EcoHomeLab April 2017: Things Manchester

by Blog

Almost a month ago was April EcoHomeLab the first one with the new structure. Now we want to make the time for people to arrive, know what energy monitoring is, see OpenEnergyMonitor stuff in action, fix their own things, listen to a relevant presentation and show to others their own EcoHome bits and projects. And it worked very well!!

Madlab monitoring

Apart of the presentation, that I will tell about later, I was very proud of our latest contribution to Madlab. Matt has put in place an emonPi and an emonTh and now they are logging their electricity consumption, temperature and humidity.

I look forward (and probably Madlab people too) to check the data in some months and compare it to the pre-retrofit monitoring. I am sure we will all learn something from that.

emonPi in a cupboard in Madlab
EmonPi in a cupboard at MadLab

Things Manchester

Sometimes I come across ideas or projects that give me hope for the future and make me forget how terrible and unfair our political/financial system is and how little interest many of our politicians/businesses have in common-general wealth. Things Manchester gave me a smile while making me remember that humans are not by default egotistic, selfish and careless beings; that by getting together even if we haven’t got millions of pounds to support us we can still do even better than those who have them.

Julian Talin a very active member of Things Manchester and Opendata Manchester came to EHL to tell us about the crowd sourced communications network they are building. This network is free to use and open: the restrictions to use it come from the technology itself and not from what you use it for or how much you can afford to pay.

The Internet of Things (IoT) and the Things Network

The Internet of Things (IoT) is a new concept for many but the reality is that it has been around for many many years. The definition found in Wikipedia says:

The Internet of things (IoT) is the inter-networking of physical devices, vehicles […], buildings, and other items embedded with electronics, software, sensors, actuators, and network connectivity which enable these objects to collect and exchange data.

As it says above, part of this IoT is the network connectivity, key element to allow the different elements involved to communicate. And that is what The Things Network is about, from their website:

The Things Network is about enabling low power Devices to use long range Gateways to connect to an open-source, decentralized Network to exchange data with Applications and Platforms.

In simpler words, if you have a sensor and you want to upload the data to a server you can use the wireless infrastructure they provide to do so. Clear and easy.

They are building this networks in 85 countries. They started in Amsterdam in 2015 covering the whole place in just 6 weeks. Manchester was one of the first communities to join and by now the network in Greater Manchester covers the city centre, south Manchester, Salford, Trafford and Tameside and is expanding all the time. Very good!!

But what makes it special?

As Julian said in the presentation (copying from his slides) The Things Network is people focused, for everyone. And this is important because:

  • An open network allows people to develop ideas and services more freely
  • Distributed ownership makes a more robust system
  • Encourages innovation through play and experimentation
  • Greater Manchester has multiple and diverse communities and businesses that would easily benefit from it.
  • It is an environment that supports innovation for business and communities alike

And if it is so good, why didn’t it happened before?

So yes we like The Things Network concept: a reliable wireless network open to everybody to use. But why did we have to wait for LoraWan for something like this to happen. Well, we have seen different wireless networks developed with the time from GSM, 3G and all the mobile phone emporium to Wifi and many others that I don’t know, but they were not suitable.

The problems with these ones are mainly:

  • Cost – equipment has traditionally been expensive
  • Connectivity has been restricted, because they were privately owned
  • Networks were often closed and bespoke
  • Power usage was generally too high
  • Range of network signal was small
  • Installation was complex and needed negotiation

Coverage and installation

I want to extend on the last two points above regarding to coverage and installation. If you need an access point every 200 meters for a specific technology, you need many access points to cover a wide area. For that to happen you need to find all the possible locations then talk to the land/building owners and convince/pay them to put the gateway on, not long to say but long to make it happen. In our case with one voluntary chap putting an antenna on the roof of the house you cover up to 15km, maybe that is the best case scenario but to cover the whole Greater Manchester you only need 30 access points, and Greater Manchester is BIG. This makes the whole process of setting up the network simpler.

