tag:johnkeefe.net,2013:/posts johnkeefe.net 2017-09-15T17:53:07Z John Keefe tag:johnkeefe.net,2013:Post/1177135 2017-07-26T02:52:41Z 2017-07-26T19:28:43Z Chibimojis: A dad and his daughter walk into the App Store

We made adorable manga faces you can add to iPhone messages!

They're iMessage "stickers," a fairly obscure feature of Apple's texting system that, it turns out, are pretty easy to make – and make public.

John Keefe
tag:johnkeefe.net,2013:Post/1171792 2017-07-09T04:01:00Z 2017-07-09T04:38:27Z Heel, Rotson! My list of computer-generated dog names

Shadoopy. Dango. Ray-Bella. Figgie.

If I told you those were names of actual dogs in New York City, would you believe me?

They're not. They were generated by a machine-learning algorithm mimicking dog names after it "studied" a list of 81,542 dogs registered in NYC.

The experiment, which took just a few hours Saturday, was something I've wanted to try since I saw the playful, awesome work of Janelle Shane and her experiments using neural networks to generate paint colors, guinea pig names and Harry Potter fan fiction.

I happened to have some free time, and decided to give it a shot. Along the way I:

  • built, in mere minutes, a computer in the cloud powerful enough for machine learning
  • made and played with a recurrent neural network
  • learned a little more about machine learning
  • had a lot of fun

The program generated lots of names, including many that existed in the original data. Once I filtered those out, I had almost 400 computer-created, mostly plausible dog names. Here are some of my favorites:


If you'd like to geek out about how I did this, read on. You can do it, too.

John Keefe
tag:johnkeefe.net,2013:Post/1139036 2017-03-15T21:38:04Z 2017-03-15T22:06:43Z Qs and As About Bots for News

In my new job as a bot-maker and product manager at Quartz, I've been asked lots to share my thots about bots.

For a deep dive about conversational interfaces and what they mean to journalism (according to me), you can check out this Nieman Lab interview.

If you'd like a quicker scan, here are some questions and answers I prepared ahead of a panel about bots organized by the New York City chapter of the Online News Association. Here are those notes, and some links, too:

What should you consider before you start working on a bot?

  • You're entering uncharted territory! Have fun, explore, try new things.
  • There are no obvious places to find your bot. Bot makers talk about "discoverability" of bots, which is pretty problematic everywhere at this point.
  • So consider building where people already are interacting with you.
  • Make a "worker bee" bot that does a particular task well -- not a "know it all" bot like Siri or Alexa.
  • Is the information being exchanged sensitive? If so, think carefully. Making bots often means sending conversations through one or more 3rd-party services.
  • Play!

What are the specific design questions you need to keep in mind?

John Keefe
tag:johnkeefe.net,2013:Post/1125283 2017-01-23T16:53:05Z 2017-02-10T22:31:24Z A New Role: Bots and Apps at Quartz

It's been an amazing run.

For nearly 16 years I've been at radio station WNYC, working with dedicated, talented people to inform New Yorkers every day and to help them navigate elections, blackouts, hurricanes and terror attacks.

Most recently I've helped mix code, design and reporting into new forms of journalism with brilliant colleagues on the WNYC Data News Team.

Along the way I've been tinkering with bots, chat systems and artificial intelligence. These explorations, together with my lifelong interest in journalism technology, have led me to a new role at Quartz.

I'll be building bots in the new Quartz Bot Studio and managing future iterations of Quartz's breakthrough iPhone and Android apps.

It's such an honor. I've been a fan of Quartz's executive editor and VP of product Zach Seward for many years, and I'm always impressed by how well Quartz crafts its site, newsletters, tools and apps to be super useful and exceptionally user-friendly. I feel so fortunate to be joining that team.

This all begins two weeks from today, which won't leave nearly enough time to get through my goodbyes and recount all of my memories at WNYC. But I'm excited about what's ahead, and I'll always be a listener and a member.

