Things I learned from my mission trip to Tanzania

On the 25th July 2019 myself and ten other members from my church St Peters Farnborough caught the plane from Heathrow heading to Tanzania. There we spent two and a half weeks in the small village of Ibumu helping build a nursery school and school administration block, as well as teaching secondary school and pre-school children. We did this in support of Emmanuel International (EI), a charity who work with local churches helping plan and complete community projects with the aim of empowering and building a self-reliant community. Our church specifically supports missionaries based in Iringa (the nearest city to Ibumu).

It was a very successful trip and there are lots of learning points that apply to my own projects at home.

Team diversity

Our team came from numerous backgrounds and, thanks to that, had a huge range of skills and experiences. Some skills were obvious, we had a few teachers on the team who quickly took to working in the secondary school. But a lot of skills I didn’t fully appreciate until we were out there. For example, one team member had a real gift of communication especially with children thanks to being a grandparent.

In addition to the core team, we had support back in Farnborough. The value of this support can be seen in the small things, such as forwarding update emails to friends and family while we were away, but also in major events such as organising lifts to and from the airport after our taxi was cancelled at the last minute.

We also had members of the EI team and community that joined us day to day. I found their insight into the community invaluable as they were able to point out the cultural changes that I wouldn’t have seen myself for example motivating women to work on the build site.

Knowing and trusting in the team strengths was immensely useful as it meant that I didn’t need to worry about everything, for example, I always knew that logistics were in hand, this let me focus on the activities we were doing and engage with the now.

But there can be a danger in trusting in skills. At one point we found out that the building plan was being followed upside down; leading to a rather impromptu building redesign.

Moving bricks at the nursery school

Flexibility

We always knew we would have to be flexible, especially working in the secondary school as there were many unknowns. The biggest one being, how good is their English? When we got there we found other issues, two of the school forms actually shared the same classroom – so with 80+ students it was a squeeze.

Knowing that their English skills might be an issue and during our planning we had built in flexibility so that we could spend more time on the items they struggled on and also teach more if they excelled. The “form two” class did excel, so we were able to focus on using plurals, something that they were particularly struggling with.

Flexibility was also required at the build site where we were all given trowels and floats and taught how to lay bricks. Towards the end of our trip so many locals were joining us on site we were running out of equipment. Flexibility allowed this to be used to our advantage rather than being a hindrance. We were able to help in other ways, collecting water, getting to know the locals and even sitting in the school classrooms helping with marking.

Secondary school students

Forward Planning

Over the months leading up to the trip, we spent a lot of time planning. Deciding who will lead each activity, what songs we will sing, creating school lesson plans and gathering resources. This was also happening in Tanzania where the EI team were planning logistics and getting building materials to the site for us. This was especially important since we were doing two back to back building projects. Both sites would need to be at a point where we could come and help as well as being well resourced.

It is notoriously difficult to plan anything far in advance in Tanzania as they are always focused on the present. We were fortunate to have one team member heading out early and kicking the community into action, setting up bunk beds, showers and paving the way for the rest of us.

These three points all came together in an unexpected manner when we visited the nearby village of Ikuka, some team members and others from St Peters had visited Ikuka two years ago so we were excited to see the village again. When we got there we spent a couple of minutes of seeing the new church building when we received a text saying “get to the village office, the whole village is here.” There we were met with hundreds of people singing, dancing and bearing gifts filled with jubilation.

All in all I had a great trip, filled with many great memories so do ask me about it if you get the chance.

If you want to learn more checkout the Emmanuel International website.

Hackathon – Image Recognition Slackbot

Our internal hackathons give us extra opportunities to play with software and carry out quick projects we can’t usually justify sinking time into.

A while ago we built our Slackbot, it’s a bit of fun, from providing inspirational quotes to tracking who’s made the most cups of tea. It’s well on it’s way to doing everything you never wanted.

The Problem

DogsBOT reacts to discussions regarding lunch. Initially this was with 🍝 emoji. Since we don’t eat spaghetti every day I switched it to the 🍕 emoji but this also became routine.  What we needed was a less predictable, more intelligent reaction.  My criteria for this was:

  • Linked to the current weekly menu
  • Some element of chance

A Solution

The canteen menu for the week is available as a PDF on the site intranet. It was an easy choice to use it as the source for DogsBOT’s lunch reactions.  As there are multiple options each day DogsBOT would be able to pick one for today at random.

