Hello? Is it me you’re looking for?

Last night Martha Lane Fox gave a knee trembler of a talk in the Science Museum. This was her Dimbleby Lecture and was her latest opportunity to use her position to put the clappers up the Establishment. If you have not seen it – do watch it: http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b05p9tvt/the-richard-dimbleby-lecture-30032015

There is an article about it by the BBC and this is the petition she is asking everyone to sign to demand that DOT EVERYONE happens. Now I will not waste more words telling you my version of what she says – because she says it brilliantly. But what I am going to do is jump on the opportunity she very definitely gave me last night.

Let me explain.

I have known Martha for a few years now, and she has been a fearless and brilliant person relentless in her support of what I do, but not afraid to bark at me if I screw up. I got to know her when she started following me on twitter about six or seven years ago and I told her not to because it was terrifying, we have been friends ever since.

In advance of the lecture last night she asked me and a few of her brilliant friends look over what she was planning on saying. This began with a meeting at the House of Lords – she had me in the room with my heroes: Tony Ageh and Bill Thomson and I was ridiculously happy.

I have since had the tab on my computer open day and night with the google doc transcript of what she was going to say. Every now and again I would go in and have a look at how it was shaping up and see Rusbridger also reading it, or Tom Steinberg, and moments when I would watch her typing and hesitating, deleting and then genius words would flow.  Even her cats got in on the editing.

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It was magical. And moving. But also funny. She sent me a text a few days ago saying: “You seem to be spending a lot of time looking at my lecture…” Poor MLF must have thought I was some silent judge-y teacher type, frowning at her work in silence. I wasn’t at all, I just kept the tab open to remind me to read every few days.

Thanks to her, and to the BBC Make it Digital team, the Managing Director of Young Rewired State (and my sister) Ruth Nicholls were also invited to the lecture. I was asked to attend the dinner afterwards (guestlist ridiculous, how on earth I got on there…) and then we retired for a final celebratory cocktail – and it was done. The lecture that is.

But what’s this noise in my inbox?

Today I have had a slew of people getting in touch. One of the reasons for this is that when Martha talks about women in technology, and how they need to be supported and showcased more, there is a cutaway to my face! I mean… yes cringe-making because I did not know, lucky I was not picking my teeth or yawning, but also, what a flipping gift! As Rory says:

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I have no idea how that happened, but thank God it did. People are wanting to be in touch, people are reaching out to ME to see what they can do to help and be a part of what I am trying to do. This is completely new, and refreshing and overwhelming and … exactly what Martha wants to happen for every woman working against the odds in technology, indeed civic technology (worst of both worlds for funding!). So, thank you, Martha – I am going to Carpe Diem and take absolute advantage of the opportunity you have afforded me, and every other woman like me out there today.

Here is how you can help me right now

STUFF THAT COSTS MONEY

1. In Rewired State we have just launched a programme called the Data Citizen Project. Here is what we are going to do:

We propose to run a programme which will be implemented over the next five years, from 2015 to 2020. Its aim is to significantly increase the understanding and confidence of citizens in the UK with regards to use of personal data, ultimately leading to everyone being able to make better decisions about that data.

This will involve partners across health, education, finance, politics, travel and social sectors working with representative personas, developers, designers, universities, social anthropologists and partners who specialise in measurement and statistics. We aim to help citizens be in complete control of their data, give permission to all parties who wish to access it and know what they are doing with it.

We need more partners and sponsors for this five year programme. Follow the link, get a pack and see how you might be able to help.

2. In Young Rewired State we are running our 7th annual Festival of Code. This costs a BOMB as we do not charge the kids to attend, they have taught themselves how to code, why should we make them pay to meet each other and work on some cool stuff? Supporting young programmers should be a line in everyone’s CSR budget. We need more of them to fill our jobs, and we need to find and look after them, so that they can teach each other – there is no other way we are going to fill this critical skills gap. We need these kids. If you want to support the digital sector and civic action/”for good” things, then your name should be on this page – in lights.

PAY ME TO SPEAK!

