Nesta Dynamic Demand Challenge Hackathon

I have finally got around to writing this up after a holiday and an extremely busy week! On 18th / 19th October, I attended the Nesta Dynamic Demand hackathon with Dr. Peter Boait, my colleague at the Institute of Energy and Sustainable Development. We were joined by Dr. Chris Bailey a senior software developer at the University of Bristol and Peter’s colleague from Exergy Devices. The hackathon was an opportunity for 10 selected semi-finalists to hack away at the ideas that they had entered into the Nesta Dynamic Demand challenge. All the ideas are listed here; our idea is Demand Shaper.  Apologies if some of the links to the NESTA website still require you to register with the site – it’s out of my hands…


The Demand Shaper Team, from L-R: Richard Snape, Peter Boait, Chris Bailey

As described on the hackathon website, the event was hosted by the Mechanical Engineering department at Imperial College, with specialists in Innovation Design to help us on our way.

We arrived on Friday morning (rather late in my case – sorry all) to learn that the hackathon was a pretty tightly organised affair, with an agenda that ran throughout the night and through until 21:30 on the Saturday. We were immediately set to work repeatedly describing our idea in 2 minutes to a series of experts, including representatives of National Grid, the National Physical Laboratory and academics. The 2 minute pitch was pretty quickly honed and we had some interest and useful insight from the experts.

Next, we were told we had to deconstruct some electrical appliances. This, I thought, was right up our street – just what we came for. We managed to get our electrical fan down to individual heat sinks from the power supply and the spindle and coil from a dis-assembled motor. I wonder if we took the deconstruction to unexpected lengths…

Picture of De-constructing an electric fan

De-constructing an electric fan

The idea of this was to help us focus on the function of each component within the product.  It also provided a number of components for us to use in the rest of the hack.

After this fun we got on to the serious business (?!) of hacking our idea around – we were asked to incorporate some of the appliances provided (de-constructed or otherwise) into our concept.

I already had an Agent Based simulation of the ‘Demand Shaper’ concept running in software (on Linux, Mac and Windows laptops) and Peter and Chris had a Raspberry Pi that could do some intelligent control of appliances via a PiFace interface board. A fairly obvious hack then presented itself – putting some hardware in the loop of the simulation.


We busily hacked software (setting up the Pi) …

This we did, dividing labour between the team. Peter got on with physical wiring, Chris setting up the Pi to take requests from the web (hosting a little web server on it) and me setting up our Agent Based Simulation to talk to the Pi.

Wiring the PiFace

… and hardware (wiring appliances through the PiFace)

We decided to have the system control two appliances provided by the organisers – a light and a heat based device. We initially used a fridge to illustrate our concept of “gapping” the cold load without letting the fridge get warm.  Unfortunately, despite being rated at some 200W, it managed to demand a spike of some 2.5kW on switching on which successfully welded our relay contacts together.  Rather disheartening.  Take two, with another PiFace interface board and this time controlling a hair dryer instead of the fridge.  We managed to do get all this running and got to a point where the simulation could control a few appliances just as if it was controlling a real house.

As well as the demo of system capability end to end, our implementation had the nice feature that a web app could be hosted on the Pi and accessed from any smart phone or Wireless connected device –  so we could let anyone turn our appliances on and off with their smart phone (the app is on the left PC on the video). This demonstrated that there is absolutely no reason why appliances couldn’t be controlled remotely from an app if a user so desired (there would be some security concerns, to be sure, which we didn’t address at the hackathon but would before real world deployment…).  All this can be seen in action on the short video below.

Getting our idea working end to end with hardware in the loop was a first for us and seemed to go down well with anyone who came to have a look.  We finally got this going well into the night, but there was no rest for the wicked (although there was pizza… ).  We immediately had to work on a 5 minute presentation to pitch our ideas to a panel of judges the next day. With the aid of some excellent ideas from innovators and artistic design specialists, who bravely arrived to help grumpy participants at about 2am, we got something together.  I managed to get a bit of sleep from 4am until 6, before jumping up for a quick shower at the gym – even South Kensington is pretty quiet at that time…


Imperial in the early morning – it’s not usually this quiet…

One thing that did surprise me about the hack was the heavy emphasis on business models from the organisers – we had to show in no uncertain terms why our idea would be attractive to customers, both domestic and commercial.  Although less comfortable for me as a scruffy academic (shurely some mistake, Ed.), this helped us hone the (strictly) 5 minute presentation of our idea fro delivery to a panel of judges at the end of the event.  It also forced us to consider how our idea would actually help in the real world – a useful reality check!  In the final minutes – we decided to live dangerously and do a live demo in the presentation, rather than the pre-prepared video above.  Always dangerous in a presentation, especially one so short with no opportunity to recover, but everything hung together well – as you can see in the video…

I’m rather pleased to say that we were selected to go through to the final and will be developing our idea until then – so watch this space for further developments. A list of finalists and semi finalists is available on the NESTA website and their blog will no doubt keep updated with progress from the teams. I won’t extend the post with descriptions of all the ideas – but there were some very nice ones – I particularly liked thEnergy and Community substation challenges.  A big thank you to all the organisers – it was a great opportunity to talk to others engaged in the same area as us and to intensively work on our idea alongside the ideas of other teams.

NESTA_UK’s video summary of the event (twitter @nesta_uk, youtube channel uknesta)


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