I want a broken phone hackathon

Clearly, I have no time to actually be running a hackathon these days.  But I do have a dream for the topic I want to see: broken/old smartphones.

There are three major types of hackathon-eligible phones:

  1. Screen is completing broken, cannot be used for input or display.
  2. Screen is cracked, can be used for input and basic display.
  3. Works fine, just outdated.

Geeks everywhere get terribly excited by the Rasberry Pi as a $30 development platform and they are reportedly about to sell their millionth kit.  But there were more than 5,000 smartphones available on eBay in December 2012 that sold for less than $30 and fell into one of the three categories above.  All were: faster than a Pi, had wifi, could operate without a power supply for at least some period of time, had GPS, and most importantly, were not a bare circuit board and thus had some resistance to the elements.

I’m not trying to take a swipe at the Pi; I’m glad it exists.  My point is that rather than producing something new, we could reuse old hardware that is actually more fully featured, if we write code that takes advantage of it.  And in a hackathon format, I think people would produce a shocking number of applications, many of which could be deployed for the public good.

Ideas abound.  Off the top of my head, I can easily think of several: wifi mesh network for disaster relief, food safety logger that send a wifi alert when a fridge becomes too warm to adequately protect food or a shipping container version that logs it for download, a room monitor that logs noise/light/temp and broadcasts to a central server for activity comparisons, motion/sound detection for anti-looting monitoring during disasters…the list goes on.

The way to think about it is to move beyond the “what do we normally use computers for” paradigm and think about the unique properties of a smartphone: configurable input, low power usage, and, for the purposes of the hack, disposability.  They are broken phones that would normally go in the landfill, so as long as they provide something useful before being destroyed, we are in better shape than we were.

Someone run this thing.  And then invite me.