IOTA Hackathon: Open Car Charging Network (Part 2)

iPhone with PlugInBaby App
This is the second installment outlining the experiences of the winning team “PlugInBaby” during the IOTA Hackathon. In the first post (found here), we describe the idea generation process.  In this post, team member Rebecca Johnson goes into more detail with regards to how the team built the project and what exactly it accomplishes.

Our PoC decentralizes and democratizes access to a  network of electric vehicle chargers by allowing the chargers to costlessly broadcast their status (offline, occupied, available) via 0 value transactions on the tangle. Next, using a mobile app, users searching for a charging station can query the tangle using 0 value transactions to search for tags of available stations. They can reserve a charging spot and book micro transactions necessary to pay for electricity, all using IOTA.

Concept Doodle
A world where individuals leverage open source software and DIY hardware to decentralise the market for energy.

Using the tangle as a database makes the solution quite elegant. The protocol for sending data and value are essentially the same which removes the need for a centralized payment processing layer and allows for the DIY ethic to extend all the way to the end-user.

This approach is also flexible enough to leave room for participation by utilities and other stakeholders since the hardware and software are open-source.  Improvements are welcome and anyone is free to implement the idea. The code can be found here.

Requirements & Assumptions

  • We restricted ourselves to using only IOTA for implementing the database functionality. This carries the theoretical advantages of future scalability, full decentralization and zero transaction costs for messages sent to and from the tangle as well as a mechanism for machine to machine electricity purchases.
  • We assumed that the API and the interaction between the charger and the car app are out of scope for the hackathon.
  • Charging station vendors need to send status messages for their stations (free, in-use, offline) using 0 balance transactions to the tangle. Our back-end provides this capability via terminal inputs. Since this is just a PoC we didn’t build out an API or UI for this portion.
  • A web-based front-end, a back-end connection to the tangle and an API for communication between the two needed to be built. Given this, the team split into two groups of 3-4 developers each.

Back-End:

The experience of the PlugInBaby team was similar to that of the Freedom Pass team. We started out by following this tutorial from Baltic Data Science and gained speed by utilizing some of the resources from the Q&A with Chris Dukakis of IOTA. After that, we connected to a testnet node and started issuing transactions.

Like the Freedom Pass team, we also considered using a mainnet node but the issue of how to connect with neighbors was eventually a knockout criterion. This was actually due to security concerns. One of our team members had a Java Runtime Environment setup on a remote virtual machine and we considered setting up an instance of the IRI. In the end, however, we weren’t comfortable with the security risks that connecting with unknown nodes presented.

In contrast to the other teams, the “PlugInBaby” team used the IOTA Python Library to build and connect the backend. Documentation for this library is quite sparse in comparison with the JavaScript Library. We’d like to thank Andreas OsowskiLewis Freiberg and  Chris Dukakis of IOTA for their round-the-clock support in getting everything up and running.

Our team member Lukasz Zmudzinski has written a great blog post on his site which outlines which Python methods we used to read and write to the tangle in greater detail. We used the Tornado web framework and asynchronous networking library for this project and wrote our own API  to communicate with the front end.

Team PlugInBaby hard at work on frontend development

Front End:

The front end was written primarily in JavaScript and utilizes server.js for Node.  To accelerate development we started using a boilerplate/skeleton for Node.js web applications. We later used bootstrap and AngularJS to improve the styling and make our web app mobile-ready and responsive.

Users can query the tangle for the transactions of vendors with free stations and also read dynamic pricing information. The search mechanism uses information written to tags while the state information about the charging station and the station latitude/longitude are written in the message. This information is then passed via API calls to the front-end for interpretation in the UI.

User Experience:

UI Workflow
UI Workflow
  • Step 1:
    The user uses a smartphone app to query the tangle for available charging stations.
  • Step 2:
    The user selects a charging station from the map. Each station has dynamic pricing which is shown in real-time along with the map pin when selecting the station.
  • Step 3:
    The user drives to the station and lets the station know that they have arrived by sending a message to the tangle.
  • Step 4:
    The charging station tells the app that the car is fully charged.
  • Step 5:
    The user’s IOTA wallet is debited and the transaction is signed by the seed stored in the app.
  • Step 6:
    The charger resets its status to available on the tangle and all the transactions/messages are available for verification.
Tangle Output
IOTA Tangle output: Following charging all transactions are available for inspection in the tangle.

