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09 August 2011, 12:58

Young Rewired State 2011

by Wendy M. Grossman

The 2011 Young Rewired State event for 15- to 18-year-olds took place across several sites from 1 to 5 August. Wendy M. Grossman attended and describes her experiences with the teenage coders.

Monday, 1 August 2011

Zoom Issy and Joe at Osmosoft
Source: Wendy M. Grossman

It's a sobering thought that there are teenagers who have been alive for less time than I've been writing about the internet. Right now I'm watching six of them puzzle through the challenge of doing something clever with any bit of government data. On this first day of Young Rewired State 2011, they brainstorm, aided by a few adult mentors, and populate a whiteboard with ideas about crime, energy, happiness, education, and economics. Dangling forlornly is "Internet of things", an adult's contribution. But these kids are more goal-oriented. They want to know: what can we find out? How do we make people look at things differently? What can we change?

YRS has grown substantially since my last visit in 2009. This year, 14 centres dot the UK from Cornwall to Newcastle. Several more kids are working from home, mentored as much as is practicable over IRC, Twitter, and phone.

The group I'll follow gathers at Osmosoft, BT's open source arm. The room is filled with quirky posters and strange, old computers, and the atmosphere is bright, cheery, and collegial. Twice a day, everyone assembles to present their progress for Osmosoft founder Jeremy Ruston and the other mentors to critique.

The kids divide into teams. Daniel Saul and Priyesh Patel are friends from school, despite being a year apart, because the physics teacher runs a project group. Isabell (Issy) Long and Joe O'Dell met online. That leaves Joshua Allwood and Kush Depala.

Ruston reminds me that YRS is a best-efforts competition governed by time and data availability. Issy's 2010 project, Govspark, won "Most likely to annoy a government CIO" despite being not much more than a web page. After YRS2010, she turned her nascent effort to monitor government carbon footprint reduction into a government-wide competition to save energy.

Zoom Jeremy Ruston with Kush Depala at Osmosoft
Source: Wendy M. Grossman

"It's just a shame it's dormant in the Cabinet Office now," she says, adding that she doesn't expect to win this year.

By the first show-and-tell at 4pm, everyone's made progress. Issy and Joe want to study trends in residential solar panel installations. Kush and Josh want to express incomprehensibly large economics statistics in terms of snack foods. Priyesh and Daniel want to create a "mood map" of the country based on geolocated Tweets – for a lot less than David Cameron's £2 million.

They are worrying about the sentiment analyser they’ve found, as it caps free API calls at 5,000 per day. Daniel dashes off an email to request an increase, but Priyesh notices that even the top-tier paid plan, at $70 a month, is too limited. And another issue: what do they do if there are many dots in one area? Average them? I envision a map covered in brown.

Tuesday, 2 August

Issy, whose father runs a solar company, and Joe, know all the UK's solar installations are recorded because of the feed-in tariff. Their Google map is ready for data. But a day and a half of emails and phone calls to Ofgem, DECC, and MCS, which certifies installations, have produced no useful responses.

MCS has promised to call back by 1pm. "If not," Joe says, "I will be very British."

Over lunch – pizza – Ruston asks what the IT teaching is like at the kids' schools. Terrible, is the consensus. Daniel works on training the new sentiment analyser they've found with Tweets collected over the past 24 hours. Meanwhile, Priyesh builds the map and populates it with fake data – and discovers that after 5,000 markers the Javascript engine crashes. Ruston suggests asking on Twitter and IRC for tricks.

Kush, on his own because Josh is home ill, is making a spreadsheet of every possible combination of the types of data – debt, foreign aid, coffee, Jammie Dodgers – and finding matching statistics for each one. The total the UK spends on imports could buy everyone in the world 12 Jammy Dodgers. Or if everyone bought 35,000 Jammy Dodgers, the VAT would pay off the UK national debt. Like that. One of the economics statistics would buy enough coffee to kill 24 million elephants.

"Are there 24 million elephants in the world?" I ask. Kush can Google as fast as I can: Wikipedia estimates 60,000 in Asia and 600,000 in Africa. Kush never stops smiling; he seems like one of the happiest people I've ever met.

Next: Wednesday, 3 August

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