Writing A Simple Slack Bot With Node slack-client

Last week, we held our first CareEvolution hackathon of 2015. The turn out was impressive and a wide variety of projects were undertaken, including 3D printed cups, Azure-based machine learning experiments, and Apple WatchKit prototypes. For my first hackathon project of the year, I decided to tinker with writing a bot for Slack. There are many ways to integrate custom functionality into Slack including an extensive API. I decided on writing a bot and working with the associated API because there was an existing NodeJS1 client wrapper, slack-client2. Using this client wrapper meant I could get straight to the functionality of my bot rather than getting intimate with the API and JSON payloads.

I ended up writing two bots. The first implemented the concept of @here that we had liked in HipChat and missed when we transitioned to Slack (they have @channel, but that includes offline people). The second implemented a way of querying our support server to get some basic details about our deployments without having to leave the current chat, something that I felt might be useful to our devops team. For this blog, I will concentrate on the simpler and less company-specific first bot, which I named here-bot.

The requirement for here-bot is simple:

When a message is sent to @here in a channel, notify only online members of the channel, excluding bots and the sender

In an ideal situation, this could be implemented like @channel and give users the ability to control how they get notified, but I could not identify an easy way to achieve that inside or outside of a bot (I raised a support request to get it added as a Slack feature). Instead, I felt there were two options:

  1. Tag users in a message back to the channel from here-bot
  2. Direct message the users from here-bot with links back to the channel

I decided on the first option as it was a little simpler.

To begin, I installed the client wrapper using npm:

The slack-client package provides a simple wrapper to the Slack API, making it easy to make a connection and get set up for handling messages. I used their sample code to guide me as I created the basic skeleton of here-bot.

This code defines a connection to Slack using the token that is assigned to our bot by the bot integration setup on Slack's website. It then sets up a handler for the open event, where the groups and channels to which the bot belongs are output to the console. In Slack, I could see the bot reported as being online while the code executed and offline once I stopped execution. As bots go, it was not particularly impressive, but it was amazing how easy it was to get the bot online. The slack-client package made it easy to create a connection and iterate the bot's channels and groups, including querying whether the groups were open or archived.

For the next step, I needed to determine when my bot was messaged. It turns out that when a bot is the member of a channel (including direct message), it gets notified on each message entered in that channel. In our client code, we can get these messages using the message event.

Using the slack-client's useful helper methods, I turned the message channel and user identifiers into channel and user objects. Then, if the message is a message (it turns out there are other types such as edits and deletions), I send the details of the message to the console.

With my bot now listening to messages, I wanted to determine if a message was written at the bot and should therefore alert the channel users. It turns out that when a message references a user, it actually embeds the user identifier in place of the displayed @here text. For example, a message that appears in the Slack message window as:

Is sent to the message event as something like3:

It turns out that this special code is how a link to a user or channel is embedded into a message. So, armed with this knowledge and knowing that I would want to mention users, I wrote a couple of helper methods: the first to generate a user mention embed code from a user identifier, the second to determine if a message was targeted at a specific user (i.e. that it began with a reference to that user).

Using these helpers and the useful slack.self property, I could then update the message handler to only log messages that were sent directly to here-bot.

The final stage of the bot was to determine who was present in the channel and craft a message back to that channel mentioning those online users. This turned out to be a little trickier than I had anticipated. The channel object in slack-client provides an array of user identifiers for its members; channel.members. This array contains all users present in that channel, whether online or offline, bot or human. To determine details about each user, I would need the user object. However, the details for each Slack user are provided by the slack.users property. I needed to join the channel member identifiers with the Slack user details to get a collection of users for the channel. Through a little investigative debugging4, I learned that slack.users was not an array of user objects, but instead an object where each property name is a user identifier. At this point, I wrote a method to get the online human users for a channel.

Finally, I crafted a message and wrote that message to the channel. In this update of my message event handler, I have trimmed the bot's mention from the start of the message before creating an array of user mentions, excluding the user that sent the message. The last step calls channel.send to output a message in the channel that mentions all the online users for that channel and repeats the original message text.

Conclusion

Example

My @here bot is shown below in its entirety for those that are interested. It was incredibly easy to write thanks to the slack-client package, which left me with hackathon time to spare for a more complex bot. I will definitely be using slack-client again.

