Margot Huysman reports back from the Young Rewired State Festival of Code that took place in Birmingham over the weekend.
Last week saw over 400 young coders develop websites and apps together in 40 centres across the UK. These kids were all between the ages of eight and 18, and the level varied between complete novices and more experienced developers.
In London alone there were five centres. The centres, which included Shoreditch Works and MozSpace in London, offered an open space for kids to come together, think up an idea for a web or mobile app, and work to make this idea come to reality.
To build their sites and apps, participants had to follow one rule: use open data. With so much data so readily available, the limits to what kids could build were bound only by their imaginations.
At the end of the week, young people from all the centres travelled to Birmingham to finish working on their hacks, in preparation for the show and tell on Saturday.
As to be expected at these sorts of events, pizza was available en masse. I am not sure there was any pizza left in Birmingham, so many boxes had been delivered to the Custard Factory. Owing to the age of the participants, however, beer was lacking, so this turned out to be a sober hackathon, something for which I am sure my liver was thankful.
I arrived on Friday evening, and already the kids had taken over the entire space. Laptops, cables and slices of, yes, cold pizza were scattered around everywhere. Everyone looked shattered after a long week, but excited to be there.
Talks from various bigwigs took place in the evening, giving the participants the opportunity of asking whatever questions they might have had in mind about the industry, as well as dealing with a business and getting from coding for fun to making it into an actual job.
While the coders spent the night at the Factory, coding away, fixing last-minute glitches and finalising their presentations, I confess I enjoyed a comfortable hotel bed.
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On Saturday morning, the groups were divided into five heats, all presenting in front of judges who then had to select the very best to move to the final. The afternoon was divided into different categories; “Wish I’d Thought of That”, “Best Example of Code”, “Coding a Better Country” and “Best of All”.
The first category, “Wish I’d Thought of That”, was full of exactly that: ideas I wish I had come up with. The presentations kicked off with Clever Wherever, a web app that targets kids and teenagers, pressing them to be safe while bringing some game features to it.
Digitaltick.it was another app I definitely wish I had thought of. The app basically gives you all of the information about your train journeys, while also providing a QR code for the conductor to scan. No more paper tickets you lose in the pages of a magazine; no more time wasted in a queue to print off tickets you had previously ordered online.
The winner of the category was Humap, a “human direction map app”. In simple terms: an application that gives you directions based on specific landmarks. Gone are the days where your GPS told you to turn right at So-and-so Street, now it will tell you to turn at the Tesco on the corner. Makes so much sense, it’s surprising this was not thought of before.
The “Best Example of Code” category saw Postcode Wars as the big winner. The idea is simple, yet effective: enter two postcodes and they will get compared, based on set criteria such as house prices and crime rates. The postcode with the best score wins. It may not cure cancer or save the world, but it’s a great example of kids making use of different APIs and taking advantage of available data. The interface was also very polished.
Considering their limited experience with coding previously, the kids of Streets of London were delighted to have gone all the way to the final. The idea was a strategy game set in London, and although they were not the most experienced coders in the crowd, they managed to get through the first heat and impress the judges – and themselves.
“Coding a Better Country” was the tagline on the volunteers’ t-shirts at the event, and also happened to be one of the categories for the final. The winner of this category was Why Waste a Vote, a site aimed at teenagers and new voters, educating them about the political system and the use of voting. I happened to be on the same train going back to London, and their excitement made the long journey home a lot more entertaining. All of the kids called their parents to let them know of the good news.
One of the things that make YRS such a great initiative is seeing how many kids feel confident enough to want to continue coding. Some teams were made up of people who didn’t know each other prior to the event. After spending a week building a site together, they were motivated to see each other again and do some more hacks together. Some of the participants were even talking about applying to the same universities.
Who said geeks were socially awkward? I witnessed kids from all ages, building things together and making new friends. More than the coding experience and the boost in confidence events such as these bring to the participants, the human experience the kids gained from this was worth the participation alone.
The final category rounded up apps that showcased a great interface as well as high level of coding. TruMPs was a game based on Top Trumps, using MPs. It looks slick, made use of all sorts of different coding languages, was HTML 5 valid – meaning it looked good on mobile devices as well as desktops – and was plain entertaining.
Way to Go, although not the winner, did get a special mention from the judges. The web app uses crowdsourced data from wheelchair users to figure out the best places that are readily accessible.
The winner for the category, Smart Move, looked so professional it was hard to believe it had only been conceived in five days. The website lets you search for areas of London you may move to, according to specific criteria. And depending on what criteria are more important to you, it will reorganise your results to match.
In five days, this group was able to build a web app that is fully functional, looks good and would be useful to many people. But on top, they built their own API and have made it public for people to be able to build applications from it. No wonder they won the final category.
All in all, after a long week of short nights, a lot of junk food and no doubt many cans of energy drinks, the participants were able to let loose and celebrate all of their efforts with a party. (Still no beer, though.)
If you ever wonder about the state of developers in the UK, don’t. These kids have showed that there is a massive pool of young talent waiting to be swept up by the start-ups of tomorrow.