Random Hacks of Kindness: December 4–5 at University of Toronto

RHoK: Random Hacks of Kindness

What is Random Hacks of Kindness?

Random Hacks of Kindness (RHoK) is a community of developers, geeks and tech-savvy do-gooders around the world, working to develop software solutions that respond to the challenges facing humanity today. RHoK is all about using technology to make the world a better place by building a community of innovation. RHoK brings software engineers together with disaster relief experts to identify critical global challenges, and develop software to respond to them. A RHoK hackathon event brings together the best and the brightest hackers from around the world, who volunteer their time to solve real-world problems. There’s an RHoK event taking place in Toronto in about a month!

Calling all Brains

We will need:

  • Hackers
  • Storytellers
  • Software engineers
  • Programmers
  • University students
  • Marketers
  • Web content creators
  • Emergency planners
  • International policy and development students
  • Teachers
  • Librarians
  • Videographers
  • Event planners
  • Organizers
  • Project managers
  • …and YOU!

Participants can select from a number of problem definitions. (The people at RHoK will post them in the new few weeks.)

Creating humanitarian software in a hackathon is a very special collective collaboration.

RHoK is Global

RHok will be a worldwide event connected by video screens and online tools like IRC, blogs, wikis and more. You could be collaborating and competing with any of the following countries as you solve problems and brainstorm:

  • Canada: Toronto
  • United States:
    • Chicago
    • New York
  • Brazil: Sao Paolo
  • Denmark: Aarhus
  • Germany: Berlin
  • India: Bangalore
  • Kenya: Nairobi
  • Mexico: Mexico City
  • Zambia: Lusaka


Click here to register for RHoK Toronto
Date: December 4, 2010: 9:00am – December 5, 2010 8pm. ALL NIGHT
Location: University of Toronto – OISE (Ontario Institute for Studies in Education)
252 Bloor Street West
Rooms 4410, 4414, 4418, 4426, 4420, 4422


T-shirts and stickers will be provided.

Scenes from an RHoK Event Last Year

My friend Heather Leson, from whom I heard about RHoK, attended one of their events in Sydney last year. Here are some scenes from that gathering:

Help RHoK by Sponsoring!

RHoK Toronto are looking for food and beverage sponsors for the upcoming event. They’ll need food and drinks for 30-50 volunteers for 6 meals. If you’d like to sponsor food and drinks to keep the kind hackers going, contact Heather AT or @heatherleson on Twitter.

This article also appears in Canadian Developer Connection.


TechDays Halifax: November 2 – 3

techdays halifax

TechDays, Microsoft Canada’s cross-country technical conference for developers and IT pros, heads to Halifax next week! So far, we’ve been to Vancouver, Edmonton and Toronto, and now it’s time to head out east.

TechDays Halifax will take place on Tuesday, November 2 and Wednesday, November 3 at the World Trade Centre (1800 Argyle Street). As with TechDays in every other city, there’s a lot going on:

  • CloudCamp on Monday, November 1. On the day before TechDays, we’re sharing our venue with the folks behind CloudCamp, the unconference on cloud computing. To find out more about CloudCamp, check out the registration page.
  • TechDays proper takes place on Tuesday, November 2 and Wednesday, November 3. We’re talking about 60 sessions on programming, systems administration, Microsoft technologies and “best practices” (I hate the use that term, but I’m at a loss for another phrase that captures its meaning). We take the content from big-ticket conferences like TechEd North America, MIX and PDC, give it to “local heroes” to present, bring it all to a city near you and charge a few hundred (instead of a few thousand) bucks.
  • TechDays Gives Back! We’re asking TechDays attendees to bring a non-perishable food item to the conference. All food will go to a local food bank.
  • Go DEVMental happens at the TechDays venue on the evening of Tuesday, November 2 – it’s our student event! If you’re a post-secondary student looking to get into web or phone development, you’ll want to catch Go DEVMental, where we’ll show you what’s possible with Microsoft tools and technologies, and you’ll walk away with a DreamSpark membership and fully-functional copies of Visual Studio Professional 2010 and Expression Blend. It doesn’t cost anything to attend; you just have to be a post-secondary student (with the ID to prove it. To attend, register here!
  • We’ll be holding a Windows Phone 7 Coffee and Code during the afternoon of Thursday, November 4 at Just Us Café on Barrington (1678 Barrington Street) from 2 to 5:30 p.m. Come on down, see Windows Phone 7 devices up close and personal, and if you’ve got an app that you want to test on a real device instead of the emulator, this is your chance!

See you next week!

This article also appears in Canadian Developer Connection.