 


  1. or ioJS, if you would prefer 

  2. I find hackathons to be a bit like making a giant pile of sticks in the middle of a desert; it's an opportunity to get creative and build¬†something where there seems to be nothing…using sticks…or in my case, a Node package and Slack 

  3. I totally made up the user identifier for this example 

  4. I used WebStorm 9 from JetBrains to debug my Node code, a surprisingly easy and pleasant experience 

Hackery: Line following bots at CodeMash

NodeBots @ CodeMash

CodeMash 2.0.1.5, the latest installment of the popular community-organised conference is fast approaching. This time, I will be attending with several of my colleagues from CareEvolution, which is sponsoring the NodeBot precompiler sessions. One such colleague and good friend, Brian Genisio (also a co-organiser of the Southeast Michigan JavaScript group more commonly known as SEMjs) has been working night and day for months to prepare for each of the two epic software and hardware hacking events that will be the NodeBot precompilers. Though myself and a few other friends (many of which you can meet in person at CodeMash) have assisted Brian over the last few weeks, the success of this event really is down to his vision and commitment. From creating documentation to submitting Johnny Five pull requests1, ordering components to building kits, Brian's efforts have been considerable; if you join us to hack NodeBots (and you really should), be sure to take a moment and show him your gratitude.

My biggest contribution to the NodeBots preparation was to organize and take part in a hack day at work where Brian, a few colleagues (Brandon Charnesky, Greg Weaver, and Kyle Neumeier), John Chapman (another co-organizer of SEMjs and the NodeBots precompilers), and I could test and finalize kits and components, review and update documentation, and give some of the challenges and components a dry run in the process. Participants at CodeMash will be able to take part in one of two competitions with their NodeBots; a sumo-inspired Battle Bots competition where bots can compete for supremacy in the ring, or a line racing time trial where bots must follow a track in the fastest time2. My main efforts during the hack day were to create a sample line-following bot and provide some example code as a starting point for our precompiler hackers. The examples for both the basic line follower and basic sumo bot, as well as some other examples for specific components, can be found on GitHub in the CodeMash NodeBots Docs repository. Instructions on getting started are available on the official CodeMash NodeBots website.

Healthcare and NodeBots?

CareEvolution logo

Some of you may have been wondering: "why would a healthcare IT company like CareEvolution chose to sponsor an event hacking robots?" If you would like to know more, please come to our vendor session at CodeMash (2 p.m. on Thursday, January 8) where I will be presenting "We're Not All Robots: Hacking NodeBots, Healthcare, and the Workplace".

The Line-Following Hardware

Before hacking the code, I needed to work out how the hardware worked and build my bot. I started out with the IR (infrared) reflectance array component; an array of six IR emitters and corresponding receivers that will be the eye to see the line.

IR array and cable
IR array and cable

In the image above, you can see the front of the array as well as the cable to attach the array to the controller (we are using Arduino Uno clones for the precompilers). Using the pins already attached3, I connected the array to the board.

Rear of array showing attached pins
Rear of array showing attached pins
Wiring diagram of reflectance array connected to the controller
Wiring diagram of reflectance array connected to the controller

In the wiring diagram above, you can see each of the six analog pins on the Arduino going to one of the output pins (labelled 1-6) on the reflectance array4. Pin 13 of the Arduino has been connected to the LED ON pin of the reflectance array, which is used to activate the infrared LED's.

With everything connected, I used the usage code from the Johnny Five documentation to create a quick tester and verify that I was able to receive output from my reflectance array.

After verifying the reflectance array was wired and working, I followed the reference kit build instructions to create a robot chassis on which I could mount the reflectance array.

Reference bot
Reference bot

I then mounted the array at the front, near the wheels, using some padded double-sided tape (the array must be within a quarter of an inch of the line, so a little padding was required). To avoid confusion, the array was oriented so that its left (pin 1, according to the documentation) was also the bot's left (assuming the wheels are the front of the bot).

Reflectance array mounted at the front of the bot. Pin 1 is on the right in this picture (the bot's left).
Reflectance array mounted at the front of the bot. Pin 1 is on the right in this picture (the bot's left).

The Line-Following Software

With the bot constructed, I needed to tell it what to do. My aim was not to create the best line-following bot ever (that is a task that possibly awaits you at CodeMash), I merely wanted to make something that demonstrates the basic concepts.

The first thing that the bot needs to do is to "see". Although we had a little code to check the array worked, we had not actually calibrated the array. Calibration allows us to show the array the extremes that it is to understand, i.e. the materials that represent the existence and non-existence of a line. Thankfully, the Johnny Five driver for the reflectance array makes calibration easy with the calibrateUntil function.

In my updated code, I also added keyboard input capture so that the calibration mode could be exited via the space bar. Running this with my bot, I was able to drag a piece of paper with a thick black electrical tape line under the array and calibrate it. After calibration, I could see from the console output that my bot recognised the line and in which direction it had last seen it5.

Next, I needed to be able to move the bot based on the line position. For this, I added some simple wheel commands and thresholds. The code is shown below.