To get an idea look at the real example below, all those red dots are access points for the Smart Parking in the Northern Quarter.

red dots are access points for the Smart Parking in the Northern Quarter.

Those are many dots specially if you think that Things Manchester with only one access point covers this:

This has a great potential and of course they are already thinking about covering all over the place. One day this will be Greater Manchester:

Nost of Manchester covered with access points

But for now, this is what we have

Current access points in Manchester

The Things Network manifesto

Quite a powerful manifesto which I fully subscribe to. It is not very long you can read it here but to make it more accessible, this is what I rescue:

[…] Controlling the network […] means controlling the world. We believe that this power should not be restricted to a few people, companies or nations. Instead this should be distributed over as many people as possible without the possibility to be taken away by anyone. We therefore founded “The Things Network”.

The Things Network is an open source, free initiative with the following properties:

  • […]
  • Anyone shall be free to set up “Things” and connect to “Things Gateways” that may or may not be their own.
  • Anyone shall be free to set up “Things Gateways” and connect to “Things Access” that may or may not be their own. […]
  • Anyone shall be free to set up “Things Access” and allow anonymous connections from the Internet. Their “Things Access” will give access to all “Things Gateways” […]
  • The “Over The Air” and “Over The Net” networks shall be protocol agnostic, as long as these protocols are not proprietary, open source and free of rights.
  • Anyone who perpetrates a “Things Access” or a “Things Gateway” will do so free of charge for all connecting devices and servers.
  • Anyone making use of the network is allowed to do so for any reason or cause, possibly limited by local law, fully at own risk […] “The Things Network” providers will not pose restrictions upon its users.

I love them!!

The OpenSource business model

With everything said so far we get the idea about what this people are making and why, but there is still a last bit of how they do it that I want to add.

But first, I am going for a short rant: some years ago I borrowed from my friend Trystan a book called The Cathedral and the Bazaar. This is a well known book in the opensource community because it shows how bottom-up development overcomes many of the limitations of top-down. Reading it you understand why Windows is the money making always falling cathedral while Linux is a make a living stable resilient system , and bla bla bla.

And what has this to do with The Things Network? Well, a lot because they are (or will be, I believe) another great example of the Bazaar beating the Cathedral. Julian said they are building a business on open because:

  • Infrastructure costs are dispersed
  • Distribution creates resilience and redundancy
  • Cost of access is limited to the hardware
  • Long battery life allows for lower maintenance
  • Greater range means less infrastructure needed
  • Greater range means easier deployment
  • Low cost devices – becoming lower
  • Secure and encrypted
  • Scaling costs are simplified
  • No vendor lock-in – based on open protocol
  • Software stack is open source
  • Faster knowledge generation


Part of the presentation focused on the technical side of the network explaining the protocol, the architecture, elements and devices involved, etc. But going deeply into that would be too much for this blog.

What you need to know is that the key element is LoraWan which stands for Long Range Wide Area Network, it provides low power wireless connectivity over long range.

There is plenty of information about the technicalities in The Things Network website, worth to have a look at:

  • LoraWan: a good overview to understand what it is.
  • Documentation: everything you need to know if you want to get involved.
  • Forum: a very very active community.

And you want to be involved

Julian was very good with the presentation, nice and friendly and able to not get annoyed with the hundreds of questions and comments from all the clever people that came to EcoHomeLab. I can guess the others are as enthusiastic as him, so yes you reader go for it and meet them. If I lived in Manchester I would.

So, everybody is welcome to join them in one of their meet-ups. Next one is on Monday 15th of May, follow the link.

The End

Inspiration is what I get from people that believe in what they do and thinking in the community as much or even more than what they think in themselves.

All my respect to Things Manchester for building with no resources, money or time what the State would be paying millions for. On top of that, they do it for the benefit of all of us making it open and freely accessible to all: private investment for public benefit. On the other hand if it was the State it would probably be, once again, public investment for private profit!!

I’ll see you on the 11th of May at 17:30 in Madlab to talk about Project Updates. Meet up page here.