What We Learned:

The PlugInBaby PoC demonstrates the feasibility of an IOTA-based search and payment app for IOTA-based DIY chargers but it is far from ready-for-use outside of the lab/hackathon. A number of issues came up which will need to be solved before this system would be appropriate for public use.

  • Tags only allow for 27 characters which wouldn’t be enough to store latitude and longitude data plus a transaction ID without truncation. The team ended up using the message field to store data (location + charger status) while the tags were used to store a searchable charger identifier.
  • Speed is quite limited on the testnet. Specifically, we found that the testnet confirmation times were quite long late at night (2-3 minutes) when fewer users were online running test applications. This is due to the fact that each new transaction must approve two other transactions. This approach scales well but also requires many active nodes to submit and approve transactions. As both the testnet and the mainnet grow this problem should be mitigated.
  • Transaction caching was required to make the demo useable within the alloted three minute presentation time.
  • While the support from the IOTA team was excellent, we noticed that the documentation, particularly regarding the phython libraries, is quite lacking. This makes development a slow trial and error process.
  • Security and privacy are generally open questions within the IOTA ecosystem. The team assumed these issues to be outside the scope of this PoC. That said we raised privacy concerns regarding the possibility of API misuse and the lack of privacy often during the development process. Improved documentation and more descriptive error messages would go a long way towards making these issues easier to handle.
  • Masked Authenticated Messaging (MAM), the planned Private Transaction layer, and the integration of zero-knowledge-proofs into the IOTA ecosystem are exciting areas for new research given the current limitations of IOTA in the area of security and privacy.

Conclusion

To sum up, the team learned a lot about the implementation of an exciting use case that really makes sense for IOTA. Is this the only way to build such a system? No.  There are many other ways to find, navigate to and pay for electric vehicle charging. Many market-ready centralized systems are already up an running.  Our PoC demonstrates, however, that it’s possible to solve this use case using IOTA alone which allows for the possibility of a scalable decentralized approach. This, in turn, could open up the field to many more players and provide a common system for various entities to build upon.

Hackathon Participants
Team „PlugInBaby“ at the IOTA Hackathon in Gdansk, Poland

 Here is an overview of all reports on the IOTA Hackathon’s projects:

1st place – “PlugInBaby”:

…describes the idea and the pivot of the project
Team “PlugInBaby”: Open Car Charging Network (Part 2)
…describes the technical level and provides resources

2nd place – “Freedom Pass”:
Team Freedom Pass: Fraud Detection (Part 1)
…describes the high level of the project
Team Freedom Pass: Fraud Detection (Part 2)
…describes the technical level of the project

IOTA Hackathon: Open Car Charging Network (Part 1)

iPhone with PlugInBaby app

The IOTA Hackathon took place from Nov 17 to Nov 19 in Gdansk, Poland. Software developers from all over Europe came together to put to test the IOTA Platform with various use cases. The event was sponsored by IOTA, Baltic Data Science (blockchain and big data service), Datarella (blockchain and big data consultancy) and Bright Inventions (mobile app development). Four teams of developers and software experts formed around various use cases and competed for the prize money of 4,200 IOTA. Here in “Part 1″ we summarize the idea iteration process for the contest’s winning team  „PlugInBaby” and the associated pivot that took place while defining the project topic. Part 2 describes the development and design of the project in more detail.

Defining the Need

Idea Consolidation
Idea Consolidation

We started the hackathon with a group brainstorming session followed by some informal voting and group building around the topics generated.

After narrowing the focus down to the topics, “Autonomous Agents” and “Decentralized Stack” the group focused on idea generation.  Any potential topic needed to utilize the special characteristics of IOTA (scalability, speed, zero transactions costs) while avoiding limitations such as the lack of a Turing complete language and smart contract capabilities.

Initial brainstorming considered applications in manufacturing, autonomous transportation, supply chain management and distributed sensor technology.  Eventually the basic idea of using IOTA as a distributed database allowing individuals or autonomous agents to identify free parking spaces in cities and also search for those spaces crystalized out of the brainstorming process.

Pizza Box Brainstorming
Pizza Box Brainstorming

After several hours of work on the concept and the potential implementations, we found structural problems with the plan. In our initial approach, the team imagined that individuals or autonomous agents/smart cars would identify free parking spaces, notify others of their presence by writing to the tangle and potentially be compensated for the service. A number of important questions were however left open with this topic.

Critical Questions that Lead to the Pivot:

  • Why should a system for finding free parking spaces be built using IOTA?
  • Wouldn’t another technology be more appropriate?
  • Why not use a blockchain which allows for smart contracts?
  • Would people really use such an app?

