A Hacking Experience By The Sea

Last Thursday at 5pm I joined around 100 other geeks at Parse By The Sea – an all night ‘hackathon’ and part of the Brighton Digital Festival.

Parse by the Sea Hackathon

Parse by the Sea Hackathon

What is a ‘Hackathon’?

The idea behind a hackathon is to work with other developers to code/hack new digital features or product prototypes in a short (and intense) period of time. Hackathons will often run overnight and developers work together to maintain their focus and momentum with the help of caffeinated and alcoholic drinks! Not all that healthy but strangely productive. After a night of coding all teams present their hacks the next morning.

Caffeinated drinks!

Caffeinated drinks!

Parse By The Sea

Parse By The Sea was organised and hosted by Facebook and took place inside the Brighton Dome last Thursday and Friday. The event was sponsored by Parse, Unity, Pusher, Deezer and Withings. There was no fixed brief for the hack apart from a mobile theme. But all of the sponsors were offering great tech prizes to the best hacks that used their APIs with an overall winners prize from Facebook and Parse.

I’ve never attended a hackathon before but have recently discovered just how popular they are. Internally Facebook hosts a hackathon every 6 weeks and gives it’s in-house software engineers a chance to hack away on new ideas that apparently often end up becoming fully fledged features on Facebook.com or in their various mobile apps.

With Parse By The Sea Facebook decided to open up their regular hack to external Developers: Developers from all around the UK and Europe, Computer Science Students and in-house Facebook Software Engineers.

There was a fairly even mix of iOS, Android, Unity, Web and Server-Side Developers. In advance of the Hackathon Facebook setup a group for us all where we could start to share ideas and build teams. The ideas started to flow in and initial teams started to form.

An Idea and a Team

Initially I had an idea to build a multiplayer iOS word game using Parse and Pusher where four players would all compete with the same set of letters to form the longest words. All players would see each others game points in realtime creating a very competitive and fun multiplayer game. I was initially quite fixed on this idea. But you’ve only got about 14 hours of code time so an idea like this was optimistic/ambitious.

After the various sponsors had presented their APIs it was 7pm and dinner was served. I started to mingle with other developers at the Hack and met fellow iOS Developer Ben and Android Whizz Jose – also a big thanks to Adam from Pusher who knocked up a simple Node.js server-side for us in about 5 minutes!

Ben and Jose (taken from/by our app!)

Ben and Jose (taken from/by our app!)

We were chatting about our various hack ideas and one of Ben’s ideas was to create a photo app where multiple users could contribute photos to shared albums. This idea really resonated with me. I’m half American and every few years I travel the the US to catch up with my extensive US family. At these family reunions there are often 50 or more family members. Everyone is taking snaps on their smart phones and capturing these special moments. But then what? How do we share these photos just with the family members? There are a number of ways to do this with tools like Dropbox or uploading the photos to Facebook and assigning access permissions. But both of these methods requires all members of the family to sign up to the respective service and both methods require a certain amount of effort by all the photographers to share.

So the idea then developed into an app that would work on both iOS and Android. An app which would connect multiple users and enable them to create and contribute to multiple shared photo albums. As users took photos those photos would update across all connected user’s devices in realtime (instantly).

And that’s just what we built in 14 hours. 2 native apps (iOS and Android) that shared data via Parse and hooked into a simple Pusher backend to instantly stream in new photos as soon as they were saved to Parse. We initially named the app Shared Photos which then became Frictionless Photo Sharing – neither were particularly inspiring names but hey it was 5am FFS!

Frictionless Photo Sharing running on iOS

Frictionless Photo Sharing running on iOS

I’d never met Ben and Jose before the Facebook Hack but we really connected and gelled as a team. It was amazing to work with such talented Developers and the enthusiasm for our product stayed alive throughout the night. None of us got a wink of sleep! There were beds to sleep in and as we passed 4am, 5am, 6am the urge to sleep got greater. But there was a communal sense that we were building something super cool and we all wanted to make it as good as it could be by day break. So we just kept on ploughing on, beer, Redbull and jokes aflowing :-)

4am...

