Catalyst Patchworks

October 30th, 2012

Patchworks (in a nutshell) is a co-design and co-develop project run by collaboration between Lancaster University researchers, Signposts (a charity working with homeless people in Morecambe) and MadLab a team of Manchester community oriented techies who like nothing more than equipping people with the knowledge to pull tech apart and re-purpose it. Read more on the Patchworks sub site.

I joined the Catalyst team 6 months into the 8 month project, just as ideas were coming together about what kind of thing would be developed. In the space of about a month and a half a reminder system called #Pat was envisaged, designed and built. My major role was to lead the building of the system – to take it from paper and hacked together prototype to a working implementation that could be tested by Signposts volunteers.

We needed a mechanism that users could carry with them – one which would not have any monetary value, personal attachment or complex interface for the reason that homeless people live chaotic lives and such items may get lost along the way. So the idea of using a printed reminder was settled on – and users are identified by a unique RFID chip. Such chips are small, inexpensive (<£1) and easily replaced if lost. To save time, complexity and learning curve the back-end of the system was built using email – therefore no special training or extra login passwords was required by the Signposts team.

Such technologies are clearly no longer novel, but the process and methods by which the researchers worked with the community groups to co-design and build a solution to address community needs will be disseminated and published in due course.


#Pat printer

#Pat is built around a core of a Raspberry Pi SBC. The role of the Raspberry Pi was two fold – development was simplified by having everything built in, but perhaps more importantly through workshops Signposts volunteers could grasp the technology being used – its a tiny computer that does everything a laptop does. The Pi is not shy – the components it contains are laid bare and it is inexpensive enough to be played around with, connected to and handled.

The Pi is connected to an inexpensive thermal receipt printer, and to a RFID chip reader. When an RFID chip (wristband, key fob  card etc.  is brought within range of the reader, the software (written in Python) communicates with the email server to bring down the latest message for that user, which is then printed on the thermal printer (using Lauri Kainulainen’s thermal printer library). Power for the Pi is provided by a USB hub to which the reader and printer are connected via USB->serial adaptors. An acrylic enclosure was built out of 3mm acrylic (designed with the help of box-o-tron and Inkscape) and cut on a laser cutter to form a friendly point of contact for Signposts clients.


Over a period of approximately a month and a half the complete system was designed, built and installed in Signpost’s office in Morecambe. #Pat is currently undergoing trials with a number of Signposts clients and feedback is being gathered from the users, volunteers, researchers involved.