I get asked at least four times a day to go and speak at en event, or be on a panel, or turn up to something interesting. All of which I totally love doing. But realistically, I am a single parent Mum, I have had several times in the last year where I have hit the bottom of my overdraft (such is the life of a Founder of an – intentionally – unfunded organisation). Doing these talks and panels and stuff costs more than just travel – it is the opportunity cost. I appreciate that the platform is an opportunity, but so many platforms and the opportunity is lost because I am not actually getting any work done, or supporting the CEO and the Managing Director of Rewired and Young Rewired State: Ruth Nicholls and Julia Higginbottom (both women – yes).

So please don’t stop offering me platforms, or inviting me to attend stuff, but if you are needing me to speak as a part of your event, and you are charging people an entry fee, or raising sponsorship, please can you pay me?

STUFF THAT TAKES MORE TIME THAN I HAVE, BUT NEEDS TO HAPPEN

I really want to do this:

The challenge

The brand of technology/geeks is too remote and uninviting for most girls to want to be classed as a technologist – even if they are drawn to the career. Ada Lovelace days in schools exacerbates this remoteness – there is no relevance for your average school girl

The solution

Rebrand technology

But what can we realistically do right now?

I propose to build a small cohort of young, accessible, relevant and exciting women in technology. Schools will be able to ask us to run an assembly and careers workshop for them, and will pay to do so, unless I manage to get this funded by someone.

The speakers will be given a clothing allowance to buy a fabulous outfit and incredible cars will be hired for them to be driven to the schools. They will also be paid a speaker fee. They will then stand on stage (I propose four speakers per school) tell their story followed by speed dating style careers advice. It would be a maximum of three hours.

I need someone to help me, to take it, and drive it. This can be an organisation as well as an individual, I don’t mind – but I need help

In Martha’s own words:

The values of the internet have always been a dialogue between private companies and public bodies. And right now the civic, public, non-commercial side of the equation needs a boost. It needs more weight.

We have an opportunity to make Britain brilliant at digital. We’ve been going too slow, being too incremental – in skills, in infrastructure, in public services. We need to be bolder.

I am being bolder. I am asking for help. I am asking for money. Traditional funding models don’t work for businesses like mine, because the money comes with ties that always and eventually force historic business models, analogue models, ill-fitting models down the unwilling but hungry throat of the civic tech company. We cannot compromise what we are doing. The business model is solid, but it will take time – there is no quick win, but it is a solid one. The impact of both Rewired and Young Rewired State over the next twenty years worldwide will be huge, and visible, and noticeable.

We run great projects and programmes, eminently sponsorable, with benefit for both of us: US so that we can do what we need to do (and still eat and afford train tickets) with your money; and YOU because we will ensure that what we do, delivers value in return. A trade. The oldest trade in the world: money exchanged for something of value.

Thank you, Martha! Here’s a cheeky shot…

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Digital voting and democracy: a Q&A with myself

Yesterday I was on a panel as part of the BBC Democracy day, discussing all things digital and democratic. I was there partly because I like to hack government and have set up a business based on doing just that, and because I also sit on the Speaker’s Commission for Digital Democracy.

(For those who did not click on the link explaining what I mean by hacking government, I suggest you do before freaking out!)

Much was discussed of course, but I was not able to process fully or comment thoughtfully on the extended discussion about online voting. (Stuart Dredge has written this conversation up very well on the Guardian site here but I would like to continue the discussion after having slept on it.)

Those who have read my blog posts over the years will know that I tend to write when I am in the process of noodling stuff, rather than after I have fully formed an opinion. It helps my brain but also your input really helps me understand what it is I am not considering – so please do pile in.

This topic is very clearly divided into:

1. Should it happen? and

2. How will it happen?

The how is the technical conversation, and quickly becomes a topic that few can follow with full understanding of the words people are using; it starts with encryption and gets worse from there. I cannot add to this, nor can I hand on heart take part in this discussion with full knowledge of the facts, examples and technology required, so I would rather leave that to those who do. And I do hear your impassioned pleas to understand more, I am doing my best (the Commission has had a *lot* of input from experts on this).

So let’s stick to the should question… I am going to write this in the form of a Q&A just because it makes the most logical sense in my head right now, feel free to write it up more thoughtfully!

Should people be allowed to vote online, with their phones, tablets or laptops?

I believe that the answer to this is definitely yes

Is this just to increase voter participation?

No. Not at all.

Why then?