John Keefe
tag:johnkeefe.net,2013:Post/1121337 2017-01-08T01:40:00Z 2017-01-08T02:34:31Z Building a "Build-A-Bot" Workshop

I've been playing a lot with bots lately, and recently had a great opportunity to help others play, too.

It was part of the Future.Today conference in New York City last month. Futurist and organizer Amy Webb planned deep discussions about artificial intelligence and human-machine interactions on the main stage. In a side room, she wanted to give the audience tactile bot experiences — and asked me to help. Could I create a "Build-A-Bot" workshop?

The idea was to get conference-goers building chatbots over lunch -- making them easily, without code, and in a way people could "take" their bots home to work on further.

We ended up making nearly 100.

John Keefe
tag:johnkeefe.net,2013:Post/1109067 2016-11-18T14:29:38Z 2016-11-18T14:29:59Z Fast Company on WNYC's Storytelling Experiments

Fast Company writer John Paul Titlow did a great job capturing the spirit of experimentation at WNYC -- and me doing an ill-advised live demo on stage:

"Anyone who thinks old-school media can't be stealthy and innovative has never seen John Keefe text a room full of people from a command line on his laptop. But tonight, the senior editor for data news at WNYC—a public radio station founded in 1924—is showing off some things he built to help his colleagues tell stories."

Read the whole story here.
John Keefe
tag:johnkeefe.net,2013:Post/1101119 2016-10-22T20:47:03Z 2016-10-22T21:15:08Z Alexa Baked in a Pi

You can put Alexa in a Raspberry Pi, and that is pretty cool.

Alexa is Amazon's intelligent agent, like Siri for your living room. Standing nearby, you speak to it with a question or a command, and it responds verbally.

Normally Alexa lives inside a $180 device called an Amazon Echo, or the new $50 Echo Dot. But Emily Withrow at Northwestern University's KnightLab told me it was possible to put the Alexa code inside a cheap Raspberry Pi hobby computer. And I happened to have an old Pi lying around.

So I gave it a whirl!

John Keefe
tag:johnkeefe.net,2013:Post/1093837 2016-09-27T04:39:16Z 2016-09-27T12:59:14Z Making Liza's Fireflies

Several friends recently planned a party for maker, e-textiler and all-around awesome person Liza Stark — and I wanted to celebrate her with blinkies appropriate for the occasion.

The event was to take place in a rented house with a porch overlooking a slice of woods.

I decided to fill the trees with digital fireflies.

John Keefe
tag:johnkeefe.net,2013:Post/1085860 2016-09-13T01:33:00Z 2016-09-14T00:31:16Z Now Available: Family Projects for Smart Objects!

It exists! I can't believe it!

My first book, Family Projects for Smart Objects: Tabletop Projects That Respond to Your World is in my hands. The Kindle edition is available now, and Amazon is taking preorders for the paperback edition that comes out September 24, 2016. 

It's a collection of 11 projects designed to introduce beginners to Arduinos, sensors and "internet of things" things. I tried to make it as accessible as possible, with clear instructions intended for girls, boys, women and men who have never done anything like this before.

The book grew out of my attempt to make something every week for a year (and blog about it).

Other fun facts:

  • I wrote much of it on my phone riding the NYC subway to work.
  • I promised myself I'd never write a book (thanks to Quinn Heraty for talking me into it).
  • It's published by the folks who make Make Magazine.

If you're into making and live in the NYC area, come out to the World Maker Faire October 1-2. I'll be there both days, demonstrating some projects and talking about the book!

"Family Projects for Smart Objects" at the World Maker Faire, NY Hall of Science:

Saturday, October 1, 2016 at 2:45 p.m. — Zone 3 Make: Show & Tell Stage

Sunday, October 2, 2016 at 11 a.m. — Zone 3 Make: Show & Tell Stage

C'mon out!