If It’s Tuesday, It Must Be AndroidTO (and TechDays Eve and CloudCamp too)

tuesday - androidto techdays


Today is the day of Toronto’s conference for Android developers, AndroidTO. I’ll be in attendance, learning about Android development, seeing what Android developers are into and manning Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7 booth. That’s right, there’s going to be a Windows Phone 7 booth at an Android conference. Why? Because we’re gold sponsors.

I have to give kudos to Yorkville Media Centre, AndroidTO’s organizers, for seeing things the way I see it — and I see things as a guy who’s worked both the open source and proprietary sides of the computing fence. The mobile market of today reminds me of the personal computer market of the 1980s, the early days of desktop computing, where there were a number of vendors, each with a particular set of advantages, each with a decently-sized slice of the pie. You couldn’t develop for just one platform, but had to target at least a few of them. VisiCalc, the original spreadsheet, ran on the Apple ][, TRS-80, Atari and Commodore machines. Games like Miner 2049er ran on just about every machine under the sun, including the ColecoVision console. Pop open just about any computer of that era that had built-in BASIC, whether Apple, Radio Shack or Commodore, and what did you see on the ROM chips? A Microsoft copyright notice.

It’s the same today with mobile operating systems: if you really want an app to take off, you’ve got to build for many platforms. The folks behind Foursquare, Twitter, Bejeweled and Evernote think so, too. My thinking is: if you’re an Android developer, keep on cranking out those Android apps.,,but give Windows Phone 7 a look, too! You might like what you see, the layout markup and programming languages will be familiar to you, and you’ll be pleased with the speed with which you can pick up and develop apps.

Also: Windows 7 – that’s right, I’m talkin’ ‘bout the desktop OS now – is a great OS on which to develop Android apps. The JDKs run on it, Eclipse runs on it, NetBeans runs on it, a whole host of ancillary dev tools run on it, graphics, video and audio production tools run on it – everything that you need to build mobile apps on Android runs on it. And unlike you-know-who, System.out.writeln(“Java is not deprecated on Windows”);.

TechDays Eve

Today is also the day before TechDays Toronto, the Toronto edition of Microsoft Canada’s cross-country tech conference. In between my booth bunny duties at AndroidTO, I’ll also be attending a tech evangelist team meeting, setting up the rooms for TechDays’ two developer tracks, and attending the TechDays speaker dinner in the evening.


The evening are downtime at TechDays’ venue, but we didn’t want that space to lie fallow. So we invited people to come and hold events in the TechDays venue when they weren’t in use, free of charge. CloudCamp took us up on our offer, and the Toronto edition takes place tonight. For more details about CloudCamp – it’s free to attend, so sign up if you’re available tonight – see this blog entry.

This article also appears in Canadian Developer Connection.


Windows Phone App Challenge #2: Area Gas Prices

app challenge - area gas prices

Last night, while picking up a Windows Phone that I’d loaned to a developer for the weekend so he could give his app a proper test on a real device instead of the emulator, I decided to fill up the gas tank on the Deathmobile, named after the car in the movie that inspired my academic career – Animal House.

(Yeah, it’s 12 years old, but with only 110,000 km on it – living in the city, doing lots of bike commuting and living right by a subway station has a lot to do with the low mileage.)

The gas station was in Vaughan, a suburb just north of Toronto, and regular gasoline sold for CAD$1.05 a litre (for my American readers, that’s USD$3.91 a gallon). As I got closer to home, I noticed that the gas stations were charging CAD$1.00 a litre, or USD$3.72 a gallon. I’d pumped 40 litres of fuel into my car, and had I waited until I got closer to home, I could’ve saved two dollars. For me and this one instance, that’s a minor loss, especially since I only have to fill my tank once every two or three weeks. For someone who does a daily commute, that sort of savings adds up.

However, this incident gave me an idea, and hey, two bucks is a small price to pay for inspiration. How about a phone app that lets you know whether you’re getting a good deal at the gas station?

Gas Price Sites

There are sites like, a network of just under 200 city-specific sites that track gas prices. According to their registration page, gas prices vary by 10 – 15 cents a litre (30 – 50 cents a gallon) within a city. The site boasts a membership of 700,000 people sharing gas prices in their area and acting as gas price data collectors and reporters. Each GasBuddy city’s site displays the latest prices reported for that city, along with the handle of the member who posted the price.

Here’s a screenshot of the Toronto-specific GasBuddy site,

torontogasprices site

It’s one thing to cruise this site on a nice big monitor at home or a laptop or even a netbook. On a phone, it’s a bit of a challenge to read:

torontogasprices wp7

Yes, I know you can always use pinch zoom, but then you’re making the user do a lot of scrolling and paging, just to get an answer to a simple yes/no question: Am I getting a good deal at this gas station?