The first thing I added was a wheels object to encapsulate the motor controls. Movement is provided by two continuous servos attached to pins 9 and 10. After defining left and right servos, I created the following methods:

  • forward
    Both servos turning such that they rotate toward the front of the bot
  • pivotLeft
    The left servo rotates in reverse while the right servo rotates forward
  • pivotRight
    The right servo rotates in reverse while the left servo rotates forward
  • stop
    Both servos stop moving

Next, I made sure that stop()  was called on startup to ensure the bot was not wandering around aimlessly. I then updated the space bar handling to act as a toggle that on first use stopped calibration and started the bot on its line following quest, but on subsequent uses merely stopped or started the line following. Finally, I added some thresholds to the line  event handler to determine when the bot should drive forward and when it should pivot in either direction based on the value sent from the array.

And with that, my simple line-following robot was complete. It does a fair job at following a course, but it is in need of fine tuning if it is to win any races. Perhaps you will be up to the task when you take part in the CareEvolution-sponsored NodeBots precompilers at CodeMash 2.0.1.5. If you wish to take part in our hacking extravaganza, you will need to register, so be sure to reserve your spot.


  1. which earned Brian the privilege of becoming¬†a core committer 

  2. of course, you don't have to compete in either; you can just hack 

  3. thanks to the efforts of John Chapman, no one will need to solder pins to the reflectance arrays 

  4. pins 7 and 8 are unused as the reflectance sensors for those pins have been separated from the component 

  5. the line event from the array¬†uses 0 to mean the line was last seen to the left and 5001 to mean it was last seen to the right; any value between 1 and 5000 means the line is under the array with the value indicating its position 

Controlling a bot using node.js and express

Last week was our work hackathon. During these events we get to spend a day hacking around with something fun, whether it is work related or not. Thanks to my friend and colleague, Brian Genisio, this time around we got to tinker with hardware and build some bots.

Using node.js, johnny-five, an Arduino Uno board and a bunch of additional components, teams created their own sumo bots. At the end of the day, we competed to see who had the best bot. Ours was the only bot that walked instead of using wheels and we were confident our design could have won. Unfortunately,  we faced some technical difficulties and a couple of design issues that prevented us from achieving our full potential. You can see our bot (it's the large gold one that lumbers in from the bottom) take on all the others in this video and slowly start pushing them all out of the way.

As I am sure you can tell from the audio, this was a thoroughly enjoyable and highly competitive hackathon. There were a variety of problems to address as we developed our bots. Some of them were unique to the bot being created, others were comment to all. One such problem was how to control the bot. Regardless of how the signal got to the Arduino board (Bluetooth, RF and USB were available), we had to command our bots to move forwards, backwards, left and right (and in some cases, to deploy an extensive range of weaponry and distractions).

After some trial and error, I settled on using a simple web server and web page front-end that made API calls to the server. The server would then map these API calls to bot controls. This provided a way for us to use mouse, keyboard and touch input to control our electronic sumo minion. You can see the very basic user interface1 in this Vine that I took during our build.

Using AngularJS, the buttons in the web page were connected to API calls. By clicking buttons in the web page, using the numpad or AWSD keys, or touching the screen of my laptop, we could control the robot. The API itself was implemented using the Express package in node.

Express

I installed express into our node application, using npm:

Then I added express to our bot code and defined a simple API to process web requests:

This snippet of code has been edited down to show the pertinent details; you can view the real code on GitHub. First, we require the express module, then we use it to create our server app. The three calls to post set up our three API methods and the handlers for those methods. Using the post method defined these as POST endpoints, we could have used put, get or delete, if it were appropriate. The use call sets up a redirect for static page requests so that those requests are satisfied from our public directory. Finally, we tell the app to listen on port 4242.

Each request that matches one of the three calls I have setup will be sent to the appropriate handling methods. These handlers each take a request object and a response object, which they can use to get additional information about the request and craft an appropriate response.

Here is an implementation of the doRotate method:

In this handler, we get the direction and rate parameters from the request and pass them to the code that does the real work. At the end, we respond to the request. We could provide data in our response or even send an error if we wanted.

This allowed me to host a local website and API for controlling our bot. It was that simple.

Conclusion

Hacking a robot using node.js was a great way to delve into a new facet of JavaScript programming; hacking hardware. Not only that, but it allowed me to discover some of the cooler things that can be done quickly and easily using node.js, such as setting up a web server using express.

Have you hacked a robot with node? How did you implement control? Please leave a comment with your experience or any questions you may have. And if you are interested in hacking a bot of your own, watch this space.


  1. and an early prototype of our robot