This is to ensure that those who prefer to use digital tools are able to, and that the feel-good factor of sharing participation in a representative democracy is extended to the community tools we use in all other aspects of our digital lives. I am passionate about bridging the digital divide: not the one between those who do digital and those who don’t. I mean the perceived separation between online life and offline life. Community interaction, influence, learning and celebration is as valid online as it is offline – and the needs of the multiple digital communities must be met in their own space. This includes being able to vote digitally.

The analogue process of voting is not perfect, indeed as Bill Thompson said on the panel yesterday: “… paper ballots are broken in ways that we understand”, but it does the job and we are familiar with it. But there needs to be a digital way to participate in voting for a representative, because otherwise the most important part people play who live in a democracy is totally absent from where many of us choose to interact, learn, share, influence: in online community spaces.

Will being able to click-vote cheapen the whole process of democracy?

No more so than some of the behaviour we are familiar with in Parliament!! I would hasten to add that (especially young people) voting would be far more rigorously researched in an online environment. I would suggest that actually being able to vote online would do the opposite of cheapening the whole process, I think it would (or could), make people take it more seriously.

How do you stop undue influence being brought to bear with people standing behind others and forcing voting a certain way?

I mean, in the same way that someone could influence you walking into a booth and ticking a box, I see no difference because it is online. It is an illegal practice, and the person who was forced to vote online a certain way will have the same recourse to law as their offline persona has. It’s this old digital divide again – why does digital suddenly make illegal practice OK? It doesn’t.

In conclusion

It is up to those who are a part of a democracy to take their role seriously, both the representatives and the represented – and that has nothing to do with technology. But technology and digital information, communication and tools can greatly enhance and amplify active participation, and it is unthinkable that this could be ignored because it is a technical challenge.

Do we really have such little faith in the behaviour and morals of those in the democracy that they cannot be trusted to play their part unless forced to walk somewhere and be watched over by GUARDIANS OF THE VOTING PROCESS with their flip board and pens? If so, I think we have a greater challenge on our hands than representative democracy in a digital age.

The podcast of the BBC panel is available here for you to listen to the whole debate, should you fancy.

PostScript and disclaimer

I am writing this just purely from riffing the thoughts in my head, I am not writing this as Commissioner for Digital Democracy, although obviously my thoughts on this have fed into the Commission’s discussions. The report on Digital Democracy is being published next Monday, and covers many topics – I shall write more after it is launched about all of the other many ways that a representative democracy can work in a digital age.

5 questions to ask before you ask people to do stuff for no money

Doing stuff for no money is something many of us choose to do in our spare time for our friends, family or causes that we care about. When you start a social enterprise you usually do a fair bit of this in your working day too! But it is not sustainable. It’s obvious, I know – but in spite of the logical conclusion everyone will agree with, people keep expecting it to be different. One definition of madness is to repeat the same action and expect a different outcome.

(If tl:dr scroll to end for the five questions, you’re welcome)

The early days of choice

Several years ago I started getting involved with and running events in my spare time (for free). These were mainly BarCamps, unconferences and in 2008, hack days. The latter grew and through a lot of 24 hour days, the loss of one marriage, many friends (and possibly 100% health of my liver and nervous system) has has now become a successful and flourishing social enterprise: Rewired State (RS), alongside an extremely powerful NfP: Young Rewired State (YRS).

Until the beginning of last year, I managed to build and run this alone, hiring people as we became able to, choosing when to do stuff for free (still a great percentage of the time) and when to not, when to sacrifice the holidays for a greater cause and what to throw everything at.

There came a point when I looked at what the organisation had grown into, what clients were wanting and needing, how we were providing a service that was still ahead of the game. In a rapidly changing world we were suddenly more and more mainstream, organisations were facing very real challenges that we are uniquely able to resolve, and fast. It was time to get serious, scale up fast, or stop. Meanwhile Young Rewired State had a community of young self-taught programmers that was doubling every year, from tens of kids, to 100s, now 1000s of them across the world, and we are changing their lives.

