Last week at Osmosoft we hosted the Westminster arm of Young Rewired State, a week long mulit-site event for 14-17 year olds to build amazing things with open Government data. It was an awesome, though throughly exhausting week!
At Osmosoft we hosted seven YRSers; Kush Depala, Alex Hill, Joshusa Allwood, Isabell Long, Joe O'Dell, Daniel Saul and Priyesh Patel. Throughout this blog I'll collectively refer to them as coders – as that is what they are, everything else sounds a bit too patronising!
At the start of the week there were varying level of abilities in the room ranging from those having only done a little bit of coding through to others being pretty proficient in a number of programming languages. We were also joined by two mentors, James Marwood, a business consultant and Robert Young, a back end programmer and expert data wrangler!
We started the week with a group session where we discussed our motivations behind attending the event and what we wanted to get from it, this discussion included everyone. Reasons for attending ranged from previous attendance at a Young Rewired State event through to wanting to get more involved in coding. A common comment however was that opportunities to get involved with and learn about coding whilst at school were few and far between – without exception everyone was self-taught and it was through events such as this one that they got to learn.
After finding out why everyone was here we moved onto what everyone wanted to get from the week, ideas they had for potential hacks and problem areas which needed addressing. At first the discussion here was a little quiet, but not surprising given that there were a lot of new faces and the environment of a hot, air condition-less Telephone Exchange somewhat different to usual surroundings! But it didn't take long to get ideas going and we discussed the merits of each, the feasibility of coding something up in a week and other data sets, tools and open source projects that could be used to help. At the end of the session we had a number of ideas for potential hacks and the coders broke into pairs to discuss further, gather data and get to work on building something.
Throughout the week the involvement of the Osmosoft folk and mentors was fairly low touch, we gave some pointers as to different ways of tackling problems, ensured that focus was being given across all the required areas, but the code was written entirely by the YRS coders. Where there were gaps in knowledge we were able to get them started but very quickly they took full control of the reins – for example Kush had never done any CSS before, I spent 5mins showing a couple of things and when I came back 30mins later he'd styled a page including some pretty funky looking Webfonts!
Judging by the quality of all the presentations from Friday across all the centres I'm not sure that this is needed, but I thought I'd highlight a few of the things which worked especially well for us and are worth considering next year:
- Spending enough time planning as a group – encouraging discussion with everyone led to a number of initial ideas being adapted into potentially stronger ideas following inputs from everyone and not just those who wanted to build it. Don't be tempted to break away from the group too early as holding off getting into the code for just a little bit will pay dividends
- Pairing up coders – there is a lot of be said about pair programming and it was certainly beneficial during the YRS week. By pairing up ideas were constantly bounced off of each other and it definitely helped to keep momentum going over the short but intense period of time.
- Having ICR on screen – this year we made good use of the IRC channel where we had it set up on a large screen in the centre of the room. Not only was it a quick and fruitful place to ask questions it was also reassuring to see what others centres were working on (plus a reminder to stop for lunch when there was talk of pizza and donuts)!
- Regular stand ups and show & tells – each day we ran and recorded a daily stand up at 12noon and a daily show & tell at 4pm. There were no excuses, everyone had to participate. The noon stand up was, as you'd expect, a quick 30 seconds per person on what they're currently working on, their next steps and any potential road blockers. The 4pm show & tells were slightly longer and were geared towards preparing everyone for being able to relay and demo what its was they were working on in 2 minutes (as per the rules for the end of week presentations).
- Supply of food and drinks – sounds like an obvious one but having a good supply of food and drinks available is a tremendous help. Last year everyone had to go outside the building if they wanted to get soft drinks or snacks, this led to a lot of stopping and starting but having them on hands in the room kept things flowing nicely ...although next year I'll remember to get Coke Zero rather than diet!
- Having lunch together – everyday we made a point of stopping and having lunch together. It was directly after the noon stand-up so followed on nicely for those who wanted extend discussions about their hacks, but more often than not it was an opportunity to talk about something other than YRS. It was great for getting to know everyone and a healthy break away from the screen!
By the end of the week the YRS coders based at Omsosoft had produced five working hacks;
- The Solar Panel Project: was built by Issy and Joe to map solar panel installations across the UK with an aim of analysing trends for their usage across urban and rural regions.
- To Infinity and Beyond: a Google maps mashup of Openreach's fibre-based broadband rollout plans across the UK. With this data Issy and Joe planned to overlay various Government data sets to try and identify possible correlations between faster broadband speeds and better educations, lower crime rates etc
- Snackonomics: was built by Kush, Alex and Josh and its purpose was to provide a way of breaking down large incomprehensible numbers (such as the total UK national debt) into things that you might be more familiar with.
- Wealth & Education: was produced by Alex and plots wealth and quality of education onto a Google Map. Having only arrived at YRS on the Wednesday this was turned around pretty quickly from Alex!
- The Mood Map: was built by Priyesh and Daniel overlays live tweets and level of deprivation data onto a Google map. The tweets are analysed for their sentiment and colour coded as being happy, sad or neutral. With this data you can explore the correlation between sentiment and depravation levels. Priyesh and Daniel have a number of ideas on how to extend this project so definitely keep an eye out for updates to their site!
On the final day of the week all the YRS coders from across all the centres got together at Microsoft's London office for an afternoon of presentations. There were some incredible hacks produced and its probably safe to say that everyone left in awe of what had been done in just a week. The YRSers from Osmosoft did a great job in showcasing there efforts and with slightly shaky hands (I think I was more nervous than they were) I recorded their presentation:
It was a fantastic week and I'll definitely be taking part again next year, although that seems so far away – hopefully there be an opportunity to do something similar in between?