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Smart devices hold promise for DIY innovation*

photo*Smart devices hold promise for DIY innovation but in order to fully tap their potential, developers need to keep their promises on providing open source code, or at a minimum, access to an interoperable API.

While at the Open Planning Tools Symposium in Portland, I took a detour to the Apple Store with the lure of tax free purchases. A hour later I left with the startup kit for the Hue Personal Wireless Lighting System in hand. Not cheap, but I was persuaded in the end when the sales clerk mentioned the SDK to control the color/brightness of the bulbs was open source. Using your iPhone or computer, you can have up to 50 bulbs connected to a single system with settings for each bulb (including a clever setup that allows you to match and map colors to photos). I had immediately thought of a use with our DIY touchtables and the scenario planning workshops we conduct. If we added a bulb to each of the DIY touchtable tripods, people could scan the room and see the relative performance of each table linked to indicators in the analysis.  During report out, people could see the extent to which others were able to balance different planning objectives (i.e. farmland preserved while adding jobs and housing to the region).   The performance of each group would be reflected in the color of the bulb prominently visible on the 6ft tall tripods, transitioning from from bright red to bright green based on indicator values.  To do this I would need the SDK to create a program that sends color/brightness information from each computer to each bulb, reflecting performance or an already developed interface that periodically retrieves the color/brightness values from a shared database (i.e. a Google Docs Spreadsheet).

Alas, the promise of a free SDK turned out to be an exaggerated selling point of the store clerk. When you visit the Hue website and the provided link for developers, there is nothing available for download, just a note that the SDK is coming, someday. This leads to a growing frustration of mine – companies that use the promise of open source as a selling point for choosing their product when the source code and/or SDK are not yet available or remain inadequate long after their stated timeline of availability. This is particularly troublesome when a tool developer uses the promise of open source to help get public funding and the funding they receive helps them get service-provider contracts with clients wanting assistance in setting up and using their application and yet the source code, including documentation, remain inadequate for anyone to be able to use the application on their own. In the case of the Hue wireless lighting system, I wrote an email to Philips trying to get a sense of when the SDK will be available. Their response was a vague promise that it will be available soon.  Whenever someone uses open source as a selling point, we should be vigilant in getting the details on what will be made available and, when we can, hold them accountable to what they promise.