Now I am not a CEO. I am a founder, an entrepreneur, an ideas person with a will as strong as an ox, and two children to support single-handedly – so I am not allowed to fail; that would mean three people up the swanny (not to mention those employed by the organisations). So at the beginning of last year I realised the limits of my own skill in running a business, I had taken this as far as I could on my will and best guess, now it was time for those who know how scale and grow a commercial and social enterprise to take over and make sure we did the right thing: continuing to meet the needs of clients whilst shoring up a well-supported and honoured network of developers. I had to go (well, to the Board at least, and get a job again doing what I do best!).

It took a year to find this person, with some hiccups, missteps and ill-judgments (they are very, very hard to find), and in fact it took a year and some external skill to ready the organisation to be taken forward – I will be brutally honest, we nearly lost it, we nearly lost both of them. All pro bono projects had to go, people had to go, we had to scale right back to super lean, in order to get into the racing blocks.

To Pro Bono or not to Pro Bono – no longer my right

I *had* to step right back to allow those who knew what needed to be done to get it done – this was hard, brutally hard, but necessary and I know it was the right thing to do. The only hangover from last year in this regard, is the shift of the right to do stuff for free.

When I was running the organisations I could choose to do stuff for free. I could donate my own time, and shift profits from one project to cover costs for other pro bono projects, and I was comfortable in that space. It meant we stayed pretty small, but small and stable was fine. This was not about being hugely wealthy, this was about having a sustainable income, providing one for others as and when we could, and finding new ways to solve very real challenges faced by business and government.

I can no longer make decisions on pro bono work, except with my own time, but for a very good reason. In order for us to increase our impact, to scale up to meet the demands of clients, and to scale up YRS in order to include *all* the young people who need to be a part of this community – we have to get very real about money, about skills, about ability and about roles.

I am still asked, as I am sure everyone is who runs a social enterprise, to do stuff for free. I always say if I am happy to give away some of my own time; but if it involves more than me, I say that people are welcome to ask the CEO of Rewired State: Julia Higginbottom, and the MD of Young Rewired State: Ruth Nicholls, if they are wanting Rewired or Young Rewired to do stuff for them for nothing. I warn the asker that it is highly unlikely to pass the test of ‘Is it worth it?’ (bearing in mind both of those people lived through us nearly losing the lot last year), and I do feel a pang of guilt, no not guilt, obligation, that I am letting them down – these people doing the asking. But that is madness…

The consequences of your request

If we don’t do what we do, then right now, no one else does what we do – this is why both RS and YRS are successful social enterprises. We have a responsibility to stay, to grow, to do the very best we can for ourselves and for the communities and organisations we work with.

So, I think there are some questions everyone should ask themselves before they ask anyone, or any organisation to do something for free:

  • Can you do this yourself in your spare time?
  • Is the person you are asking to do this thing for you for free, in a financial or personal position to give this to you for free?
  • Can you trade something that translates into something that saves or makes that other person or organisation actual real cash?
  • Are you a bigger organisation than the organisation you are asking to do stuff for free? (If so, are you being fair?)
  • Why do you need this to be done pro bono? (All part of the same 5th question: Can you find funding? Can you make your procurement processes less impossible to navigate? Can you get a sponsor?)

Asking people to do stuff for free always has consequences for the person you are asking or the organisation they represent. Be mindful of the consequences – whether personal, financial or commercial. It is your responsibility to ask after very careful consideration, not theirs to refuse only if they have a damn good excuse. Even if the whole enterprise has been built on personal sacrifice and doing stuff for free in the early days.

Hack day prizes – please stop

This may seem like a pointless post but I am so fed up of the increasingly insane monetary rewards being offered for hack days, that attract entrepreneurs not coders – usually entrepreneurs with an idea, an eye for the cash and a knackered coder in tow.

Over the last five years we have worked hard with the coding community, indeed we are a bit of *the* coding community, and the work has been to find and strike a balance between:

  • rewarding work done
  • creating value that can be realised and made useful
  • having a fun event
  • taking the p*ss
  • IP

We have found a solution that works right now, so feel free to hire us!, but I really think these insane massive prizes or ridiculous PR efforts hiring jumbo jets to fly hackers across the world are doing more damage than you can ever know.