With that decided we just needed to convert the PDF of the menu to text.  Given my bias to use python, a quick google indicated PyPDF2 would be the perfect tool. Unfortunately the menu turned out to be almost entirely images.  All I was able to pull out was the title and a bunch of meta data.  I needed to switch to an image recognition tool.

For the image recognition I wanted to run the code locally so ignored the various cloud solutions.  This still left a lot of choice of software.  I found this guide which did everything I was looking for using OpenCV (to clean up the image) and Tesseract (to pull out the text).

Now I’d got the text, I needed to work out which day the food would be served on. I was starting to run out of time so I set-up a quick loop.  It assumes each item is from the day of the week it most recently passed.  Happy that this was mostly working so I moved on to converting the food to emoji.  I did this by attempting to convert each word to an emoji and using the ones that were successful.  In hindsight I would have been better off selecting reactions based on shortnames in this data as Slack reactions use them rather than emoji.

Conclusion

The new improved lunch plugin mostly works.  I had fun playing with PyPDF2, ImageMagick, OpenCV and Tesseract as well as learning a little more about how Slack reactions work.

Tesseract is impressively good.   Given that I’d been planning to just pull the text out of the PDF I didn’t spend huge amount of time comparing it with the alternatives since it did everything I needed.  If spent more time on this I’d like to spend more time tweaking the OpenCV commands to work with different lower quality images.

More hackathons

Whether we’re fitting out a storm trooper or camping in a field we all love spending a day out doing something different.  For our next hackathon we’re planning to try and break in to our internal servers.  If you’ve got any hackathons lined up you think we’re missing out on let us know in the comments.

EMF Camp 2018 – A Field Full of Nerds

From the 31st of August – 2nd September 2018, Dogsbody Technology attended Electromagnetic Field, in the grounds of Eastnor Castle Deer Park, in Herefordshire. It was a fun packed weekend, with talks and workshops on a huge variety of subjects, from blacksmithing to knitting, soldering to giant walking hexapods!

How was it?

The whole weekend was brilliant, and the energy when you’re there is amazing. There is a real sense of community and friendship amongst everybody, many of whom have never even met before. There’s no such thing as a silly question at EMF, if you want to know more about something, just ask; there will be lots of people willing to help you out. There are some very clever people present, so there are many opportunities for learning, and teaching too.

Power and Internet

One of the more unique aspects of EMF is the fact that you get power and super fast internet to your tent/village. This year, a ludicrously quick 1Gbps symmetrical connection was provided. This is a fast circuit for a permanent installation, let alone one for a ~3 day event (not forgetting the amazing volunteers who’d been on site for nearly 10 days when all was said and done!)

Villages

Campers are allowed, and encouraged, to set up villages on the site. These are basically collections of tents/structures where people camp together so they can work on similar projects, or just enjoy the company of other like minded people. Whilst Dogsbody didn’t have a “village” as such, we all camped together and had a communal space for hacking / eating / chatting etc. Here’s most of us hacking on our badges (more on these in a while)

Badge hacking at camp Dogsbody

The Talks / Workshops

EMF 2018 was the biggest yet, and it was packed full of content. There were roughly 120 talks, 74 workshops, 20 performances and 43 other events. And they were all amazing! There’s obviously too much stuff to discuss here, so I’ve asked the rest of the company to tell me a little about their favourite parts:

Friday night at EMF Camp was amazing – 100 watts of lasers, Fire…Professor Elemental live and seeing the Null Sector for the first time was incredible. I’m a sucker for multi coloured lights

– Claire

As a regular user of the trains, I was drawn to the railway signalling talk. I often jokingly write the trains off as hopeless and incompetent but as we all know everything is always more complex than it first appears so this was a great place to get a better idea as to what keeps going wrong. The talk was interesting, informative and well delivered.

Here are some of the things that fall under “a signalling problem”:

  • Keeping track of where the trains are (this is often done by putting a battery on the track or a small box to count the axles as they pass it).
  • Making sure you aren’t too close to the train in front (is usually done by either splitting the track into zones and only allowing one train per zone or by keeping track of the zone in front of each train that it will need to safely stop).
  • Signalling the driver and making sure the fail safes are working in case they miss / ignore the signal.