Pivot to an open car charging network

After several hours of discussion, the team still couldn’t adequately answer the above questions so we turned to another idea. Instead of logging free parking spaces, we would provide a link between an IoT network of decentralized charging stations and traditional or autonomous cars needing charging services.

Currently, electric charging infrastructure is almost always mediated by large corporations and organizations. This project seeks to change this.  The team drew inspiration from ElaadNL which built a Proof of Concept (PoC) Charging Station for electric cars running fully on IOTA. Their charger is built using off the shelf tech and could be adopted by individuals who wish to offer electricity from their private microgrid or solar installations. What’s missing in the ElaadNL implementation is a user-friendly way to select and navigate to the charging station.

ElaadNLPoC
ElaadNL IOTA Electric Car Charger PoC

The ElaadNL PoC app works on a “Pull” basis where the user has to enter a charger code to search for the status of a particular charger.  The team wanted to design something that would work on a “Push” basis and push the location of open chargers to users within the familiar confines of a google map interface.

The team envision a world in which individuals could take an open-source IoT charger kit and set up an IOTA-based charging station wherever they have access to power and a parking space. This could open up a whole new layer of community-based decentral charging.

Concept Doodle
A world where individuals leverage open source software and DIY hardware to decentralize the market for energy.

The project, so conceived was well matched with the strengths of IOTA. Scalability and transaction speed would be needed due to continual improvements in the speed of charging and the fact that the search mechanism of the system would have to operate very quickly to guarantee a good user experience. A system with zero transactions costs was also judged to be appropriate for the type of microtransactions that need to occur between a car and a smart charger enabling real-time pricing for electricity.

We owe a shout out to ElaadNL for their PoC. The existence of such charger allowed us to think in a modular fashion and abstract away the charger component to focus instead exclusively on the building a system to find the chargers and transact with them.

IOTA Hackathon winning team “PlugInBaby!”. Team members (from left to right): Yoon Kim, Andrew Young, Rebecca Johnson, Lukasz Zmudzinski, Dominik Harz, Alexei Zamyatin, Linna Wang, Nicolas S – and the moderator Michael Reuter of Datarella to the far right

 Here is an overview of all reports on the IOTA Hackathon’s projects:

1st place – “PlugInBaby”:

…describes the idea and the pivot of the project
Team “PlugInBaby”: Open Car Charging Network (Part 2)
…describes the technical level and provides resources

2nd place – “Freedom Pass”:
Team Freedom Pass: Fraud Detection (Part 1)
…describes the high level of the project
Team Freedom Pass: Fraud Detection (Part 2)
…describes the technical level of the project

Identifying Diamonds in the Rough as Blockchain Enters the Trough of Disillusionment

Gartner Hype Cycle

According to Gartner research, 2017 is the year that Blockchain tech entered the so called Trough of Disillusionment. This is the time that comes after irrational exuberance has faded and technologies enter a long night during which the winners are separated from the losers.

Right now we’re still somewhere in the uncanny valley between the bubble and the moment it pops.  There’s hundreds of new ICO’s every month. Some have a viable raison d’être but there is a huge need to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Compared in both number and scale with traditional VC funded projects the Blockchain area has a long way to go. According to Venture Scanner Blockchain related acquisitions this year aren’t off to a great start. In total there aren’t a lot of firms making exits. In 2016 there were just 16 such events.

Blockchain Exits 2017
Photo Credit: venturescanner.com

Compare this to the number of exits and deals backed by VC firms and the immaturity of the market comes into focus.  According to tech.eu, among just EU Tech startups there were 783 VC exit deals in Q2 2017.

This underlines the Crowdstart Capital position. We don’t believe in huge exits with many competing industry buyers fighting for the next unicorn. We aim to be the adults in the room, the ones who know what industry actually needs and can push that dealflow number up by catering to those needs specifically. In order to do this we leverage both our experience building blockchain-based applications for a wide range of industry players and the industry specific knowledge gained from those collaborations.

We’re focused on the fundamentals as opposed to the hype.  We identify a need in a big market, learn how to serve it as well as customising the solution and finally sell that product to major industry partners to reshape existing processes. That’s how to make money in the Trough of Disillusionment. As hot as the ICO model of financing ventures is, the industry needs to have a clear eyed look at what real problems we’re solving and how sustainable our efforts will be over the next five years.