Making a Heartbeat Hoodie

I can wear my heartbeat on my sleeve.

Actually, I meant to put it on my sleeve, but turns out that sewing something inside of a sleeve is colossally frustrating. So it's along the front zipper.

The heartbeat hoodie is a blend of two things I wanted to play with: Soft circuits and consumer heartbeat monitors. I first made the basic LED hoodie, and later added on the heartbeat feature. And since the basic LED hoodie is easy and fun in its own right, I'll describe how I made that first, followed by the heartbeat addition.

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The Monthly Mood Cube

When Kristin is about to get her period, everyone in the house knows it.

A light on her nightstand tells us so.

What we now call the "Mood Cube" tracks my wife's cycles and has helped foster household harmony. It also makes Kristin smile every day.

It was easy to build. You can make one, too.

The backstory

The Mood Cube story really starts with Louise Ma, a great interaction designer and my colleague on the WNYC Data News Team. She knows her mood tracks closely with her menstrual cycle, so she put up a chart of different faces and hangs a rubber band on the face that matches her feelings. 

Stop by Louise's desk for a chat, and you immediately know where she's at. Talk about transparency!

Louise has made a hobby out of tracking her moods and cycles. Kristin had tried to track hers, too. She used several of the flowery iPhone apps designed to help, but didn't stick to them. She put the dates in Google calendar, but they never really lined up. 

And each month she was surprised by bouts of intense stress, frustration and agita -- always followed by her period just a day or two later. After a recent episode she texted me: "I want Louise's chart!"

I had another idea.

I wanted to make an ambient indicator -- something in Kristin's life that was subtle but clear. I wanted it to be peaceful, friendly and needinig no attention. And it shouldn't be harsh or shaming.

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LED Snowflake Ornament

Challenge to myself: Build an ornament for the Christmas tree in the few hours before Christmas Eve dinner.

I grabbed an Arduino the size of a coin I've been playing with called a "TinyDuino," from Tiny-Circuits, along with a little stash of LEDs I got from from Evil Mad Scientist.

Using the TinyDuino's prototyping board, I decided to solder the positive (long) ends of six LED's into the board so they radiated around it like this:

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Daddy-Daughters Project: Building a Minecraft Computer

To play Minecraft for real, we needed a new computer. So we decided to build one.

It should take a week or two. And with any luck, it'll cost less than $300.

For several months now, my daughters -- ages 8 and 10 -- have wanted to play the computer version of Minecraft. The computer version is far superior to the pocket version they've been playing, which, among other things, has no wolves, horses or dragons.

Buying a whole computer just to play the game didn't seem, well, appropriate. But making one? That we could do. 

So we're on our way. And I'll update this post en route to document our progress.

Episode One: The parts

Poking around the internet, I found the hardware requirements for Minecraft. A little more fishing landed this Lifehacker article about making your own PC. It included links to an entire computer-building lesson series and PC Part Picker, a service that helps you buy your parts and ensure they're compatible. 

Here's our parts list. It's based on the original Lifehacker article, minus the optical drive (we won't need it) and plus a wifi card (we will need that). We also upgraded the processor just a tad.

The first component to arrive, symbolically, was the shell into which we'll put the rest of the parts -- once they show up!

All the parts have finally arrived! Let the building begin.

SXSW Talk on Sensors & Journalism

At SXSW 2013 in Austin, I'm moderating and speaking on a panel looking at how sensors can play a role in journalism called "Sensoring the News: Detector-Driven Journalsm."

Joining me on the panel are:

Sarah Williams, Assistant Professor and Director the Civic Data Design Project at MIT. Sarah's slides are here.

Nadav Aharony, co-founder and CEO at Behavio.

Matt Waite, Professor and head of the Drone Journalism Lab at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Matt's video presentation is here.

And my slides are here.

Talk: Data News on the Fly

Today I'm talking about how the WNYC Data News team has done some quick-turnaround projects, especially around Sandy, at the IRE Computer Assisted Reporting conference

Here are the slides for my presentation, including links I reference. 

I also wrote a quick outline about our thinking on how we could best serve our audience during the storm, called "Predicting Questions, Building Answers."

Designing a Course in Data Journalism

More data journalism classes are on the way, at little schools and big ones. I'm hearing this through the grapevine. Several grapevines today, in fact. And I think it's fantastic.