Just from these things you end up with a huge number of ways for the trains to be delayed to ensure passenger safety.

– Jim

My favourite talk was Boiling nemo – make your own internet of things. Which detailed out the presenters descent into IoT madness, after his fish tank malfunctioned he set up a Raspberry Pi to monitor it.

He slowly takes his home IoT further and further until at the end he is comparing “Big data” with a graph showing his son leaving for school (later and later!).

My other highlight was watching Hackers, it is one of those movies that is so much better with a crowd. HACK THE PLANET!

– Rob

The Cracking HiTag2 Crypto talk was very interesting as I’ve always wondered how they work. Learning that as well as how to crack them was indeed fascinating. The way you can crack and copy them is seriously impressive and now I’ve seen how all of that is done I want to go myself.

– Chris

The talk from from two hackers that at the age of 16 were banned from using any encryption technology for 5 years was fascinating.  It’s very clear that the UK police service has a long way to go before they even know what to do with criminals in an online world.  With the UN declaring the internet now being a basic human right and the push for encryption of all online content over the last few years there can easily be a disconnect between punishment and rehabilitation.

– Dan

At the time of writing, all of the happenings of EMF 2018 are detailed here and videos of all of the talks can be found here

Badges

The badges at EMF are truly unique. Most conferences give you a name badge which has your name on it, along with maybe your occupation / job title etc. EMF goes above and beyond this quite stratospherically, giving you badges which are small, hackable microcontrollers. This year, along with the now “standard” screen and LEDs, this year’s badges had fully functional mobile phones built in. And these connected to… the fully functional GSM mobile network that was set up on site. We could write an entire post on the badges and what they’re capable of (which we may well do at some point), so I’ll just have to leave you with some pictures for now (note the SIM card above the battery wires in the second picture)

 

Summary

We all had a blast at EMF 2018, and we’re already looking forward to EMF 2020, which we hope to attend. We really don’t know what the organisers are going to do next, but we’re sure it’s gonna be mega.

If you attended EMF 2018 and have anything to share, please leave a comment below.

Here are some of our favourite photos from this years event.

Dogsbody walks for Cystic Fibrosis

Last Saturday 10th June 2017 The Techy Trekkers (8 employees from Dogsbody Technology and Adapt Digital) walked OVER 40 miles taking part in the Great Strides 65 Surrey Hills Team Challenge in aid of the Cystic Fibrosis Trust. It was without a doubt the biggest physical challenge any of us had faced and was indeed a challenge.

Our Team was in the final wave which started at 7.30AM. There were 12 Checkpoints, 7 of which involved meeting with the wonderful team in our support car, who carried all the heavy stuff like food, drink and medical supplies! 40 Miles at the average walking pace of 3 MPH would take us 13 hours and 20 minutes with no stops. Our actual moving time (according to our GPS) was 13 hours and 49 minutes, which wasn’t so bad – it was the support stops that slowly got longer as we got more tired, needed more time to eat, tend to feet and queue for the loo.

We ended up completing the event at 1AM to an amazing cheer from the organisers who were brilliant on the day; it may have taken us 2 hours longer than we planned for but all 8 of us finished and we are immensely proud of the team for continuing despite the blisters and pain.

Our team of truly amazing people have raised over £2,300 in sponsorship so far but the whole event currently stands at a fundraising total (inclusive of Gift Aid) of £200,233.36 for the walk and a further £11,111.61 for the ultra (running race)  – a massive amount which will help the Cystic Fibrosis Trust in its mission to ensure that everyone born with cystic fibrosis can live a Life Unlimited.

There is still one month to donate to such an amazing cause so please spare some pennies if you can do so we can reach our personal target of £2500.00.

“I completed the hardest physical and mental challenge of my life with a team of amazing people!” – Teammate Katie

Images courtesy of Jan Benton, Tracey Clarkson & Mark Turner.

We survived Google Hash Code 2017

Last week we attended Google Hash Code 2017 in GROW at Greenpark, Reading.

The problem was released at 17:45 and we had until 21:30 to write a solution that scored better than the 2814 other teams in the competition.