A mobile app that answers this question should adopt the Windows Phone 7 design philosophy of “Glance and Go”. It should give you the answer in a form like this:

gas app example

Getting the Info

For the app to work, you’ll need at least two pieces of information:

  • The area where the user is located
  • Gas prices for that area

Ideally, you’ll want to use GPS for getting the user’s location. You can access the GPS on Windows Phone 7 through the Location service, which lives in the System.Device.Location namespace. There’s pretty good coverage of it in the documentation, and I’ll post some code examples in a later article. You may also give the user the user the option of looking at gas prices in other cities, especially nearby ones.

Getting the gas prices for a specific area is a little trickier. You have a couple of options, listed in order from most to least feasible or realistic:

  1. Get the gas prices from an XML feed. Parsing it is the easy part – the XElement class of the System.XML.Linq namespace makes it pretty easy. Examples abound all over the ‘net – check out Scott Guthrie’s really simple WP7 Twitter app code for an example, and I’ll post an example in a later article.

    As for the feeds themselves, I know that provides feeds for a number of North American cities. I have no idea how accurate they are – you may have to do a little field research, comparing their reported prices to actual prices in your town.

  2. Scrape the gas prices from a site that publishes them. Once again, the technical part is easy – the DownloadString method of the WebClient class in the System.Net namespace, given an URI (in either string or URI object form), returns a string containing whatever’s there. Once you’ve got the string, it’s up to you to apply whatever string-crunching magic you want to extract the gas price information from it.

    The trickier part is whether the site from which you’re scraping the prices minds. These sites often make their money from ads, and by scraping, you’re effectively bypassing them. Perhaps you can work out a deal with a site, but if you’re doing that, they might be able to give you the data in a more convenient form like an XML feed, and then you can go to method 1.

  3. Have an army of volunteers watch gas stations all over a given area like a hawk. They can then feed the data into some central repository – perhaps an XML feed that they update – and your app can retrieve that data as needed. You can scale this down and even go “hyperlocal” by focusing only on gas stations in your neighbourhood or even just one gas station.

There’s your challenge. I’ll write a follow-up article with example code, but in the meantime, fire up Visual Studio and get on it! If you write an app and submit it to Marketplace, drop me a line and let me know.

Previous App Challenges

pomodoro timer

This is the second in a series of Windows Phone 7 App Challenges, in which I present ideas for apps for Windows Phone 7 developers.

In the previous installment in this series, I presented users with the idea to write a timer that people could use for the Pomodoro Technique, a very simple but very effective method to boost your personal productivity. You can read more about it (and see some code, too) here.

This article also appears in Canadian Developer Connection.


.NET MEAP Books at Half Price!


Perhaps you missed the sale earlier this month, but Manning’s holding one again! Today (Monday, October 25th), Manning Publications is holding a half-off sale on their MEAP — “Manning Early Access Program” – books. MEAP is their way for you to get an advance look at their in-progress books, and yes, once the book is complete, you also get the final version of the book in ebook form.

Want in on this deal? Enter the discount code dotd1025ccb when you check out at

Manning’s MEAP ebooks on .NET topics are:

  • ASP.NET 4.0 in Practice
  • C# in Depth, Second Edition
  • Continuous Integration in .NET
  • Dependency Injection in .NET
  • Hello! Silverlight
  • IronRuby in Action
  • Microsoft Entity Framework in Action
  • Multitouch on Windows
  • SharePoint 2010 Site Owner’s Manual
  • SharePoint 2010 Web Parts in Action
  • SharePoint 2010 Workflows in Action
  • SQL Server DMVs in Action
  • Windows PowerShell in Action, Second Edition

This article also appears in Canadian Developer Connection.


What I’m Up To This Week

It’s going to be a busy week for Yours Truly…

Monday: Windows Phone Deployment Clinic

monday - windows phone deployment clinic

On Monday, I’ll be helping out at the Windows Phone Deployment Clinic at Microsoft Canada HQ in Mississauga (1950 Meadowvale Boulevard, off Mississauga Road, north of Highway 401), where you can book some time to test your apps on a real Windows Phone 7 device. If you’ve got an app and you’re going to be in the area, drop me a line and book an appointment!

(By the bye, that thing I’m standing beside in the photo above is a promo device known colloquially as the “Big-Ass Phone”.)