When asked what such a course might look like, I point folks to Brian Boyer's theoretical and amazing Hacker Journalism 101. Journalism needs more journalists who can code, and this is a great way to get there.

That's programming, though, you say. We can't teach programming in a journalism class!

You can, and you should. Basic programming will help journalists understand and deal with data used by cities, cops, politicians, agencies, campaigns, companies, banks, stores, non-profits, advocacy groups and just about any other source you can think of.

Knowing how to code, even a little, is like having a solar calculator for that database you just scored.

In addition to programming, here are some of my favorite topics for classes, readings or workshops:

  • Finding data for your stories
  • Finding stories in your data
  • How to tell one story well
  • All data is dirty ... and what to do about that
  • Basic stats
  • Percentage points for journalists
  • Mapmaking made easy
  • Lying and truthing with easily-made maps
  • When maps shouldn't be maps
  • Basic chartbuilding
  • Lying and truthing with charts and graphs
  • Did I mention programming?

And I'd have 'em code something. Every week.

What have I left out? Add comments below and I'll update this post -- and my advice to others.

Photo: My daughters in a UW-Madison lecture hall where I studied geography. Both of them have dabbled in coding.

Real-time Data Journalism

While preparing for the real-time challenge of Election night, the WNYC Data News Team -- and the entire city -- turned its attention to an oncoming storm.

For our Hurricane Sandy coverage, we quickly built and maintained several data projects to help convey information people needed. All used open, public data and several were updated regularly -- either automatically or by hand.

Our projects included:

  • The evacuation map above, built using public shapefiles from New York City's Department of Emergency Management.
  • A storm-surge map for the entire New Jersey and New York coastlines, stitched together from a variety of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers shapefiles.
  • Hurricane Tracker to watch the storm's forecast track and its radar echo, fed by four real-time feeds from the National Weather Service. 
  • Transit Tracker with the latest information about several public transportaiton systems, driven by a Google spreadsheet updated by a half-dozen producers and reporters from transportation agency tweets, websites and public announcements.
  • A live flood-gauge map showing where the water was rising, driven by a real-time feed from the National Weather Service.
  • traffic map for the back-to-work crush sans subways, fed live by the Google Maps traffic layer.
  • A subway-restoration map, updated several times a day with new maps issued by the city transit agency.

For details on the data, follow the source links on each project.

With more time, we would have worked more on the aethetics. But time wasn't something we had much of, so we did our best to be accurate and clear given the resources available.

Read more about the WNYC Data News team's thinking behind our Sandy coverage

Counting the Jay-Z subway crowd

Saturday morning we did something fun: We counted the number of people who took the subway to the opening-night Jay-Z concert at Brooklyns new Barclays Center the night before.

Or at least got pretty close.

Traffic and transit were closely watched for the new arena, as it the 19,000 or so concertgoers would have just 541 parking spaces. So we decided to grab data from subway turnstiles to measure the crowds leaving the Atlantic Ave-Barclays Center station for the show.

How we did it

Turning around the data overnight took a little planning. Here's how we pulled it off:

Every Saturday morning, the MTA posts turnstile data for the previous week. Fortunately for us, the last reading is 8 p.m. Friday, the scheduled start time for the concert.

The data files contain the entry and exit counter readings for each turnstile in the system as a sort of "odometer" reading. The data is a little tricky to use, though it does have a regular structure.

So Steve Melendez, our Data News Team programmer, wrote some Python code that grabs the data files and puts the individual readings into a SQLite database. He then sorted the readings by station (using this chart), and calculated how many exit clicks were logged for the Atlantic Avenue station from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m.

We suspected there would be a jump in the time period before the concert. So earlier in the week, we ran the numbers for each Friday for much of the year and calculated those averages (I ended up using just September, because they were higher, post-summer vacation readings). Then, Saturday morning, Steven got up really early Saturday and ran the program again, including the newly posted numbers.

He sent me the latest values, and I added them to the chart in a taxi on the way to the station. At 8:35 a.m., I was on the air talking about how it appears about a third of the concert-goers took the subway.

It could be more: Some people could have left the system at another station. And if anyone left through an emergency exit, or if they showed up after 8 p.m., they wouldn't be in our turnstile data.

But it's a place to start, and we'll be watching how these numbers change for future concerts and for Brooklyn Nets games.