John Keefe
tag:johnkeefe.net,2013:Post/1077047 2016-07-29T01:43:27Z 2017-09-15T17:53:07Z Tracking Harlem's Heat with Sensor Journalism


How hot is a Harlem apartment?

We're trying to find out.

There are now DIY sensors in about 20 apartments, measuring the indoor heat and humidity -- in the middle of a heat wave.

It's the latest sensor journalism project from WNYC's Data News Team, in a collaboration with blog AdaptNY, community group WEACT and observation platform ISeeChange

And this week we worked with maker space HackManhattan, which hosted a soldering party to build more sensors.

John Keefe
tag:johnkeefe.net,2013:Post/1076090 2016-07-26T04:19:53Z 2016-09-14T00:31:42Z Book Making: Done

Between the last post and this one, I made a book!

Family Projects for Smart Objects is a collection of 11 projects based on Arduino hobby computers. They’re DIY activities designed for beginners who want to learn about sensors and make “Internet of Things” things.

Or just make stuff with people you love.

The book is currently with a team of designers who are working to make it beautiful, useful and fun.

Game plan is to publish in time for the World Maker Faire in New York this fall. If you’d like a note when it’s published, just jump onto my mailing list.

Ridiculously, that’s not all I’ve been doing. More posts ahead about cool (and hot) things I’m exploring at work and on the side.

John Keefe
tag:johnkeefe.net,2013:Post/973499 2016-01-18T23:39:42Z 2016-01-18T23:40:30Z Make Every Week Begets a Book

About this time last year I set out to make something every week in 2015.

In the end, it was actually “Make Every 1.7 Weeks.” But two exciting things happened along the way:

  • I made many, many more things than I would have otherwise, learning a ton.
  • I was invited to write a book.
John Keefe
tag:johnkeefe.net,2013:Post/950422 2015-12-15T14:35:56Z 2015-12-15T14:35:56Z Adventures in Minecraft & Parenting

When it comes to screen time, there are two activities where we give our daughters a lot of latitude: coding and Minecraft.

This morning I published a post on Medium called "Gardening at Night: One Dad's Guide to Minecraft." It's something I've been noodling on for a while, inspired by my daughters and by a few other parents who wanted to know how our family got started with the game.

Please let me know if it's useful to you or anyone else you know!

Separately, I've been collaborating with Jodi Jefferson to create a meetup geared for girls who play Minecraft called Girls Who Mine. We've met a couple of times, and are making it public with an event we're crafting for January. If you're interested, and live in the New York City area, jump over and add your name to the mailing list. We'll keep you posted.

John Keefe
tag:johnkeefe.net,2013:Post/940522 2015-11-29T04:00:53Z 2015-11-29T04:03:17Z DIY River Sensors: The 5 Minute Summary

Here's the high-wire act in which I describe the West Virginia University sensor-journalism project with 20 slides that advance automatically every 15 seconds. This took place in a room of brilliant thinkers at Newsgeist 2015 earlier this month in Phoenix.

More details about the sensor project are available on the StreamLab site and in an earlier blog post.

John Keefe
tag:johnkeefe.net,2013:Post/933600 2015-11-14T16:47:21Z 2015-11-14T16:57:21Z Make Every Week: Programs in Python

“Daddy, I want to learn Python,” announced my 12-year-old daughter a couple of weeks ago. Boys in her youth group know it, she said. She wanted to, too.

Say no more.

I’ve introduced my daughters to a variety of friendly programming platforms, including Kids Ruby, Hopscotch, Codea and Lua in Minecraft. They’ve sweetly tolerated my programatic prodding. This was the first direct request.

I quickly ordered two paper copies of “Learn Python the Hard Way,” by Zed A Shaw, and we’ve been walking through each lesson together — one every week.

John Keefe
tag:johnkeefe.net,2013:Post/916076 2015-10-13T03:52:30Z 2015-11-14T19:37:23Z Make Every Week: Distance Sensor Demo

I stumbled on a fun, visceral way to show how Arduinos can sense and respond.