4am…

At one point Jose chucked some tenuous(!) link to the Deezer API into the Android version of the app – connecting a music track to each photo just for kicks – well anything to add a shot at more API prizes! The guys next to us were building something in Unity and we considered adding a few pics of their app into ours just to make the Unity connection… lol

Presentation Time

There were some really cool hacks and such a variety of ideas. Here are a few examples:

  • Too uber geeks decided they’d write a compiler – well why not!
  • The team next to ours created a 3D sound game in Unity for blind users.
  • One developer created a drag’n’drop music game that split Deezer tracks into multiple segments, randomised the order and players had to rearrange and rebuild the tune – awesome idea!
  • Flapdoodle was another memorable hack – an app for party hosts that used Facebook and Deezer APIs to auto-build party playlists from your friend’s music tastes. An especially nice touch was the friend’s face rotating on a record during playback – so that everyone would know just who was responsible for choosing Justin Bieber!

Our Turn

Each team only had just 2 minutes to present. With our hack it was all about the demo. The idea was simple but seeing as we’d used Frictionless in the title of our app I was hoping that the presentation would follow suit!

While Ben and Jose presented the idea and UI on screen I wondered around taking snaps of the audience on my iPhone which instantly streamed into Ben’s version of the app hooked up to the monitor. It’s not that tricky to implement this sort of thing but it makes for a really cool live demo :-)

Our Presentation

Our Presentation

Initially we were a bit gutted not to pick up any of the sponsor prizes but our dissapointment was short-lived when Jim announced that the overall hack winners were Frictionless Photo Sharing! It took us a minute or 2 to remember that was us!!

Hack Winners!

Prize Winners!

We won Parse and Pusher Pro accounts which is super-cool as it ultimately means that we can potentially develop our prototype into a product and ship it without incurring hosting costs for the foreseeable future.

Hacking the Future

I had such an amazing first hackathon experience and working with such talented and enthusiastic teammates enhanced the experience even further. Bring on the next one! :-)

Core Data Migration Woes with Binary Data and External Storage == Data Loss

I’m currently on a flight to San Francisco to attend Apple’s WWDC 2012 Conference – with 10 hours of time to kill I thought I’d spend a few hours writing a post about a CoreData bug I discovered recently. I’m also planning on showing the bug to Apple engineers next week so with a bit of luck this issue may get fixed in iOS 6. Fingers crossed.

Apple’s Binary Data attribute type

In iOS 5 Apple introduced a great new Core Data attribute type, Binary Data. This was a great new attribute – prior to iOS 5 it was typical to manage and store images and other binary files to disk outside of Core Data and store references to the files from Core Data entities – not ideal.

Use Case Scenario

A lot of the apps I build make extensive use of caching images so that users of my apps can continue to use my apps even when they’re offline. A good example of this is my latest iPad App, Portfolio Pro. Portfolio Pro is an app for Photographers and Designers to import their photos and videos into the app and then be able to present those binary files to clients in a coffee shop for example. The images need to be cached by the app for offline use.

The Problem

I’ve been using Apple’s Binary Data attribute type to store both the large photographs imported by users of my app and thumbnails for the photos. I’ve updated the app a few times without experiencing any problems accessing the previously cached Core Data binary attributes. Until that is, I tried to attempt a very simple automated Core Data model migration in a recent update. A strange bug occurred. Cached Core Data binary data started disappearing!

What was odd was that all of the cached thumbnails remained after an automated migration but the larger binary data attributes containing the original large sized photographs (2048 pixels long side) became nullified.

I was using exactly the same approach to store the thumbnail binary data and the large photo binary data. So why was one migrating and the other not? In both cases in addition to setting the Core Data attribute type to Binary Data I’d also selected Allows External Storage option. It seemed like the sensible choice, as I’d expect an optimized database framework to read/write large binary files to disk.

Allows External Storage

While investigating the migration issue I was experiencing in Portfolio Pro I discovered that Core Data writes large binary data to disk but not smaller binary data. Exactly what size it uses as the cut-off limit I don’t know but with large photo data I found that Core Data had created external binary files on disk in a subfolder of my app’s documents folder named “_EXTERNAL_DATA” within another folder named “.[MyProjectName]_SUPPORT”. So if your Xcode target is named MyCoolApp then the path to Core Data’s external storage will be [DocumentsFolder]/.MyCoolApp_SUPPORT/_EXTERNAL_DATA

Goodbye External Storage

Once I’d discovered this hidden storage folder I then found the cause of my disappearing photos. When Core Data performs an automated model migration it deletes/resets the _EXTERNAL_DATA folder – goodbye photos! All of my entities were being migrated just fine but the large, externally stored binary attributes were just disappearing because the storage directory was getting nuked in the migration process.

