Adding Raspberry Pi based backlighting to my desktop PC with backlight-server, and moving to a new flat gave me an interesting idea – add an API to the backlight server to set the lights to the dominant colour of whatever album is playing in my Spotify account. How hard could it be?

The first step was to read up on the Spotify API. I quickly found the ‘Get the User’s Currently Playing Track’ API, which fit the bill. Since it deals with user data, I had to authenticate with their Authorization Code Flow, which requires multiple steps as well as a static address for a callback containing the authorization code granted to my application. I experimented with giving the Spotify Developer site the IP address of my Server Pi, but that could change, which would mean editing the application listing each time that happened, which was unacceptable for a seamless ‘setup and forget’ experience I was aiming for.

The solution was to resurrect my DigitalOcean account to host a small Node.js app with a simple task – receive the callback from Spotify with the authorization code with which access and refresh codes would be granted, and fetch and determine the dominant colour of the album art currently playing. This service would in turn be used by backlight-server to light up my living room with the appropriate colour.

This authorization flow took a long time to get right, both from a code perspective (I used the spotify-web-api-node npm package to make things programmatically easier), as well as a behavioural perspective (when should the token be refreshed? How to propagate errors through different services? How can the app know it is authorized at any given time?), but once it worked, it was very cool to see the room change colour as my playlist shuffled by.

I had a half-hearted attempt at figuring out the dominant colour myself using buckets and histograms, but in the end decided to preserve my sanity and use the node-vibrant package instead, which worked like magic!

So this is basically how the whole thing works, and you can see the code for the spotify-auth microservice on GitHub. The diagram below may also help explain:

So what next? Well, those smart RGB light bulbs are looking a lot more interesting now…


With not a lot going on in terms of my Pebble apps (still very much in a ‘if it ain’t broke’ situation), my hobbyist attentions in recent months turned to my Raspberry Pi. With not a lot of exciting ideas for hardware hacking, it occurred to me that software applications of the device might be a bit more interesting.

Beginning with moving the backend services for News Headlines and Tube Status out of a $5 Digital Ocean Droplet to a $0 Raspberry Pi under my desk (with a few forwarded ports, of course), I’ve steadily refined the standard pattern used to write and maintain these apps. At the most there have been six, but today there are five:

  • News Headlines Backend – pushing headlines pins.
  • Tube Status Backend – pushing delay alerts pins.
  • LED Server – providing a localhost RESTful interface to the Blinkt! hat on the physical Pi between apps.
  • Attic – a new app, serving and receiving simple JSON objects for storage, backed by a Gist.
  • Monitor – responsible for monitoring uptime of the other services, and providing Greater Anglia and TfL Rail outage alerts to myself via my watch. Monitor actually just schedules regular invocations of its plugins’ update interface function, making it extremely extensible.

With my adventures in Node and discovering convenient or standardised ways of doing things like modules, data storage/sharing, soft configuration, etc. these apps have all been refined to use common file layouts, common modules, and a standard template. With its relatively stable state of maturity, I’d like to share this with readers now!

What? It’s not February 2017 anymore? The pattern has matured even further, but I’ve only now found the time to write this blog post? Well, OK then, we can make some edits…

Disclaimer: This isn’t an implementation of any actual accepted standard process/pattern I know of, just the optimum solution I have reached and am happy with under my own steam. Enjoy!

File Layout

As you can see from any of the linked repositories above, the basic layout for one of my Node apps goes as follows:

.gitignore   // 'config.json'

The src folder contains modules (modules that are specific to the app), and common (using common modules shared between all apps, such as log.js (standard logger, pid logging, and uncaughtException & unhandledRejection handlers), as well as main.js, which initialises the app.

This pattern allows all apps to use common modules that can be guaranteed not only the presence of each other, but of a common config.json that they can all use to draw configuration information (such as log level, API keys, latitude and longitude, etc.).

Soft Configuration

Of particular interest is the config.js module, which all modules that use config.json information include instead of config.json. It is untracked in git, and so can safely contain sensitive keys and other values. It also guarantees that keys required by modules are present It also provides some additional benefits:

  • Ensuring the config.json file is present
  • Allowing modules that include it to requireKeys to be present in the config.json file, that they themselves require. Here is an example.
  • Stop app launch if any of these keys are not present
  • Allow access to the app’s launch directory context.

For example, a fictitious module may require an API key to be present in the ENV member of config.json:

const config = require('../common/config');

config.requireKeys('fictitious.js', {
  ENV: {
    API_KEY: ''

The way config.js behaves, if this structure is not present in config.json, the app will not start, and will tell the operator (i.e: me!) that the value should be provided. Handy!

