I spent last week doing one of the most rewarding things of my life: running the Brighton outpost of Young Rewired State.
Young Rewired State is a nationwide hackweek for young people, where under-19s have four days to put together a digital product that utilises open data with a focus on creating applications that will change the country for the better.
My co-organiser and partner in crime was Edd Parris of NixonMcInnes, and Cogapp and NixonMcInnes kindly sponsored the event. We were based at the Lighthouse for our four days of coding, and they were incredibly supportive and sympathetic about having a large group of young people taking over their basement for the best part of a week.
We had 17 participants - ranging in age from 11 to 17 – who worked in teams to create four mightily impressive products. These are, in their own words:
“FUD - FUD is the fresh way to look at food apps saving the hassle of using multiple apps and websites while also recommending new places you may not have tried before!” The team: Harry (16), James (16), Jonathan (17), Veselin (16)
“Matrix Engine - A game development platform that uses open data for in-game systems all in under 600KB” The team: Calum (17), Max (15), Sophie (15)
“Way To Go - This product will help people who have walking disability get around and find new places that they can access” The team: Charlotte (12), Joe (17), Lucy (15), Robert (16), Ruben (13)
“World Wide Health - A website which gives information on the health risks of smoking and alcohol consumption. It also provides health tips on exercise and nutrition.” The team: Andrew (11), Callum (12), Jacob (13), Monty (11), Reuben (13)
That's right, we had coders as young as 11 working on developing their own websites and apps, and despite all the hugely generous mentors and helpers who came in throughout the week (more on that later) it was the chance to learn from their peers that made the biggest impact on these guys. As our mentor Donna – an ICT teacher – tweeted on the first day:
Many of our participants were designers, animators, or fledgling programmers who started the week worried about their level of technical experience and daunted by the prospect of having to create their own applications. Its testament to the incredible generosity and community spirit of these young people that regardless of age, gender and experience everyone was soon working in teams, teaching each other and supporting each other throughout the project.
During the week, we had a fantastic group of mentors who donated their time to working directly with the kids, coaching them in skills ranging from teamworking and presenting to wire-framing, prioritising and programming. These were: Adam Pooler, Adam Yeats, Alick Mighall, Caroline Morris, Dan Wallman, Donna Comerford, Greg Hadfield, Ian Gilfeather, Jack Lang, Jesse Speak, Jessica Bowden, John Willshire, Max St John, Mike Parris, Prem Rose, Richard Freeman, Rob Sheridan, Ross Breadmore, Seb Lee-Delisle, Stephen Fulljames, Tim Falls and Tobias Quinn. Many thanks to all of you for your incredible patience and enthusiasm!
After the four days of intensive development, on Friday we jumped on a coach to Birmingham for the second part of the hackweek: the Festival of Code. Hosted at the Custard Factory in Birmingham – a gloriously surreal complex of renovated warehouses, artist studios, alternative boutique shops, sculptures, installations, graffiti displays, skate parks, nightclubs and fountains – the Festival of Code was a chance for all 38 Young Rewired State centres nationwide and their 400+ participants to get together, geek out, and present what they'd been working on all week to an audience of their peers, the press, and a panel of judges.
After what was a sleepless Friday night for many – the kids stayed up all night coding and honing their presentations while the grown-ups struggled to sleep on concrete floors in a room filled with the lingering aroma of Friday night pizza – on Saturday morning the teams were ready to present their projects in the first round of judging. Our four groups pulled off a stunning set of presentations, while me and Edd sat in the audience feeling like a couple of very proud parents.
There were four prizes that the judges were looking to award in the finals: Wish I'd Thought Of That, Best Example Of Coding, Code A Better Country and Best In Show. All four teams had produced some fantastic applications and we were incredibly chuffed when two of them were chosen to go through to the finals: World Wide Health for Code A Better Country, and Way To Go for Best In Show.
For the finals, the presentations took place in an enormous nightclub in front of an audience of 500 people, plus parents and mentors back home who were watching live on the YRS website. We were sick with nerves on behalf of our young folks, but there was nothing to be worried about: both teams absolutely smashed it, and looked like they were loving every minute of being up on the stage.
The judging panel was made up of 5 distinguished programmers, designers and entrepreneurs: Lily Cole (supermodel, actress and ethical campaigner); Conrad Wolfram (technologist and creator of WolframAlpha); Aral Balkan (Brightonian UX designer and developer); Jonathan Luff (advisor at No 10); and Thomas Grassl (Senior Director at SAP).
A live screening of Mo Farah's triumphant 5000m gold medal win heightened the anticipation as we waited with bated breath to hear the judges' decision.
We listened as the judges announced the winners of the Wish I'd Thought Of That and Best Example Of Coding categories (the brilliant Humap and Postcode Wars, before finding out that unfortunately World Wide Health had lost out to the very worthy Why Waste A Vote? project, and Way To Go to the deserving and slick SmartMove application.
But the evening wasn't over yet, as the judges announced a surprise 5th prize category, the Should Exist award, for a project that they wanted to honour alongside the four main winners. The prize was awarded by Jonathan Luff, an advisor at No 10 Downing Street, and our excitement rose by the minute as he gave the following introduction:
“The prize that I'm going to give to these guys, is that I'm going to introduce them to some guys who are already developing some fantastic apps because I think their product should be combined with some stuff that already exists, and should really be put into production. So, the guys who made Way To Go: great job!”
There were high fives all round as the team went onstage to accept their award, and as sad as we were that all of the fantastic entries in Young Rewired State this year couldn't all be winners it felt like the potential of all these young designers and coders was being honoured with this prize that treated the young people like grown-ups and acknowledged that they have an enormous contribution to make to the digital world.
Young Rewired State creates opportunities for young people that would not have existed before: it inspires confidence in their own abilities, in the eagerness of their peers to support them, and in the ability of adults to take them seriously and accept them into their communities. It provides an incubator for developing talent and empowering young folk, both in a technological sense but also in wider personal and social skills that will prove invaluable as they grow older. So when 13-year-old Jacob asked me if I will be doing this again next year, I said unequivocally: “Yes”.