In preparation for a presentation at the Online News Association Conference in Los Angeles, I grabbed a Ping distance sensor I had in a bin. The Ping works like a bat — it emits an inaudible, high-frequency sound, and listens for the sound to bounce off an object. The round-trip time between ping and reflection reveals the distance.

John Keefe
tag:johnkeefe.net,2013:Post/913886 2015-10-07T03:55:51Z 2016-07-06T14:56:14Z Monitoring the Monongahela

Yesterday the Streamlab class put do-it-yourself water monitors into Gatorade bottles and anchored them in the Monongahela River near Morgantown, West Virginia. They’re now texting their data readings live.

The link to the live chart is here, and the raw data is here.

We’re sensing conductivity, which is a good indicator of dissolved solids in the water, and temperature. The locations are: upstream of an industrial site, downstream of the same site and further downstream below the Morgantown lock and dam. 

John Keefe
tag:johnkeefe.net,2013:Post/908924 2015-09-24T03:44:55Z 2015-11-11T20:31:48Z Make Every Week: Message From a Bottle

A summer of tinkering has culminated with a conductivity and temperature sensor that texts its data from inside a Gatorade bottle.

The contraption consists of a Riffle, which is an Arduino-like board designed to fit through the mouth of a water bottle and a Fona cell-phone board. And a bottle.

The plan is to submerge several of these along a stretch of the Monongahela River as part of a sensor-journalism class at West Virginia University. It’s a work in progress, but you can [see how things are going]. My job was to build a working conductivity sensor that would report its findings live. Here are the components and how I made it go.

Update: We actually deployed some of these sensors in a river!

John Keefe
tag:johnkeefe.net,2013:Post/901929 2015-09-06T21:42:57Z 2015-09-06T21:49:38Z Whoa: Low-Power Texter Still Texting

About a month ago I built a texting temperature sensor, which had some energy-saving code I learned about. I wanted to see how many days it would last on one charge.

It's still running.

John Keefe
tag:johnkeefe.net,2013:Post/901568 2015-09-05T19:15:57Z 2015-09-05T19:16:37Z Make Every Week: Sensing Human Touch

Capacitive sensing is how your phone’s touch screen works — basically detecting the natural charge in a person’s body on the screen.

I’ve seen Team Blinky friend Liza Stark play and build simple touch sensors using the same technique with Arduino, so this week I gave it a try.

My goal: Use a touch sensor instead of a button on the Monthly Mood Cube.

It turns out to be pretty easy.

John Keefe
tag:johnkeefe.net,2013:Post/892950 2015-08-12T12:23:28Z 2015-08-12T18:13:56Z Make Every Week: Temp -> Text -> Table

Texting temperature data to Twitter is fun, but more useful is sending that information to a table.

That’s what I did this week, as my wanderings into wireless data collection continue: Post the temperature and humidity from my little experiment to a table at data.sparkfun.com.

Here are the steps as things stand now:

  1. The sensor reads the data (as in my original post).
  2. The Ardunio formats a message and texts it with a Fona (wiring details here, updated code here).
  3. Instead of texting to Twitter, it now texts to a phone number I bought at Twilio for $1/month.
  4. Twilio then relays that data to my project server in the Amazon cloud as an http “POST” (deets on setting up a cloud server here).
  5. My project server parses the text message, composes a URL with the data, and hits the Sparkfun open data system with that URL (code for that is here).

This all happens in just a few seconds, every 20 minutes.

John Keefe
tag:johnkeefe.net,2013:Post/891461 2015-08-08T04:18:14Z 2015-08-12T03:48:32Z Make Every Week: JavaScript + Arduino

JavaScript is the code that drives bells and whistles you see on almost any web page.

This week I used it to drive lights and motors on a table. And it was surprisingly easy.

John Keefe
tag:johnkeefe.net,2013:Post/890755 2015-08-06T02:47:27Z 2016-09-22T20:00:33Z Make Every Week: Audible Water Sensor

In just a few weeks, a class of journalism students will be wading into West Virginia streams to deploy water sensors.

