Why this should win the Hackaday Prize…

November 11, 2014

I was a judge for the Hackaday Prize. The contest was to build something awesome (and connected). The first prize was a trip to space (or the ~$200k they thought it would cost). All of the top five finalist rewards were pretty incredible.

I judged the 50 semi-finalists, scoring them on openness, wow factor, connectedness, reproducibility, innovation, and user experience. Once we had the top five, they got another month to work on their projects and we re-judged, adding manufacturability to the judging criteria.

It was hard. While I thought all of the top five belonged, there were many of the top 50 that could so easily have been in the top five. Now that Hackaday is about to announce the prize winner, let me advocate for which one(s) I think should win, in no particular order.

SatNOGS aims to build a global network of ground stations to listen to satellites. Their new finalist video was great, a perfect introduction to the problem (and the team). And this, unlike the other finalists, was a clearly team effort: a huge project with lots of parts to it (hardware, mechanical, embedded software, servers, UIs).  Still, the application to readers was nontrivial: in my backyard, I could build one of their widgets and help people around the world listen to the satellites.

Enabling technologies are tough to make appealing. It is easy to fall into the lure of a personal satellite (e.g., cubesat) but listening requires more infrastructure than most non-governments have access to. This is exactly the sort of problem that needs to be crowdsourced. The SatNOGS team made it easy for people to join. Their fantastic documentation leaves lots of options for building; it is a good instruction set that still lets me customize to my particular interests (and parts available). It would be fun to build this with a middle or high school student to get them interested in space technology. Between their excellent build instruction, good use of other open source components, and their topic (space-oriented so therefore prize-related), SatNOGS should win.

In the RamanPi project, the creator makes a spectrometer. OMG, you guys, I have ALWAYS wanted a spectrometer!!!!! (This is a total OMG Ponies! moment.) What’s even better, after reading the documentation, I feel like I could build one. Before Christmas. I could have my own little gadget to tell me what things are made of. I could take it with me and explore the water components around the bay or the soil composition. I could be a SCIENTIST.

Err… sorry, where was I? Ahh, right RamanPi. Not only was RamanPi a great item to build, the way the creator did it was great. Being new to the area, the project logs show the real sort of two steps forward, one step back that is a part of engineering we hide too often. Even better, the use of 3D printing to avoid expensive optical benches is something I’m going to be using myself. I like that the home 3D printer is being put to use to create this level of awesomeness. This project was all about what is possible and kindles the desire to explore: RamanPi should win.

The PortableSDR project is a software defined radio. It is small (truly portable) and has a well thought out display (aka I loved the waterfall display). I very much want a kit of this. Though I may use it as a portable spectrum analyzer instead of a way to listen to all of the radio bands at once.

While the tech on PortableSDR was neat, what I liked most was teh humanness of the creator. While the finalist and semifinalist videos were clean (I liked that the finalist video was outside, where the PortableSDR is likely to live), there was at least one video with a messy bench and cartoons running in the background (I suspect a kidlet). This was a person who had an idea, who put it on Hackaday because it was neat. Now he’s a finalist and people want kits and finished products. I don’t know what he meant to do next in his career but he’s probably changed the course of his life by following through on his idea. I want to see what happens next. PortableSDR shows the best side of Hackaday: follow your dreams and the rest will follow. PortableSDR should win.

The ChipWhisperer project is one I keep sending to all of my hardware friends and saying, “see! look!” The project uses power analysis to crack software security in chips… which is to say that this gadget breaks most of the security on most of the devices we all use right now. It is terrifying. On the other hand, these sorts of tools already existed, they just cost a lot. Now it is cheap ($1500 for the prebuilt kit, as low as $100 for DIY pieces) but we were never safe in the “secure because math” mindset.  While this makes my job more difficult, it will make everything better in the long term.

Even as scary and important as this project is, there were many other things going for it. It takes a complicated topic and makes it sound easy and interesting.  Many people want to know where to get started with FPGAs. This is a great project for that. It would be hard to do this power analysis in a microprocessor or single board computer. This is a good use of FPGA to solve a non-contrived problem. It would be useful to read the code (which was well written, at least the stuff I looked at). There are lots of pieces here: desktop software, the embedded, hardware, and FPGAs. I’m impressed that he didn’t stick to his hardware, he talked about how to reproduce with other kits. Hackaday has traditionally been about breaking things open to see how they worked. ChipWhisperer takes that ethos and puts a rocket behind it; ChipWhisperer should win.

The Arducorder is an “open source science tricorder”. I think the most important thing in there is “science” though I could see it doing a smackdown with “tricorder”. The author took a lovely display and a tiny Arduino based board, added a dozen (seriously) sensors. I truly want one of these.

Let me pause here to say that I don’t think I’ll be going to Mars. This makes me sad. I don’t even think I’ll get to the moon. I can only hope that someone in my future goes to at least one of these places. But unless we stop teaching kids that science means boring memorization, no one is going to go. Space will become a cold, dark, empty wasteland.

Back to Arducorder… by having a charming display, easily extensible software, and all of these neat sensors, it lets people walk around saying, “how is this different than that?” It fosters curiosity and reminds us that science is about discovery. Talking about gravity as acceleration is a lot more fun when you can see the data. Arducorder enables science education in a way that is just brilliant: Arducorder should win.



  1. […]  With just over a day left to go, Launch Judge Elecia White has decided to spill the beans and write a blog post about which of the five finalists she thinks should win. We don’t want to spoil the […]

  2. […] us! With just over a day left to go, Launch Judge Elecia White has decided to spill the beans and write a blog post about which of the five finalists she thinks should win. We don’t want to spoil the […]

  3. Just by being a finalist, all these entries have won. The actual prize of going to space or elsewhere is simply a distraction, and will in fact cause delays in any given project, as it removes the creator from the work area. Therefore I volunteer to go in their place; yes its a great personal sacrifice on my part, by I will do it for science.

  4. […] us! With just over a day left to go, Launch Judge Elecia White has decided to spill the beans and write a blog post about which of the five finalists she thinks should win. We don’t want to spoil the […]

  5. […]  With just over a day left to go, Launch Judge Elecia White has decided to spill the beans and write a blog post about which of the five finalists she thinks should win. We don’t want to spoil the […]

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