On Thursday mornings, a dozen or so students from nearby colleges gather at the University of the Philippines’ Diliman Interactive Learning Center to tinker with bits of hardware for an hour or two. These hackathons are part of Bayanihan Cre@tive Labs, an initiative of Internet Society (ISOC) global member Nestor Tiglao. Nestor, who teaches electronics engineering at the same campus, received an Internet Society community grant to develop the makerspace group at the height of his research on wireless network system designs.
The term ‘Bayanihan’ refers to the traditional practice of cooperative work among villagers in the Philippines, and it is a well-appointed name for what the project wants to build: a community of like-minded people who come together to play with available technologies, and explore localised uses for machine-to-machine communication and other areas relevant to Internet of Things.
This week, the group was going to try to build prototypes of simple wireless detectors using Arduino starter kits and gas and alcohol sensors that Nestor had bought separately from a local shop. Liquefied petroleum gas is used popularly as cooking and transport fuel among local households, and gas sensors can be useful in detecting leakages and preventing accidental fires and explosions.
The group divided into pairs and began attaching the small sensors onto breadboards, quickly progressing into basic circuit wiring and a bit of coding to calibrate the sensors’ readings. In between, hackers were curiously crossing over to other pairs, consulting data sheets and googling tips on the Internet. By lunchtime, the group had several working gas and alcohol sensors, which they tested using a butane lighter that Nestor had borrowed from a colleague next door.
The project insists on utilising open source hardware and software for its activities. Arduino kits, for instance, are both reusable and customizable, and can thus be repurposed for various experiments. The group also uses Raspberry Pi, a credit-card sized single-board computer developed by a foundation of the same name to promote basic computer science to young people.
As the makerspace is quite new, its activities remain informal, with both regulars and newcomers dipping into sessions on their free time. Most of the current participants are engineering students and interns in their late teens. Many are in their first year at university and hackathons such as this lets them play around with and find applications for the concepts they learn in the classroom.
The group itself is open access, and Nestor is keen on pulling in startups and institutions to take part in Bayanihan Labs. He hopes that such collaborative venues would encourage local scientists and entrepreneurs to innovate on existing technologies and catalyse the production of affordable IoT devices for the country. He also wants to bring the hackathons to secondary schools to pique young people’s interest in creating useful IoT devices from cheap and readily available materials.
In between physical meet-ups, the group continues to collaborate through their mailing list and make their hackathon outputs available online in their social media pages. This week’s output, they tell me, will be further enhanced in the coming sessions. The next step will be using a Wifi transceiver, or a wifly module, to transmit data generated by the sensors on to a designated server for aggregation. One of the end-goals is to send this data straight to the mobile phone as SMS. The group is also looking into other sensors to monitor environmental and health conditions—temperature, pollution levels, heartbeat—all crucial in a country that is prone to natural disasters, and where quality healthcare remains out of reach for most of the population.