So that’s the bug with migrating a CoreData model that uses Binary Data attributes with Allows External Storage switched on.

See for yourself

I’ve put together an example project to demonstrate the bug. Download the source files here:

Download Source Files

Begin by opening up the Xcode project within the Before Migration folder. Run the project in the iOS Simulator. You should get similar results to figure 1.

Figure 1

Figure 1: Before CoreData Migration

The 2 image views are being populated by a single Core Data entity. The entity contains 2 identical Binary Data attribute types. 1 named smallImage and one named largeImage. Both have been set up to Allow External Storage. In the view I’m rendering the smallImage binary data into the first image view and the largeImage binary data into the second image view. Both image views have content mode set to aspect fit.

Close the Before Migration version of the project. Now open After Migration (Bug) version of the same project. The only difference between this version of the project and the first is that I’ve migrated the CoreData model by adding a model version and adding a new unused string attribute named newAttribute to the Core Data Entity.

The project is already set-up correctly for automatic Core Data migration. Build and run. This should replace your previous version of the example app and perform the automatic model migration. But what happens to the binary data attributes of our entity? Here’s what happens, the small image remains and the large image is deleted (see figure 2)!

Figure 2: After CoreData Migration

Figure 2: After CoreData Migration

Ok, point proven. Delete the demo app from your iOS Simulator. Run the original Before Migration version once more – you should now have both images displayed as before. Now for the solution…

The Solution

Now build and run the third version of the example app within the After Migration (Solution) folder. You should still have 2 images displayed after migration – hurray!

The solution I’ve come up with is when your code initializes a persistent store coordinator for your Core Data model run a few checks before attempting automatic migration. Check whether the new model is compatible with the current stored model. If it’s not then you know that Core Data is about to migrate your old model to your new version and in doing so will wipe the external storage folder. Before it does so simply move the external storage folder to a temporary location. Once the migration has completed replace new empty external storage folder generated by Core Data. Here’s the code that you’ll also find in the Model class of the example project within the After Migration (Solution) folder:

- (NSPersistentStoreCoordinator *)persistentStoreCoordinator

{

if (_persistentStoreCoordinator != nil) {

return _persistentStoreCoordinator;

}

NSURL *storeURL = [[self applicationDocumentsDirectory] URLByAppendingPathComponent:@"CoreDataBinaryBug.sqlite"];

NSError *error = nil;

NSDictionary *sourceMetadata = [NSPersistentStoreCoordinator metadataForPersistentStoreOfType:NSSQLiteStoreType

URL:storeURL

error:&error];

//Check if the new model is compatible with any previously stored model

BOOL isCompatibile = [self.managedObjectModel isConfiguration:nil compatibleWithStoreMetadata:sourceMetadata];

BOOL needsMigration = !isCompatibile;

NSFileManager *fileManager = [NSFileManager defaultManager];

//Prepare a temporary path to move CoreData's external data storage folder to if automatic model migration is required

NSString *documentsPath = [NSSearchPathForDirectoriesInDomains(NSDocumentDirectory, NSUserDomainMask, YES) lastObject];

NSString *tmpPathToExternalStorage = [documentsPath stringByAppendingPathComponent:@"tmpPathToReplacementData"];

NSString *pathToExternalStorage = [documentsPath stringByAppendingPathComponent:@".CoreDataBinaryBug_SUPPORT/_EXTERNAL_DATA"];

if (needsMigration) {

if ([fileManager fileExistsAtPath:pathToExternalStorage]) {

//Move Apple's CoreData external storage folder before it's nuked by the migration bug

[fileManager moveItemAtPath:pathToExternalStorage toPath:tmpPathToExternalStorage error:nil];

}

}

NSDictionary *options = [NSDictionary dictionaryWithObjectsAndKeys:

[NSNumber numberWithBool:YES],NSMigratePersistentStoresAutomaticallyOption,

[NSNumber numberWithBool:YES], NSInferMappingModelAutomaticallyOption, nil];