I beg you to watch Daniel Pink’s Drive animation talk for the RSA, and please stop or you will destroy the one beautiful offering that over-worked geeks are giving to the world – their time. Please stop… and watch…

 

Introducing Rewired Reality and YRS Everywhere – fa’ reeeel

Anyone who follows me in the social space will be very well aware that this week we (Rewired State) launched Rewired Reality**, our first venture into the commercial space, funded by the wonderful Nominet Trust. I have not spoken much about it here recently as it has taken quite a lot of work to get the idea and process right.

It is essentially an online hack day, for those tasks that would benefit from the hive mind of Rewired and Young Rewired State developers, but not a full-blown hack event. A challenge is submitted alongside a sum of money, we work with you to further define the challenge and to ensure the monetary reward matches the challenge and is not ‘cheap labour’*. Behind the Board there are a number of Rewired State and Young Rewired State developers hand-picked for now from successful hack events who will, if they choose to, create a prototype solution to the challenge. After 5-7 days there is a short period of peer review thereafter the Bounty Hunter, the client, is shown all proposed solutions and chooses a winner. The money is then shared between all devs taking part, with the winner taking a greater Bounty. (Collaboration is encouraged on and off the platform).

We think this is awesome for two reasons:

  • hack apathy is real, as is developer apathy, yet there is still a diminishing pool of talent who still really *do* want to assist with bringing dreams to life and solving complex technical problems – Rewired Reality brings a solution
  • Young Rewired Staters get an opportunity to solve real world problems, build their portfolio and experience – and clients get access to the brilliance of young minds

At the same time I have been dedicating myself this year to delivering against this dream. I am really pleased to report that conversations have begun in the following regions outside the UK:

  • New York
  • San Francisco
  • Aarhus
  • Berlin
  • Jo’burg
  • Amsterdam

With dates secured (yet to be revealed – wait until the new YRS site is launched :)) in NYC, Jo’burg and Aarhus. Working on the others at the moment. We are aiming to start with 50 young coding kids in each region, aged 18 or under, engaging them with local open government data and the open data developer communities – with a view to creating a worldwide, independent developer network, both mentored and mentoring, enabling these young people to grow up teaching and bringing peer-to-peer learning to life through solving real-world problems, using open data.

Our raison d’être in Rewired State is still to find and foster every child driven to teach themselves how to code, and by looking beyond the UK we are actually starting to realise this dream.

I am constantly amazed at the fact that in every country or region I speak to, the response is hugely enthusiastic, coupled with concern that these young children do not exist in their community. I am convinced that they do, and I am convinced that for the ones we find through these events, we will enrich their lives by bringing them a community of other people like themselves.

The ultimate dream is that these young people will grow up mentoring and being mentored, with children across the world working together to solve real challenges regardless of borders or oceans. They will no longer be isolated and coding alone.

So there you are! YRS Hyperlocal is happening very very slowly, funding is taking its time to happen, but we are getting there and will have news within weeks of a successful part-funding venture that affects YRSers in London and the Midlands. More to come…

* we work hard to ensure that people with a reduced budget can also take advantage of the board, by reducing the scope of the challenge to meet the reward, so we are not being elitist

** Rewired Reality is not yet pretty we are doing the design work and a nice video explanation in the coming weeks, the platform has taken up the energy :)

Here is an unedited version of me talking about Rewired Reality

Types of hack day

A year ago I wrote a blog post: What’s the point of a hack day? You probably need to scan that and this one: What is a hack day?

In it I said that it would probably be different in a year, and to some extent it is, but one thing will never change, and that is how you should treat developers. Enough has been said on twitter today about the Cadbury hack and in my head a few weeks ago about the Hack for the high street event – both of which are hack days with the sole intention of the attending developers building an app for either a specific event or for a bunch of businesses, for free, or for props and chocolate.

This is wrong, but I am not being helpful in just saying so, but I must make it clear: I believe this is very wrong.

Thayer Prime has written an excellent blog post about how dangerous this is from a PR angle when you are a large, rich organisation, I would like to update my post from last year to reflect how I see hack days being legitimately used these days:

Hack for a cause

An open hack day, available for anyone to come to where there will typically be decent prizes at the end of it but developers are not paid. Organisation of such an event may well be sponsored to cover beer, pizza, hosting and whatnot but the developers are free to build whatever they fancy, or not if they just want to be there. Apps can be showcased but IP of idea and code remains with the developer.