Standard Modules

Any of these Node apps (and any new apps that come along in the future) can make use of a library of drop-in standard modules, many of which can be found in action in any of the linked repositories at the top of this post), including:

  • event-bus.js – Provide a pub/sub ‘event bus’ style of communication between modules
  • fcm.js – Send an event to Firebase Cloud Messaging to show me a notification
  • led-server-client.js – Communicate with the localhost Blinkt! LED Server instance
  • scraper.js – Scrape some text using a series of ‘before’ markers, and one after ‘marker’
  • config.js – Access ‘smart’ configuration with additional capabilities
  • gist-sync.js – Synchronise a local JSON file/set with a remote Gist
  • leds.js – Directly drive the connected Blinkt! hat
  • db.js – Emulate a simple get/set/exists interface with a local JSON file
  • ip.js – Look up the address of the ‘mothership’ server (either Server Pi or a Digital Ocean Droplet)
  • log.js – Standard logger, asserts, uncaught/unhandled catching.

Wrapping Up

So with this standard pattern to my Node apps, it makes it a lot easier to manage the common modules as they are updated/improved, manage SCM untracked soft configuration values (as well as make sure I provide them after migration!), and allow modules to be as drop-in as possible. As with most/all of my hobbyist programming, these approaches and modules are the result of personal refinement, and not from any accepted standard, which is my preferred style when I am the only consumer. Maximise the learnings!

Expect more sporadic information as these apps develop, and enjoy the pins!

For some just beginning their programming journeys a common example to conquer is blinking an LED, which usually goes something like this:

digitalWrite(13, HIGH);
digitalWrite(13, LOW);

For me, I decided to try a much harder approach, in a fiddly effort that could be regarded as virtually pointless. Nevertheless, I persisted, because I thought it would be cool.

The idea: blink a Blinkt LED on Server Pi whenever it serviced a request from the outside.

For those unfamiliar with my little family of Raspberry Pi minions, here is a brief overview:

  • Server Pi – A Raspberry Pi 3 running three Node.js processes for various Pebble apps (News Headlines pin pusher, Tube Status pin pusher, unreleased notification and discovery service).
  • Backlight Pi – Another Raspberry Pi 3 with a single Node.js Express server that allows any device in the house to HTTP POST a colour to be shown behind my PC.
  • Monitor Pi – A Raspberry Pi Zero W (W, as of today) that pings the three processes running on Server Pi via the GitHub Gist discovery mechanism to give me peace of mind that they’re still up. It also checks the weather for ice and rain, and whether or not Greater Anglia have fallen over before I’ve taken the trouble of leaving for work at 7AM.

Maintaining this small fleet is a joy and a curse (one or both of “my own mini infrastructure, yay!” or  “It’s all fallen over because Node exceptions are weird, noo!”), but since I started versioning it all in Git and adding crontab and boot scripts, it’s become a lot easier. However, for this particular task, I found only one process can usefully control the Blinkt LEDs on top of Server Pi. Since this is a parameterised (services only) instance of Monitor Pi, it must be this process that does the blinking when a request is processed.

Since I’m already a big fan of modular Node.js apps, I just added another module that sets up a single-endpoint Express server, and have each of the other three Server Pi processes POST to it whenever they service a request with their own Express servers. Neat!

An hour of synchronising and testing four processes locally and on-device later, and I now have a blue blinking LED whenever a request is serviced. Sadly the activity isn’t as high as it was in the News Headlines heyday when it was tasked with converting news story images to Pebble-friendly 64 colour thumbnails and an experimental analytics service late last year, but with the interesting tentative steps the unreleased notification service is taking, Server Pi may end up seeing a bit more action than simple status checks and app news lookups in the future.

With all this work done, it’s also time for another diagrammatic mess that I like to call my infrastructure…

After Pebble disappeared, I felt adventurous enough to buy another vendor’s smartwatch (!) just to see what another experience was like.

In one way, it was an eerily similar experience.

In terms of the watch itself, it’s solidly built, has a larger display, and since charging on Boxing Day last year, it’s still at about 50%! In terms of development, I was impressed with how you can write some JavaScript for a ‘stream’ widget that goes on a watchface, run it in the browser and then use that instance to power an actual device from the phone app’s appstore!

A good start. I was looking forward to the upcoming native app SDK, but sadly that doesn’t look to be arriving after all. In the short time I spent with it, I ported over some code from News Headlines to show a fraction (which scrolled) of a latest BBC News headline on a watchface.


And the code is available on GitHub, for historical institutions to reference.

I think I’ll take a break from buying smartwatches for a while. In case I take another one down.

This one took a while. Weighing in at 38 versions and I-don’t-know-how-many reflected and hacked APIs, Dashboard is now open-source for all to see. This was probably the app that took the most development time until now (still on-going!), and I think the one I’m most proud of.

I’m liking the idea of doing future releases via self-approved pull requests. Could be interesting!

>>> Dashboard source code <<< 

In my last post, I promised I would open-source the remainder of my apps to promote community learning and collaboration. Well, I’m following through, and the first to be shown naked to the world (please don’t judge my code, it’s accumulated over at least two years!) is News Headlines!

Included here is the code for the watchapp, as well as the backend server that’s been serving pins obediently for the last year and a half or so.

The only things left out are API keys and the current public server URL, but these are configurable through simple config.json files if you want to roll your own.

>>> News Headlines source code  <<<