worth providing for a group if the people want it. That said, a lot of people DO want this.

    Indeed, Yahoo themselves want this, as demonstrated by their interest at the Hack Day event, and by getting in touch with me since then to take the app forward. I hope to have more news on that soon.

  17. Si – I’m sorry to hear that you’ve had some obstacles from the Birmingham group. I hope you guys are able to resolve that soon. Thank you for your thoughtful comments.

  18. A great idea, and well implemented. I’d love this to become more established, and I hope you get the Ts&Cs sorted out with Yahoo!

  19. nice one!!!

  20. kubbnuts


    Have you thought about releasing this under a different name to freecycle?

    Just because there is some controversy around the US Freecycle trying to take over locally run groups…

    and the name belongs to the US network.

    Is this open source? Could it perhaps be released on a source code repository like git hubs or would that make you unpopular with Yahoo? Then each group would be free to do with it as they please (within the T&Cs), and development/hosting wouldn’t depend on your efforts.

3 Trackbacks

  1. By Save with Freecycle on June 14, 2009 at 6:39 am

    […] OpenFreecycle won at OpenHackLondon! : Dharmafly […]

  2. By Simon Hammond Blog » Freecycle update on August 11, 2009 at 5:44 pm

    […] posters wanted their message to reach as many people as possible. I’ve tried to make my case on the OpenFreecycle blog post which I recommend as a place to carry on discussion about moving Freecycle on from a closed mailing […]

  3. By Freecycle. Encoded. « bits and pieces on October 19, 2009 at 5:30 pm

    […] freecycle now on the web […]

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