_persistentStoreCoordinator = [[NSPersistentStoreCoordinator alloc] initWithManagedObjectModel:[self managedObjectModel]];

if (![_persistentStoreCoordinator addPersistentStoreWithType:NSSQLiteStoreType configuration:nil URL:storeURL options:options error:&error]) {

 

NSLog(@"Unresolved error %@, %@", error, [error userInfo]);

abort();

}

else {

if (needsMigration) {

//Apple's automatic migration is now complete. Replace the default external storage folder with the version pre upgrade

[[NSFileManager defaultManager] removeItemAtPath:pathToExternalStorage error:nil];

[[NSFileManager defaultManager] moveItemAtPath:tmpPathToExternalStorage toPath:pathToExternalStorage error:nil];

}

}

return _persistentStoreCoordinator;

}

Once more, here are the source files for the example project:

Download Source Files

Interested in iOS Development and Core Data? Follow me on Twitter for more tidbits :-)

Speaker at the next Brighton iPhone Creators Meetup

As per the title, I’m going to be speaking about iPad Development at the next Brighton iPhone Creators Meetup. Here are a few details about the event:

Presenting: iPad Development: New Challenges and Opportunities for iPhone Devs

When: Tuesday 21st @ 7pm

Where: The Skiff, 6 Gloucester Street, Brighton, BN1 4EW

I’ve been primarily asked to talk about iPad development so that’s going to be the main feature in my 20/30 min presentation. How iPad development creates new challenges (User Experience, Development for multiple iDevices etc) and opportunities for iPhone Devs (increased sales, AppStore rankings).

I’m also planning to share some of my experiences of developing for the AppStore such as tips on how to improve your app reviews and ratings and how to avoid some of the mistakes I’ve already made :-)

That’s it for now… Gotta get on with my latest app idea :-)

Portfolio To Go goes Mini!

Portfolio to Go Mini has just been approved for sale by Apple and is now availabile on iPhone and iPod from the App Store!.

Following the success of the iPad version and winning Apple’s prestigious App of the Week award, Portfolio To Go goes mini and arrives on your iPhone and iPod touch!

Portfolio to Go syncs your Flickr photosets to local, cached galleries on your iPhone or iPod Touch. Once all galleries and images are cached you can view your portfolio without an internet connection. Perfect for use with wi-fi: sync and go.

Portfolio To Go is elegant and intuitive, giving users instant access to all of their Flickr photosets. The unique interface design presents thumbnail images horizontally and vertically on a photo-wall capable of displaying thousands of images simultaneously that scroll at the touch of a finger.

Portfolio To Go supports all device rotations so can be flipped vertically for portraits and horizontally for landscapes.

Another unique selling point of this app is the ‘Send Portfolio to a Client’ feature. The Photographer picks and chooses which of his galleries to share and can then send an auto-generated email to clients and friends containing a free download link to ‘Portfolio To Go Player’ iPad/iPhone App. By clicking the emailed link clients launch the photographer’s portfolio on their own iPad/iPhone/iPod Touch.

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Screen Grabs

[flickr album=72157624869114732 num=30 size=Medium]

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Key Features

# Photo Wall:
View all your Flickr photo galleries at once – scroll each gallery horizontally to browse thumbs, scroll vertically to traverse through all synced galleries. Click on any thumbnail to jump into the main image view.

# Main image view displays gallery thumbnails to enable intuitive gallery navigation. Just click the main image to go full-screen.

# Flickr Authorization: access to all of your private, friends and family and public photos

# Multiple cached portfolios: add unlimited Flickr portfolios via your contacts or Flickr IDs to P2G and switch between them.

# Auto-cache photos: all photos get cached in the background while you browse (you can turn this feature off in settings)

# Send Portfolio to a Client: Pick and choose which galleries to include and then send your portfolio straight to clients and friends by email from the app. Clients will download the free Portfolio to Go Player app to their iPad/iPhone/iPod Touch and launch your portfolio from the emailed link.

# Share your photos and Flickr links via Facebook, Twitter or Email

# Save favourite Photos to your iPhone/iPod Photo Library

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Portfolio To Go Player

You can try out the Portfolio To Go Player experience for free (just like your clients and friends) by following 2 simple steps on your iPad, iPhone or iPod Touch:
1) Click and download this free iPad app: Portfolio To Go Player
2) Click and launch this link (it will open in the downloaded app): Nicole Carman’s Portfolio