Hack events like this are very effective for creating meercat moments in entire industries, most recently I saw this happen with the TV industry at the TV hack in Cannes and has been most notably successful with music and open government data.

Hack on new kit or new data/API

Some organisations need developers to engage with their new piece of kit or play with their new data. Hack days are great for this – but developers should be paid something for their time and IP for anything they make at the event should remain with the developer, both code and idea. Prizes should be awarded in addition to the payment to devs.

These are very successful and most recently I can cite the GLA hack day as a good example of this – devs were paid to explore some of the newly released London data sets during the typical two day hack setting.

Hack days as research and development

These are growing in popularity. Whilst they are expensive – you must pay developers the market rate – the expense is nothing compared to a typical six month round of R&D that would result in an awful lot less than a room of 20-30 developers, pizza and focus over 24-48 hours.

The end of these hack days produce prototypes that the commissioning organisation can take back and plug into their own developments and decision-making processes. Whenever we run hack days such as this we would have an agreement with the commissioning organisation and the developers in advance that the IP would fall into one of the following categories:

  • IP for idea and code remains with the developer
  • IP for the idea passes to the client
  • IP for the idea passes to the client but the code is open-sourced on GitHub for the client, or anyone, to reuse
  • IP for the code is passed to the client – this costs more than the above two options and we make arrangement directly with the developers to agree this sum as effectively the developers are working on direct commission from the client and should be paid as such at their usual rate

A successful example of using a hack day for R&D would be most recently with UKCES where they used an R&D hack day to test the build of their API. At the very beginning of the build they tested the API with the developers to see whether it was doing what it needed to do in order for developers to work with it in the future.

Hack days alongside conferences

These are interesting, and it depends on the conference as to how this should be handled with paying developers or not. The premise being that there is a conference on a subject that can be brought to life as the conference progresses by running a hack day alongside it really bring the subject to life, maybe even solving some of the more common challenges faced.

My rule of thumb would be that if the conference is aimed even in part at the developer community and they would be attending, or make up some of the audience, then an open hack day format alongside the conference is a great idea. If the subject is not naturally one that would attract developers, say the Cadbury conference on cocoa production or whatever – then a hack day alongside the conference would be an excellent way of bringing it to life or focusing on one particular challenge or problem, but the developers should be paid.

An example of a successful hack day conference would be Hacktivate that runs alongside Activate.

Marketing hack days

Some organisations come to us and want a hack day on order to have something interesting to talk about for their advertising campaign, or to align their brand with the perceived hack celebrities, the brogrammers and geeky chics. These are all good things – but they cost money.

An example of this is the Honda hack. Honda were launching a new Civic and wanted to align their brand with everything that sat under the umbrella of Power of dreams. What better than a hack day for doing such a thing? It was treated in the same way as the R&D hack days I spoke about above and after the event ran they relinquished all call on the IP to anything and still paid the programmers and developed the winning prototypes.

They had plenty of content to write about, point to and they had engaged with a community that did interesting things with their brand beliefs.

Hack days for app building

These are becoming more common, are the most dangerous PR-wise and if you want your app/s built for free, are alienating you from powerful members of the digital community. Believe you me the developer world is a small one, and your reputation will spread fast.

If you want an app built for your organisation, event or brilliant idea – pay a development team. If you are not sure what that app looks like and you want a number of developers to come up with some options for you – then of course, that can be done through a hack day, but it should be paid work.

Polite things to do

If you are running a hack day that falls into any of the above categories where developers are not paid, then take very special care to:

  • ensure you take care of every detail and meet all caffeine and sugar needs in a timely fashion ;)
  • offer travel reimbursement if you can
  • have excellent, excellent prizes
  • have lots of staff on hand to make sure the devs volunteering their time and talents feel appreciated
  • enable the developers to be showcased to the best effect – be super-organised about that

Needless to say, Rewired State run hack days in all of the above categories. I am writing here after four years of making mistakes and learning from them, so trust me, I have learned this the hard way. Things are of course changing constantly, but there are some things that never change: don’t take the piss.

And before anyone picks me up on the charity hacks that we run, that is exactly so, we do run occasional hacks for charitable causes where developers do work for free, but we call on our own developer community for this and are very, very careful about what is being asked, by whom. We did this most recently with Refugees United and it was a humbling experience for all of us. But we are in the very fortunate position of being four years old with a robust and sizeable developer community of over 600 people that we can call on, and reward, as a group throughout the rest of the year.