The problem statement related to optimising YouTube’s caching servers by pre-loading popular video’s.  You can read the full problem statement and examples here (PDF, 362K).

We had a great evening and come up with a solution to the problem which is always nice.  We enjoyed a free Curry and got some Google swag including stickers (We love stickers! Feel free to send us stickers anytime) and the rather cool sunglasses you can see in the feature image of this post.

Thank you to the Organisers (Google Developer Groups Reading and Thames Valley), volunteers and GROW at GreenPark for the great venue. We look forward to next year event.

Dogsbody Technology joins Google Hash Code 2017

Dogsbody Technology are stepping into the shoes of Google engineers and attending Google Hash Code 2017 in GROW at Greenpark, Reading, one of the 432 Hash Code hubs across 66 countries.
A team-based programming competition for students and professionals (18+) across Europe, the Middle East and Africa, Pick your team and programming language, and Google pick a real-life engineering problem to solve.

Fancy entering a team of your own –  sign up today at g.co/hashcode! (last entry 20th February 2017 18:00 CET)

Check back to see how we got on!

Five Go on a Hacking Weekend

Last weekend (25th & 26th November 2016) Dogsbody Technology headed off to St. John’s church Hoxton in Shoreditch, London to attend (what turned out to be the last) Over the Air 2016.

Over the Air is an annual 2-day mobile developer event with a mix of technical workshops put on by the community, a Hackathon to celebrate programming & making as a creative discipline, and Lightning Talks to entertain and inspire.

This year the Dogsbody Technology team decided to do their first hack and enter the Hackathon Challenges for the first time – and boy did we have fun! It all started with us finding a 4ft Stormtropper while out shopping which we knew we could improve on! We named it ‘Dolly Stormageddon‘, or Stormy for short.

On Friday morning we packed the car full with Raspberrys Pi’s, Arduino’s, Lasers, Lego, wire, speakers, batteries, soldering irons, microphones, USB dongles, cable ties, SD cards, cables, drills, duct tape, sleeping gear and more! Heading off with a general plan of what we wanted to try and achieve.

After the welcome speech and Friday keynote presentation by Hadley Beeman on the effects of Brexit and Trump to the tech industry, we set ourselves up in the Crypt under the church and got to work.

We had a list of stuff we really wanted to do and a list of nice to haves as we knew time was limited to less than 24 hours!

Nexmo was a sponsor of Over the Air and so we decided to use their SMS API to make Dolly read out text messages. Rob set up the Nexmo SMS API and we used an existing Pushover script to communicate this to a Raspbery Pi which then used Amazon Ivona text to speech software (we picked Welsh) to read the text message out over a speaker we put in Dolly’s leg. This was all scripted/set up by Gary. We even added the function that if someone texted ‘shoot’ it made a blaster noise!

For a good demo you always need lights and movement so Dan wired up a laser pointer to his gun and Jim used Lego to mount a servo and programmed an Arduino to get his head to move side to side.

Finally we added an NFC Tag inside his chest with the number for people to text.

Testing included texts such as “I’ve got a brand new combine harvester” and the complete lyrics to Queens “I want to break free” – which is slightly strange spoken by a 4ft Stromtropper in a Welsh accent!

We entered three categories in the Hackathon Challenges –  The Nexmo APIs Challenge, The Best Hardware / IoT  Entry and The Best Use of Other Features. Below is our Show & Tell! We had exactly 90 seconds to present what we worked on.

WE WON!!!

The Best Hardware / IoT  Hack!! with an Nexmo Honourable mention

We got a pile of new toys to play with from our win and we couldn’t be happier

Dan, Jim, Claire and Rob attended a few talks but the hack took up most of our time, the always interesting and funny lightening talks included a  talk on ’10 stupid stuff I’ve bought on the internet’ (he had to narrow that down from over 40!) which include 1000 plastic ducks and entering an inflatable marathon whilst intoxicated.

Dolly and the Dogsbody Team are now home and the ultimate idea is Dolly will be in our office and alert us when a server goes down..we will rebuild Dolly better, faster, stronger…

Dogsbody Technology would like to say a BIG Thank you to the Organisers and sponsors of Over The Air throughout the years for a great event. We had an amazing time!

