Project: Automated Lawn Room

I recently finished creating a 3D-printed, Raspberry-Pi-powered, Twilio-backed lock for one of the oldest rooms in Charlottesville.   The goal? To allow my friends anytime access to my space on the Lawn while simultaneously staying secure.

I was originally going to grant access to all of my Facebook friends  (the Raspberry Pi would use Facebook’s API to check who my friends were), but thought that it might be less chaotic to design my own registration system, so that I can easily control when individual users are permitted to enter my room.

Challenges:

  1. Not destroying a UNESCO World Heritage Site
  2. Designing/Printing a container and transmission to adapt a servo motor to the existing door lock.
  3. No existing “Instructables” for this project (or pieces of it therein)
  4. Learning how to make the Arduino talk to the Raspberry Pi
  5. Getting through the University’s draconian firewall to Twilio. (ended up using a few servers as mirrors to get there)
  6. Allowing manual override for maintenance workers who occasionally let themselves in.

Here’s a video I submitted to the Engineering Student Council as part of a contest.  (The second half shows how it works)

Update:  Some new features!

I’ve been working on a few new features to make my room more intelligent.  One of the features will save electricity by turning lights on only when there are people in the room, and turning them off automatically when the visitors leave.  Another new feature  sends me a text with a picture of the visitor who entered the room.  Finally, I’ve created a lockdown mode so that I can go on vacation without worrying about what will happen to my room when I’m out of town for a weekend.

Calling a method I wrote to control the lights in my room via DMX protocol by way of the raspberry pi.
Calling a method I wrote to control the lights in my room via DMX protocol by way of the Raspberry Pi.

 

 

1and1 Is the Paradigm for Awful Support

I have regrettably used 1and1 to register 20 of my domain names for the past 10 years. Since day one, their clunky and unintuitive user interface, and inconsistent/unclear pricing schema has frustrated me. Today, I reached wits end when they decided to charge me (and then threaten to send me to collection) for a domain name that I asked them not to renew. They renewed the domain name and removed it from my account (making it impossible for me to switch it to a different registrar) and then sent me a bill. Furthermore, their support team in India was unhelpful after I waited on hold for 45 minutes. These people are crooks and I sincerely hope you are not enticed by their bait-and-switch pricing tactics as I was 10 years ago. On another note, if anyone knows of a place to bulk-register domain names, please let me know! (I am aware that GoDaddy exists, but I’ve heard I should avoid them as well)

The UVA Market: My Solution to Inefficiency in Search Costs

If you’ve read through the archives of my blog, you’ll probably notice that it seems like I have an obsession with fixing the secondary market for textbooks (read: used textbook industry).  I’m not saying that it’s broken per se, I just think that it can still be made much more efficient. I started my quest for efficiency in this business back at Nobles, when my parents decided that it was my turn to pay for textbooks in 9th grade.

My friend and I undercut the on-campus book buyback company by offering cash up front to students for their used textbooks, and we would sell them the following summer on Amazon. We bought over a thousand books from students at higher prices than the competitor, and sold them for a smaller margin on Amazon. The drawback to this was that we had to ship every book individually across the country, and pay hefty 15-25% Amazon commissions. The fact that we made a profit shows just how inefficient the industry is: On campus buyback programs pay as low as 20 cents on the dollar for textbooks used for only one semester!

In an attempt to pierce these companies’ and Amazon’s cut of our profits, in addition to  facilitating the transactions of goods between students, I launched the ISL Market for my senior project. The aim was to get students throughout the Greater Boston Independent School League (ISL) to trade sports apparel and textbooks at mutually convenient sporting events. Students would use cash and not need to hassle with shipping services, so my concept was an eco-friendly and convenient improvement for reusing textbooks.

The current version of the wishlist page, which shows all the books you are looking to buy as well as the ones you'd like to sell. A simple interface for now, but much more noteworthy is the framework for the back end of the page, towards which I devoted a much larger effort.

Now, with the UVA Market, I’ve completely rewritten the web application myself from the ground up, and made it specifically optimized for the exchange of textbooks. Book ISBNs and course lists are loaded from data I mined from public UVA websites. I then take this data, mine title information, authors, retail price, etc. from Google and Amazon, and present it in a user-friendly way to UVA students.

By having a site dedicated to trading textbooks, I feel as though I am trying to bite off a smaller piece of market share, and because it is more focused it can eventually become a one-stop place for students in college buying or selling their textbooks.

Another dynamic that I’ve changed on UVA Market (as a result of lessons learned from the ISL Market venture) is that the market no longer works on an auction-based system, but rather a matching algorithm I devised to pair buyers with sellers based on criteria such as negotiating price, book condition, and eventually location on campus and user feedback, once more users join.

I made different posters for different parts of the campus. Engineering school had a math-based joke, Business school an MBA-joke, and this college one was suitable for general audiences.

At the college level, most students are more prudent when buying their textbooks, because unlike the situation with the ISL Market, students mostly finance their own textbook purchases and care to search for a used edition to save themselves some money.

This semester, for the launch of the site, I planned on marketing the site with social media as well as a poster/flyer campaign around campus. From analytics, I gleaned that about 40-50% of users came from postings on email list serves, 40% referred by social media, and the other 10-20% were most likely referral through word of mouth or my posters.

I am confident in my ability to handle user suggestions now that my programming ability has increased dramatically since high school. I created a feedback form and I am using some of the user suggestions to create a completely revamped system for searching for and bargaining for books that should be ready by the end of the semester in time for buyback season.

Stay tuned, as I will detail more of the next feature set closer to launch.

The ISL Market

The ISL Market is a free and fair online medium for students to sell, buy, and trade merchandise, school supplies, books, and other services.  Unlike other popular auction websites, The ISL Market is a closed community for students and immediate families of the ISL only, thus creating a safer and friendlier marketplace.

The experience of using the ISL Market is quicker and easier due to the lack of having to deal with sharing credit card information, shipping hassles, and distrusting your buyer or seller.

Last year, a friend and I attempted to undercut Classbook by buying back used textbooks from students for higher prices…  turned out to make very little money because of the shipping concerns and hassles and fees that companies like Amazon and Ebay charge.  The ISL Market doesn’t charge any of those fees that prevent you from making money.

Listing items on the ISL Market is FREE, and buyers can pay for their items directly to the seller in any mutually acceptable method, whether it be at the next soccer game, or passing the item along via a mutual friend!  It’s the greener way to ship!

The ISL Market also allows buyers and sellers to communicate with each other via a feedback system so that information is more accessible, and the marketplace can price items fairly, helping buyers avoid risk.

I made the following video to show in a Nobles’ daily assembly to promote the project: