Snapshot of a Silent Auction : Alex Ember and Dan Kaminsky Build an SMS Payment App

Photographer Alex Ember

What happens when a gifted artist moves in with a brilliant hacker? (I’m not pitching you a sitcom, I promise.) First off, they throw an awesome silent auction that focuses equally on art and code. Secondly, they build an app just for that silent auction to automate the bidding process and add a bit of fun to the night.  Even while wearing masquerade masks like every other person at the silent auction, you could pick artist Alex Ember and (in)famous hacker Dan Kaminsky out of the crowd.

The SUB, The Web, and the App

Dan builds, dissects and manages elaborate security systems. You may remember him from exposing (and fixing) the DNS cache poisoning flaw that almost, in his words, “broke the internet.” Alex is a photographer heavily influenced by greats like William Eggleston who studied at Stanford. The two ended up living together through what Alex describes as “a beautiful web of connections,” and put together a silent auction at their concert venue/co-working space called The SUB this past December.

A few months ago, Alex was planning his latest photo exhibition and trying to distance himself from static pricing to make it easier for potential buyers to bid on his art. Alex wanted his viewers to focus on the art itself and not how much it costs, or how the art warranted a certain price tag.  Dan Kaminsky recommended automating and anonymizing the bidding process. No price tags, no names, and no mess. With a simple app you can send a text to place your bid and you’re done.

The Night Of The Auction

What they hacked together is, a bidding application that allowed people to bid on Alex’s art anonymously via Twilio SMS. let “people to assign their own value in a dynamic and interactive way,” says Alex. During the auction, Dan Kaminsky described the app in a much simpler manner, “We’re having a bit of a party and since we are a bunch of nerds, we wrote a bunch of code for it.”

At the silent auction, attendees entered into their smartphone browser to connect via SMS. Then they entered their bid amount, and the letter corresponding to the piece they want to buy. They were notified when they’ve been outbid and can check the prices of each piece on site. At the end of the auction, winners received alerts via SMS and were charged using Square, PayPal or Venmo.

The app isn’t for sale or download. But, Alex plans on making it available to lower the barrier of inquiry for the buyer. If they’re at a coffee shop, see a great piece of art, and then wonder if they should inquire with the barista how much the piece is, that’s a problem. Alex wants to use to make bidding a more seamless experience. Dan was happy to make the app. “It’s been a humbling and thoroughly entertaining experience to actually be writing software. Not software that just tries to blow things up– just cool, useful code that actual people want.

You can view Alex’s work here, and check out Dan’s blog here.