Tuesday: AndroidTO and TechDays Setup

tuesday - androidto techdays

On Tuesday, I’ll be spending some time at the AndroidTO conference, a gathering of Android developers, where I’ll be minding the Windows Phone 7 booth. Yes, that’s right, Microsoft is a gold sponsor at an Android conference. Why? Because:

  • We feel that if you’re an Android developer, go ahead an build Android apps, but expand your market reach by developing for Windows Phone 7 too! The programming languages and layout markup are similar.
  • If you’re an Android developer, what’s the best OS for doing development? We think it’s Windows 7, which is a great environment for Java. Loads of great Java dev tools run on Windows, and we don’t consider Java to be deprecated.

AndroidTO takes place at the Polish Combatants Hall (206 Beverley Street, just south of College), is free-as-in-beer, and is alas, completely booked solid.

I’ll also be doing some setup for TechDays Toronto, which takes place on Wednesday and Thursday.

Wednesday: TechDays Toronto and Go DEVMental

wednesday - techdays godevmental

Wednesday brings with it TechDays, Microsoft Canada’s cross-country tech conference: two days of great sessions for developers and IT pros who are building stuff with the Microsoft stack. I’m the guy who picked the content for both developer tracks, “Developing for Three Screens and the Cloud” and “Optimizing the Development Process”. I strove for the best mix of both technology-specific stuff like Mark Arteaga’s Windows Phone 7 sessions and Kate Gregory’s Windows API Code Pack presentation as well as practice-of-programming sessions such as “Top 10 Mistakes in Unit Testing” and “Branching and Merging Strategies”. TechDays will occupy me from 7 a.m. until 5 p.m..

From 7 p.m. on, it’ll be Go DEVMental, the student event where we’ll show university and college students what’s possible with Microsoft’s web and mobile platforms. I’ll be doing a presentation on getting starting with game development for Windows Phone with an amusing little live-coded game called “BieberSmash”, starring the bubblegum pop idol of the moment. Go DEVMental is free and open to post-secondary students – just bring your student ID! You’ll get all sorts of goodies, including a DreamSpark token and Visual Studio 2010 Pro.

Both TechDays and GoDEVMental take place at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre’s South Building (222 Bremner Boulevard, right beside the CN Tower).

Thursday: TechDays, Day 2

thursday - techdays day 2

Thursday means another full day of the TechDays conference, to be followed by some very strong whiskey-based drinks.

Friday: Coffee and Code

friday - coffee and code

I’ll be running a Windows Phone 7 Coffee and Code this Friday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Timothy’s at 225 Front Street West (in the Metro Toronto Convention Centre building). I’ll be hanging out at the cafe, working on Windows Phone 7 code on both the emulator and real Windows Phone devices. Want to learn more about Windows Phone 7, see a real-live phone, play some games or test your code? Come on down!

Saturday: ACSE Conference

saturday - acse conference

University of Toronto computer science prof Steve Engels invited me to speak in front of a group of high school teachers at the ACSE (Association for Computer Studies Educators) Conference taking place on Saturday. I’m going to be showing them programming for high school students on Windows Phone as well as with the Kodu game development environment.

…and Sunday?

sunday - zzzzz

Well, it won’t be all sleep. I’ll have to pack for my Monday flight to TechDays Halifax!

This article also appears in Canadian Developer Connection.


CloudCamp Toronto is This Tuesday!

cloudcamp toronto

It’s not too late to register for CloudCamp Toronto, the latest in a series of free cross-Canada unconferences for early adopters of cloud computing. It doesn’t matter whether your preferred cloud computing system is Microsoft’s, Amazon’s, Rackspace’s or anyone else’s – this gathering for anyone with an interest in the cloud, regardless of technology stack or vendor.

From the event description:

CloudCamp is an unconference where early adopters of Cloud Computing technologies exchange ideas. With the rapid change occurring in the industry, we need a place where we can meet to share our experiences, challenges and solutions. At CloudCamp, you are encouraged to share your thoughts in several open discussions, as we strive for the advancement of Cloud Computing. End users, IT professionals and vendors are all encouraged to participate.

CloudCamp Toronto will take place this Tuesday, October 26th at the South Building of the Metro Toronto Convention Centre.

Here’s the agenda:

Time What’s Happening
5:30 p.m. Registration and refreshments
6:00 Welcome

Lightning Talks:

  • Microsoft’s Barnaby Jeans on Azure
  • Reuven Cohen from Enomaly
  • One speaker to be named later
6:45 “Unpanel discussion”
7:15 Breakout session, round 1
8:15 Breakout session, round 2
9:00 Wrap-up
9:15 Where to next?

This article also appears in Canadian Developer Connection.