And finally, whilst I am on this subject, Matthew Cashmore pointed out on twitter that the term Hack Day has been replaced by Hackathon on Wikipedia. MC has a *lot* to say about this and I concur that it is appallingly lame and something should be done to stop this march of mediocrity. A hack day is a hack day, has always been known as such. A Hackathon is a term coined by those who are scared that people will think a hack day means people will do bad things. Personally I can’t stand the term hackathon and will never run one – get it *run* a hackathon… I’ll get my coat…

My ICT teacher can’t mark my homework

Three years ago in August 2009 we ran the first ever Young Rewired State – a hack weekend aimed at the young developer community. I was determined to try to engage them with the exciting (sic) world of open government data, and firing on all four cylinders went out to go tell those kids all about it.

But they were not there…

It made no sense to me that there was a thriving adult developer community, many of them of my own peer group, but no-one under the age of  18? Where were the kids? Was there a corner of the Internet I had yet to discover?

Over a period of months it became blindingly clear that there were no groups, there were tiny pockets and many isolated individuals – all teaching themselves how to code, driven by personal passion and nothing else.

We scraped together 50 of these kids from across the UK and it was one of the most incredible events we have ever run. Ask me about it and I will bore you to death with inspirational stories ;)

Since then, running Young Rewired State has become the most important thing I do.

One story that I have heard time and time again, is that these genius kids are failing in ICT at school, because their teachers cannot mark their work. I mentioned this in the Guardian Tech Weekly Podcast and I am often asked to back up my claims!

One of the Young Rewired Staters who attended that first event (and every event Rewired State has run since regardless of the challenge – until he was snaffled by San Francisco: aged 16) explained this for the Coding for Kids google group, and I asked him if I could share his story here. Here goes:

When I was in year 10 (or 11, I can’t remember) we were given the brief to “design and create a multimedia product” for an assessment towards GCSE ICT.
Most people opted to use powerpoint to create a sudo-multimedia product. I, however, decided to build a true multimedia product in Objective-C (a small game written for iPhone & iPod Touch which included a couple of videos, some story text, audio, it was an awesome little thing, it really was :)
The Powerpoints passed with flying colors, my project failed.
I asked the head of IT why he failed me, he told me he simply couldn’t mark it. He had installed the app on his iPhone, as had the rest of the IT staff (Including the technicians who really loved it!), played it, but couldn’t mark it because a)He didn’t understand how it worked and b)It was leagues above anything else he’d ever seen from the class.
I argued the case and managed to scrape a pass by teaching him the basics of Objective-C from scratch and by commenting every single line of code I wrote to explain exactly what it did and how it did it (all 3,400 lines, including standard libraries I used) which ended up being a huge time sink. Time, I was constantly aware, I could be relaxing or working on a project of my own.
I understand that my case is a little different from the one involving Ruby, you can’t expect every IT teacher to be versed in iPhone development, but there is no excuse for not having at least a basic understanding of Ruby/Python and absolutely no excuse for failing work because its difficult to mark.
This NEEDS to be fixed, so many fantastic young devs are becoming disillusioned with education because of little things like this. The thought process, for me at least, follows:
“Wait a second, my IT teacher can’t mark this, so it fails? I don’t really want to be part of a system that works like this”.
This is in stark contrast to events like YRS, where kids are encouraged to push the boundaries and explore how to do things differently to stunning effect. It was one of the major deciding factors for me to leave education and move to the US.
The frightening thing is, after bringing it up at an event, almost every other young dev had a similar story.

I cannot tell you how sad I am that we have not been able to keep this YRSer in the UK, and this is one of the very many stories that drives me.

What can you do to help? Start by understanding this problem, then join groups like Coding for Kids and CAS of course – sign the petition.

There are a great many people trying to help solve this problem, and 2012 is certainly going to see a huge push towards solving this, but for now, just take some time to understand why this is such an important fight we have to win – for this generation and the next.

And as a PS, please read the introduction to Douglas Rushkoff‘s book: Program or be programmed – it is very good! (I so should be on commission from this guy).

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