Youngsters plug into coding the Centre for Life

For three years, Young Rewired State has been showing young people the joys of coding using open government data such as crime figures and weather data.

The Intellectual Property Office is bringing an exhibition to the Centre for Life
The Intellectual Property Office is bringing an exhibition to the Centre for Life

THERE’S a huge, exciting toybox of public data sitting out there, unlocked, waiting for someone to rummage through it. But who’s going to roll up their sleeves and do it?

Sure, there’s a group of twenty-and-thirtysomethings who’ve spent hours building websites, applications and businesses out of technology that’s emerged during their own lifetimes. But what do you get when the next generation get stuck in as well?

How about the Moodmap, a program which picks out location-tagged tweets, feeds them through code that analyses their mood, and plots the data on top of a map marking out areas of deprivation?

Or UniMatch, a project which works out which university is most suitable for a future student, based on data such as distance, fees, night life and UCAS points?

Maybe PacMap, which allows you to play the classic arcade game on a satellite map of your neighbourhood? Or Space Data, which uses xml spreadsheets from Government websites to find an alien a new home based on the happiness of people in a given county?

These are a few of the results from a week of work by under-18s involved in Young Rewired State, a nationwide initiative that aims to get young people more interested in coding by encouraging them how to get hold of open data – such as crime figures, consumption statistics and hygiene ratings – and use it in a new and exciting way.

The project was set up in London by “hack day” organiser Rewired State three years ago as a spin-off from an event called Hack the Government Day.

This year’s YRS event ran in 14 centres across the UK last week, including one at Newcastle’s Centre for Life. Participants then travelled to London to present their ideas to a panel including representatives from Number 10, Google and TechCrunch Europe.

Programmer Oli Wood, who was a mentor for the Newcastle group for the week, says: “I grew up knowing I could pry the back off something and tinker with it. Now technology is this shiny box, and people aren’t encouraged to take the back off, either metaphorically or physically.

“Telling people about open data and getting them involved with Young Rewired State can shift people’s mentality so that they know it’s okay to tinker. Programming can be hard, but it’s not that hard.”

Wood had been involved with other Rewired State projects, and decided to help get a Newcastle YRS event going this year.

“I think the nearest one was Manchester, or maybe Edinburgh”, he says: “I hadn’t come across one in Newcastle. I thought it was something that was definitely needed.

“When I was growing up I always thought no one else enjoyed this sort of stuff. I probably would have worked at it even more if I’d have been able to get involved with something like this.”

After finding a home in the Centre for Life, Wood and fellow programmer David Haywood Smith set about guiding a group of seven teenagers, most of whom had very little idea of what coding involved.

“We kicked everything off by talking about open data”, he says. “It’s only really in the last couple of years that the really good quality data has come out.

“We were showing them a few of the things that can be built with this data. They then split into four groups. Most of the process was them coming up with ideas and the mentors helping them with coding and finding decent data sources.”

The ideas that came out of Newcastle included a Space Invaders-style game which alters depending on the weather outside and the crime data of the city assigned to a particular level.

There was also a mobile phone app which allowed users to gauge the levels of sunlight in their area for renewable energy installation, as well as the level of grants they can pick up in their region.

Using Google Maps and public data, one created a program which could plot the quality of schools in an area, while the other group created a Google Chrome plug-in called QRome which enables someone reading a website to scan a QR code on the site with their phone and transfer that page to their phone to read on the move.

“The ideas they came up with blew my socks off”, says Wood.

The thinking behind the Young Rewired State project is that potential programmers should be reached early and inspired to fine-tune their skills in their spare time, especially if they are not being taught these tricks during the school day. This idea appealed to the Centre for Life, which looks to inspire young people outside classes with events such as Maker Faire.

Science communications director Ian Simmons says: “People were learning new science and technology skills through it by developing their learning skills. Because they were doing it with government data, they were giving the public greater access to data presented in an imaginative way.

“For us, school visits are a minority. Most people come as individuals and families in their leisure time. But we’ve got the biggest programme of educational workshops in Europe for a museum or science centre.”

Education in programming in schools remains a tricky area. While Wood acknowledges it’s a “difficult thing to teach formally”, he believes the practical aspect is “not treated well” in class.

Simmons adds: “The school curriculum is quite limited in what it can tell people about science and technology. You can teach the basics reasonably effectively but there are so many other things to explore. Discovery and learning is not just something you do in school. I was talking to some American researchers who said 90% of what you learn about science and technology is picked up outside the school environment.

“One of the slogans of the Maker Faire is: ‘If you can’t open it, you don’t own it’. People are encouraged to have a passive attitude to technology now, where you buy something and then throw it away when it breaks. If you take the back off something you void the warranty, so you never think about how it works, or how to change how it works. I think it’s good for people to be able to change technology to suit their needs, rather than just wait for someone to create it and then buy it. We want to encourage curiosity.”

When they reached London last week, the Newcastle participants mixed into a group of around 100 students from around the country. The #yrs2011 Twitter feed buzzed on Friday with discussion about projects and possible new uses for them. For example, Daniel Saul and Priyesh Patel’s Moodmap at www.themoodmap.co.uk has already been used to highlight the mood around the country as riots bubbled up this week. Jon Robson also used that map to create a live “Riot Map”, which mashed up areas of rioting with areas of deprivation.

Some have speculated it will be interesting to compare the results of these creations with larger government projects, such as the £2m study to measure the nation’s happiness that was launched in April. A group of 14 and 15 year olds also used a mix of NHS data and “imagined data” of patient records to create myNHS, a system that would allow users to locate their nearest A&Es, chemists and pharmacies, order repeat prescriptions online using QR codes, find out more about their drugs and their side effects, and book GP appointments.

According to Rewired State founder Emma Mulqueeny, another major benefit of the YRS challenge is that it helps to tie interested coders into a network of people with similar experiences.

She says: “It gives them a chance to meet people, and to support each other. A lot of these kids have to teach themselves how to code. It’s great to go somewhere and to find out there are so many people with the same interest.

“It’s not part of the National Curriculum so it’s not really taught in schools. There are a few teachers that can code, but it’s mostly done in lunchtimes and after school. Considering the world they’re growing up into, that’s crazy.”

Mulqueeny was working in government when she arranged the first Hack the Government Day.

“We scraped a lot of government data at a time when there wasn’t any open data about”, she says. “I realised all the people who were excited about it were around 35, and I thought: ‘If we’re going to get a country that’s open and transparent, we have to get the next generation excited about this’.

“We got about 50 kids doing an event at the Google offices, and they got a huge high out of it.”

Plans are already under way for a 2012 Young Rewired State, and potential participants and mentors can sign up at http://youngrewiredstate.org/ yrs2012/Mulqueeny says: “There are people who started this year with little coding experience, but by the time they come back next year they will have taught themselves. It gives people a network to discuss ideas and work together. Within five years we’ll have a strong group of people working together to bring through the skills.”

The school curriculum is quite limited in what it can tell people about science and technology

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