 

Feature image by Andy Piper

See you at Over the Air 2016

On 25th & 26th November 2016, Dogsbody Technology are off to a church in Shoreditch, London to attend Over the Air 2016 which is now in it’s 9th year.

This is our fifth year going to Over The Air with our founder Dan going on his own the first year and bringing the whole company each year as we have grown.

Over the Air is an annual 2-day mobile developer event with a mix of technical workshops put on by the community, a Hackathon to celebrate programming & making as a creative discipline, and Lightning Talks to entertain and inspire.

It is a free event (although for the first time this year, they are inviting a suggested donation of £10 to help cover the costs of the event).

Tickets are still available herecome join us!

Electromagnetic Field 2016 – An Amazing Weekend

This weekend we attended Electromagnetic Field (EMF) in Guildford. EMF is all about making things, breaking things, fixing them again, and learning a whole lot of stuff whilst you’re doing it, either directly through your hacking and experimentation, or via any of the fantastic talks and workshops, of which there were many.

We headed to EMF on Friday, which started as any normal day at the office; arrive at 9am, sort your tickets and have a cup of tea.

With the everyday stuff in order, it was time to head to EMF. This was my first time at EMF, and I must say it was AWESOME! Some of my colleagues had been before and told me great things, but I didn’t realise it was going to meet, and beat, my expectations so swiftly and so completely.

I was not completely sure what to expect, but as soon as I arrived at the site, you could really feel the excitement, with people looking forward to what was to be an awesome weekend. Everybody at EMF was very friendly, and everybody was there for the same reason; to learn and have fun. We got our (awesome) camp set up and said hello to the neighbours.

The Dogsbody Technology camp site at EMF 2016

The Dogsbody Technology camp site at EMF 2016

The variety of topics and talks was endless, from balloons to beer, and from security to sex robots, there really was something for everyone!

One of my favourite talks was from freakyclown who makes his living gaining access to various establishments and businesses in order to test their security. He explained how with nothing more than a hi-vis, a clip-board and a lot of confidence, you could work your way into some seriously secure places. It was actually a bit frightening to hear just how easy it is to breach certain security measures. A very well-prepared and well-presented talk, providing awesome insight into what is otherwise a fairly secretive (with good reason) industry. It also looks like freakyclown enjoyed giving his talk as much as we loved watching it.

Another talk that caught, and held, my interest was WhiteSpace by Beth Healey. The talk consisted of Beth telling us about her long stint at Concordia, one of the most remote and hostile locations on the planet, where she carried out research and experiments. Although amazing in itself, the data gathered on Beth and her colleagues during their time at Concordia would later be used by ESA and NASA to see how people coped in the extreme conditions, which will help them when we finally get around to sending people on a very long, manned missions to other planets in our solar system. Very exciting stuff!

Now I could talk literally all day about all of the fantastic things we did, people we met, and contraptions we created, but as the saying goes, a picture tells a thousand words. So here’s some of our favourite snaps from the weekend. Please leave some comments below and share your thoughts if you went along to EMF, we’d love to hear what you got up to! We will also be updating this blog post with links to slides and videos from the talks when they become available, so do check back.

Sadly EMF is only on every two years, but it will be back in 2018, and I’m sure the Dogsbody Technology team will again be in attendance. See you there!

See you at Electromagnetic Field 2016

This weekend the Dogsbody Technology Team are packing up their tents and laptops and heading to Loseley Park, Guildford for Electromagnetic Field 2016.

Don’t know what Electromagnetic Field is – here is a description from their website:

Electromagnetic Field is a non-profit UK camping festival for those with an inquisitive mind or an interest in making things: hackers, artists, geeks, crafters, scientists, and engineers.

A temporary town of more than a thousand like-minded people enjoying a long weekend of talks, performances, and workshops on everything from blacksmithing to biometrics, chiptunes to computer security, high altitude ballooning to lockpicking, origami to democracy, and online privacy to knitting.

To help matters along, we provide fast internet, power to the tent, good beer, and amazing installations, entirely organised by a dedicated team of volunteers.

Tickets were on sale in advance and are now sold out but come back here to see our review of the event next week.

Update: You can now see our write up of Electromagnetic Field 2016.

If you are attending feel free to come say hi and have a drink with us

Like the idea of attending these sorts of event with us! We are Hiring. You could be joining us at our next event 🙂