They’ll be sensing water conductivity over several weeks using a cool, Arduino-like board called Riffle.

But the crux of the system is a simple circuit I tried for the first time tonight.

John Keefe
tag:johnkeefe.net,2013:Post/890255 2015-08-05T01:21:14Z 2015-08-05T01:26:45Z Make Every Week: Low-Power Temperature Texter

I got the temperature sensor working and I got the Arduino texter working, but I had trouble getting them to work together.

Until this week.

After jumping several hurdles, I now have a portable temperature-texter, which has been sensing and texting to Twitter for two days now.

John Keefe
tag:johnkeefe.net,2013:Post/878130 2015-07-08T13:00:02Z 2015-07-08T13:00:02Z Make Every Week: Arduino Texting

Texting is something I love playing with, and I’ve always wanted to make a sensor-bot that skipped the hassle of wifi by texting me its data.

So this week, I tried to make some progress on that by making a texting bot.

John Keefe
tag:johnkeefe.net,2013:Post/878121 2015-07-07T02:16:34Z 2015-12-03T12:13:00Z Make Every Week: Taking Temperature

Taking temperature readings with an Arduino seems pretty straightforward — generic thermistors are easy to wire up. But I wanted something a more precise, with actual temperature readings. 

So I got this air temperature and humidity sensor, and this week I gave it a whirl.

John Keefe
tag:johnkeefe.net,2013:Post/874007 2015-06-26T01:05:06Z 2015-06-26T01:37:06Z Make Every Week: Circuit Boards, For Reals

I always considered circuit boards like this something you bought, not something you made.

Not any more.

I actually helped to make the board in the picture above. And it was awesome fun.

The board is designed to monitor the conductivity (and, possibly, contamination) of water in lakes and streams, with the wonderful feature that it fits through the mouth of a regular water bottle. It’s called Riffle and it is the brainchild of Don Blair, who’s working with Public Lab and the MIT Center for Civic Media. This week I had the honor of working with Don at MIT.

John Keefe
tag:johnkeefe.net,2013:Post/869652 2015-06-15T14:22:59Z 2015-06-17T01:37:31Z Make Every Week: Heartbeat LEDs

Visualizing one’s heartbeat is just cool. I’ve been into the idea since I learned that signals sent by the Polar heart monitor straps joggers use can be detected with a cheap device.

I’ve made a heartbeat hoodie, which was a lot of fun. But in the end, a bright, flashing sweatshirt starts to annoy the people around you. Now I’m working toward a more wearable wearable, one that changes subtly as my heart beats faster or slower.

This week I took a step on the way to that wearable by getting three LEDs — blue, green and yellow — to light up according to my heart rate. A calm heartbeat and blue glows, a little faster and you get green and really fast lights the yellow one.

John Keefe
tag:johnkeefe.net,2013:Post/860879 2015-05-25T21:58:34Z 2015-06-12T22:29:46Z Make Every Week: Sewing-Machine Circuits

Sewing by hand can be tedious. Sewing by hand with conductive thread is frustrating.

The thread I use is almost woolly, so if you use too much at once, it twists and tangles in itself. Ugh.

For a project I have in mind, there would be much sewing with conductive thread. But we recently got a sewing machine, and this weekend I thought … heeeeey! The thread actually comes in little bobbins. Maybe I could load one in the machine?

John Keefe
tag:johnkeefe.net,2013:Post/858510 2015-05-20T01:14:43Z 2015-05-20T14:50:26Z Make Every Week: DIY Accent Lighting

For years, we’ve talked about adding accent lighting to our living room — particularly under the TV on the wall, to light up a small shelf underneath.

I’ve put it off. I just didn’t want to deal with the wiring, the mounting, the falling down, the mounting again. Even finding a fixture was daunting.

But then I spotted these adhesive-backed LED strips! Which can be powered by a 9-volt battery. Excellent.

John Keefe