Young, Gifted and Coding

Photo courtesy of Paul Clarke

Watching The Olympics this summer was a sobering reminder that there are people both younger and more talented than myself. If I did have any designs on an Olympic medal, the Games this year left me in no doubt that I had left it far too late (unless, of course, I chose to take up dressage, which has competitors in their seventies). So you can imagine my dismay when I attended this year’s Young Rewired State Festival of Code only to be confronted by the fact that there are eight-year olds whose computer skills far outstrip my own.

Young Rewired State is a network of developers aged 18 and under who have an aptitude for coding or designing for the internet. Earlier this year, we awarded YRS a grant of £10,000 to help them in their task of ‘finding, nurturing and supporting the next generation of tech entrepreneurs, helping them to build a better Britain’. Each year, YRS organise a national hack week during which young coders are tasked with designing and building digital products for mobile and web that use at least one piece of open data. The week culminates in a weekend Festival of Code, at which the young developers showcase their creations to panels of judges who select the very best ideas and products. This year, the Festival was held at the cavernous Custard Factory in Birmingham and I was lucky enough to be a judge.

Never having been to YRS before, I was a little unsure as to how good the products would be or whether or not the young coders would have the necessary skills to create viable and worthwhile apps and websites. It quickly became evident, though, that not only were these very talented and intelligent coders, but that many of the products they had created – within the space of a single week – would be more than capable of holding their own in the online world. This, of course, made the task of judging quite tricky and with 100 projects competing for the top prizes, whittling them down to the eventual five winners was a long and difficult process.

The breadth of products and projects was as impressive as their quality and I was particularly pleased to see plenty of social good products aimed at improving the world around us in one way or another. The most impressive of these was Way To Go, a site which allows disabled people to rate places like restaurants, hotels or even casinos on their accessibility and wheelchair friendliness. Catering for a different group of users was BikeSafe – a journey planner that plans journeys and shows users the locations of bicycle accidents on their route, which allows them to identify accident blackspots and change their route accordingly. Equally interesting is Manchester Image Archive, a site which accesses more than 80,000 photos of Manchester through the ages, plots their rough location on a map and asks users to verify the location by matching it up with images taken from Google Street View.

Sparth Road, Manchester in 1963 and today

Of course, with 100 projects it would be impossible to go through them all individually, so here are the winners from the day:

  • Postcode Wars (Best Example of Coding) – This site allows you to compare two different postcodes on a number of fronts, such as crime rates, local amenities etc. Worryingly, it tells me I’m twice as likely to be the victim of violent crime at work compared to when I’m at home.
  • Why Waste A Vote? (Code a Better Country) – This site aims to get teenagers more interested in voting and provides a single portal for information on the main political parties in the UK and uses mySociety’s APIto let users find their local MP.

    Photo courtesy of Paul Clarke

  • SmartMove (Best in Show) – A fantastic iPad app aimed at house hunters. It allows users to select a number of different variables, such as average house price, crime rate and school achievement which are then used to create a heat map of London, thus enabling users to identify which borough they would like to live in. Once a user has chosen a particular area, they can double tap the map to bring up local property listings.
  • Humap (Wish I Had Thought Of That) – A site aimed at replicating the way in which humans give directions to one another. Rather than ‘Turn left in 100 yards’, this site would provide instructions such as ‘Turn left at the Methodist Church’.
  • Way To Go (Should Exist)

On a final note, it was great to see open data be given such a prominent place. I suspect that for many there it was an eye-opening experience to see just how much data is available for people to use. Of course, it might not always be there in the most accessible format, but it’s there nonetheless. The young coders used everything from accident to earthquake data and public toilet to US Supreme Court data.

All that remains is to congratulate all of this year’s coders and to wish next year’s batch the best of luck.