Last weekend, BERG invited a selection of friends to participate in their first Little Printer hackday. Over the course of a short Saturday, we were asked to explore the API for making “publications” for Little Printer, and test them out on sample devices.

I had a few ideas, but decided for expediency to return to my “Hello World” of connected things: Tower Bridge.

My publication would be something you could schedule at pretty much any time, on any day, and get a list of bridge lifts in the next 24 hours (if there were any).

I could have made this a very small, simple paragraph, to fit into a busy list of publications. Instead, I decided to explore the capacities of the Little Printer delivery as a medium.

I was interested in the visual capacity of the Printer: what could I communicate on a 2-inch wide strip of paper? All of BERG’s publications to date have been very beautiful, and the visual design of publications feels important – it’s one of the many things that distinguishes Little Printer, and I wanted to try to aspire to it at the very least.

So I built an Observer’s Guide to Tower Bridge, based on a chlidhood of Observer’s Guides and I-Spy books. As well as listing lifts for the next 24 hours, I’d show users pictures of the boat that would be going through, so they could identify it.


I also visually communicated which direction upstream and downstream are. I don’t think it’s immediately obvious to most people, and so the “downstream” icon shows that it’s towards Tower Bridge, whilst the offset of the “upstream” icon illustrates that it’s towards Big Ben and the Millennium Wheel. It felt like a natural way to make this clear visually, and was economical in the vertical dimension (which is one of Little Printer’s bigger constraints).


Early versions showed a photo for every lift, which turned out to make the publication too big: I needed to shrink that vertical axis. I did this by only including photos of an individual boat once per delivery – you don’t need multiple pictures of the same boat. The second time a boat passed through the bridge, I instead displayed a useful fact about it (if I knew one) – and otherwise, just the lift time.


By making the publication shorter, I also avoided an interesting side-effect of running the printhead too hard. The grey smudging you see above is where the printhead is running very hot having printed eight inches of bridge lifts and photos (it prints bottom-to-top, so the text is the “right way up”). Because I’d printed so much black up top, it seemed like the head had a bit of residual heat left that turns the paper grey. This is a side-effect of how thermal printers work. You don’t get this if you don’t go crazy with full-black in a long publication (and, indeed, none of the sample publications have any of these issues owing to their careful design) – a constraint I discovered through making.

The Observer’s Guide was an interesting experiment, but it made me appreciate the BERG in-house publications even more: they’re short and punchy, making a morning delivery of several things – bridge lifts, calendar details, Foursquare notes, a quote of the day – packed with information in a relatively short space.

I was pleased with my publication as an exploration of the platform. It’s not open-source because the LP API is very much work in progress, but rest assured, this was very much a live demo of real working code on a server I control. If I were making a functional tool, to be included with several publications, I’d definitely make something a lot shorter.

It was lovely to see Little Printer in the world and working away. It was also great to see so many other exciting publications, cranked out between 11am and 4:30pm. I think my favourite hack might have been Ben and Devin’s Paper Pets, but really, they were all charming.

Lots of fun then, and interesting to design against the physical constraint of a roll of thermal paper and a hot printhead.

  • "I'm super happy with the resulting portrait of where the studio is now: 13 people, working in a garden in the middle of a vibrant city, a strong ethic, and maps and visualizations in active use by the public." A lovely description – it's a brilliant office to be in. Also, they totally have a piano. And: how lovely to see the maps laid out: seeing this issue, it reminds me just how beautiful many of them are, and how well they stand the test of time – Cabspotting, for instance, is increasingly iconic.
  • "What was quite nice is seeing the piles of paper at the end of the day. It’s very visible that Work Has Been Done Here. The sawdust, as Bridle points out, that’s missing from software development. You get to see the failed experiments and the changing versions printed throughout the day which would normally be hidden away in git." It was a fun day, and this is a nice thought from Dan. I kept all my sawdust, which I'll be writing about when I get a minute.

What I got up to on Thursday

16 November 2008

Last Thursday and Friday, I was very lucky to be invited to the Guardian’s first internal hack day. Whilst it was primarily an internal event, they also invited along a few of their friends to see what we could do with some of their information.

It was a really stimulating two days – exciting to see just what the Guardian is doing with their data and their journalism, and the ways they’re trying to make it more open. A particular highlight was seeing Simon Rogers explain the process of researching infographics and data-sourced news articles, and offering his talent for hunting down data to anyone who needed it; he provided a lot of hackers with useful sets of information that were only ever going to be found through a series of tactical phonecalls. For those of us not requesting data to order, the Guardian’s new full-text RSS feeds came in very, very handy, let me tell you.

It was also great to meet some of their technical staff. Obviously, the Guardian developer programme is in safe hands with Matt McAllister, and I’ve known Simon for a while, but it was great to meet lots more of their developers, client-side team and QAs; they were, to a person, lovely and talented, and it’s clear that the Guardian has a deep culture of quality.

I orginally wanted to build something along the lines of CelebDAQ but for journalists. The idea would be that you invested in journalists and made returns based on the column inches they filed; the goal was to highlight a lot of the high-volume content on the Guardian website that goes unnoticed, whilst making the more prolific and “celebrity” writers like Charlie Brooker expensive commodities.

Unfortunately, it soon become clear that the volume of scraping and data-parsing I would have to undertake would take far longer than I planned, and I wasn’t planning on staying up all night.

So I scaled down my thinking, and instead of undertaking “real programming” I started thinking instead about “neat hacks”, and the result was this:

In a nutshell, it parses the Guardian’s publicly available politics RSS feed, counts the number of names of Labour MPs and of Conservative MPs (not to mention the words “Labour”, “Tory”, and “Conservative”), and then works out the “swing” of the page. That data is then sent over serial to an Arduino, which outputs the result on a little bargraph.

It wasn’t the hardest of challenges, but I did get to write some Wiring and learn how to send serial data from Ruby, and I had a lot of fun poking electronic circuits. I was fortunate enough to win a subscription to Make for my troubles, as were the other team of plucky hardware hackers in the room – a lovely surprise to end the two days on.

37 hacks were submitted overall – impressive given the short period of time and how busy everybody was – and they ranged from the entertaining to the remarkably useful, from the thought-provoking to the empowering. Jemima Kiss has written up a few of the stand-out hacks in her Guardian blogpost on the event. It was great to see what such a talented – and multi-skilled – room could produce in under 24 hours, and I hope that the internal team at the Guardian enjoyed it as much as I did.

Many thanks to everyone who organised the event, and I look forward to seeing what the Guardian do with their data – and their great hacking – on a larger scale.