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Horatio the Plant, Barclays Eagle Lab and the Internet of Things

Richard Holland, Head of Business Solutions, Genesis Housing Association

This is Horatio, a plant who has had a troubled life. He was displaced at a very early age, ripped from the only roots he knew. Neglected and not watered for days, and with little hope to achieve his aspirations.

A Plant

Then, one day, he was transferred into a pot and rescued by the Eagle Labs. Horatio, like most younglings, has dreams and aspirations. He wants a naval career. To be a captain of a star destroyer, leading the fray against any modern foe. His friends, who were also rescued by ‘The Eagles’, disagree of course, especially Brian who just wants to travel the world. Horatio and Brian had many disagreements, all friendly banter, but Princess Leia was not amused by this at all. She had a rebellion to run after all.

This is Barclays’ Eagle Innovation Labs. Genesis Housing Association was invited to attend workshops on digital disruption. How do Horatio and Brian fit into this, you may ask? Well, this is how the day started. We were each given a plant and told to name them and give a ‘back story’.

Next, Barclays explained their own back story – why had a bank in the middle of Notting Hill in central London been transformed into the Eagle Innovation Labs? This is digital disruption. Barclays, like many banks, has increasingly seen its customers use online and smart apps for banking transactions. They aren’t going to their local high-street bank and they are making fewer phone calls. As a result, the high-street bank is in decline. At the same time, Barclays has recognised that some of its customers, particularly small business customers, are now creating digital businesses – online shops and YouTube-style businesses. Barclays wanted to support, nurture and provide spaces for them to innovate and to grow and fulfil their dreams. They also wanted to push digital and educate. Inside this Lab they have all sorts of smart things. Sensors, Raspberry Pis, Microbit and digital 3D printing – smart-tech lying around all over the place. This lab is one of the nine Barclays has set up around the country in former branch spaces.

You’re probably thinking about how this relates to Horatio, Brian and Princess Leia? “The challenge”, the Eagle from Barclays said, “was to design a self-watering mechanism for your plant using the sensors and microprocessors located in the lab”.

As the only IT guy on the course, I was in my element. We also had people from HR, procurement, contact centres, care and support, and income services. All looked rather apprehensive when asked to play with smart-tech. Barclays didn’t leave us to our own devices though, they guided us through the day.

  1. We hooked our plants up to: A water sensor to measure how dry the soil is;
  2. A small electric pump submersed in a cup of water;
  3. And a Microbit.

What’s a Microbit? It’s a mini-processor that can be programmed using simple languages, such as Blockcode or Python. It was developed by the BBC to help children learn to code. They are giving them free to all year-seven pupils in schools across the UK. The photo shows the Microbit connected to a battery pack. That’s all the power it requires – 2x AAA. Any more than that, we were warned, and it might blow up. Next, we practised coding the Microbit. A couple of inputs, a message and a picture of a smiling face; the drag-and-drop interface made it very easy to get started quickly.

Then we were ready. It was time to write the code which would:

  1. Read the sensor and transmit whether the soil is dry;
  2. Turn on the pump for 10 seconds and water the plant;
  3. Loop and check whether the soil is dry;
  4. Stop and send a message when complete.

That’s it. The remaining part of the afternoon was devoted to coding this script and playing around with the Microbit until the whole system was ready to water.

Here’s mine, completely hooked up. No one was fazed. Everyone completed the task, and I mean everyone. Even Procurement, and we did this whole exercise in a day. It’s so simple.

A micro:bit is attached with wires to a plant and a glass of water

Everything you see in the photo, minus the batteries and the Microbit, was cheap. Also, this is tech that is ready and available in the market and has been for some time. You can connect lots of different sensors into the arrangement. You can even buy kits with instructions.

The Microbit is Bluetooth-ready, and can sense temperature and movement. I can connect it to my smartphone or a speaker. I could play classical music to Horatio through my Microbit when he needs soothing. Other microprocessors are more powerful and can connect to the internet too. Can you imagine the possibilities?

We could use this sensor to trigger repairs automatically, for example, with boilers. This could send a message through our case management systems and on to our gas contractor to make a fix. We could use this information to provide intelligence on our homes. Imagine hooking up a humidity sensor or a damp sensor. Imagine actually being able to resolve damp problems before they start? This is Smart Homes. It is achievable and it is not something from science fiction or Star Trek. It is real and available now.

Horatio is now at home. I introduced him and the Microbit to my seven-year old son. He is now thinking of ways to create automatic things around the home; a self-opening window or something to turn on the television automatically (although I think someone beat him to that). He has already dismantled the Microbit, put Horatio in a corner and started coding!

Horatio’s dreams have just been disrupted by a seven-year old boy. Oh well, back to watering him the old-fashioned way, by hand, with a watering can. Alas, Horatio!

Richard Holland is head of business solutions at Genesis Housing Association.

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