Last week I got into conversation with Sue Black and others about kids and programming, which prompted me to expand on my observations here…

My experience has been that with a combination of enthusiasm and encouragement from me, and opportunity (in the shape of the excellent kid-friendly Scratch from MIT) my six year old son has got to grips with some of the basics of programming and has had loads of fun making my laptop do crazy things.

Unfortunately, when I’ve visited his school and seen the way ‘ICT’ (how I hate that term) is approached, I haven’t come away feeling that there is either the enthusiasm or the opportunity for kids to get their hands dirty on some code. I watched a class of bored children clicking on stuff with no real direction, supervised by an equally bored teaching assistant whose main role was as guardian of the usernames and password printout. By the end of the lesson there were still children who hadn’t actually logged on.

I should say at this point I’m not singling out the school or the teachers for criticism. Somehow, as a nation, we have allowed computing in schools to morph into something to be held at arms length, relegated to the ‘ICT suite’, where our kids are taught to click on the right buttons to churn out Powerpoint presentations. For a country about to celebrate the centenary  of the birth of the ‘father of computing‘, this is a sad state of affairs.

So what? Why should we care?

We should care because we have a choice about how we deal with technology… Douglas Rushkoff makes the case very eloquently in his book ‘Program or be Programmed‘, but it boils down to…

“Do we direct technology, or do we let ourselves be directed by it and those who have mastered it?”

We should care about how computing is approached in our schools because if we don’t do something, many of our children will not be equipped to make that choice.

As I see it, at the moment, we are teaching our kids to ‘be directed’… to blindly press the right buttons. I want to see our kids being given the opportunity to create the buttons themselves. Of course, not everyone will want to become a button maker, but we must give them the choice.

And the solution is….?

I don’t how we are going to make this happen, but I suspect that whatever the solution is it we will need to address at least these two questions…

  • How do we dramatically increase the level of enthusiasm for coding that kids see around them?
  • How do we create more opportunities for kids to play with programming?

In the communities I am part of I see lots of enthusiasm and lots of opportunity, maybe the solution lies in working out how to bring that to our children and our schools.

I’m hoping that we find the answers to these questions and that in 2012, one hundred years after Alan Turing was born, we can take action to change things. That’s a change I want to be part of.

,

a little beer festival app

Last year I made a little web app which listed the beers available at Reading Beer Festival in a phone friendly way. It worked well and was an easy way of navigating the 500 or so beers on offer.

This year I have done the same. Point your phone (or any other browser for that matter) at http://jimanning.com/rdgbeerfest, bookmark it and you’ll be all set.

If you are going… I hope you have a great time… and I hope that this little App helps you discover some new beers. (and apologies if you are a cider drinker… there are around 200 ciders on offer, but I haven’t had time to build them in as well)

Here’s the technical bit (for those who care). It’s not very sophisticated, but it’s functional and was pretty quick to knock up. I scraped the beer info from the official site using YQL. Then I used a simple bit of array munging in PHP to output a couple of static html files pivoted around breweries and strengths, then wrapped the whole thing in iUI to give it a simple iPhone-like interface.

On the 5th May we have a once in a lifetime opportunity. We can vote Yes to change the way we elect our members of parliament, or we can vote No to keep our current ‘first past the post’ system.

I will be voting Yes.

The method we use for choosing the people who represent us in parliament isn’t a bad one… but it was designed for a different world from the one we live in today. A century ago, when the majority of people were only offered a choice between two parties, first past the post made perfect sense. There was one winner with more than half the votes… and one loser with fewer than half the votes.

In 2011, we have more choice. Unfortunately, our current voting system means that there are many MP’s sat in the House of Commons who have the support of less than 35% of the people they claim to represent. If you were starting from scratch, would you design an electoral system that way? Of course you wouldn’t.

Next week we can vote Yes and upgrade to a more modern system – the Alternative Vote. Whilst the No campaign will tell you that its fiendishly complicated… it’s not.

To become an MP under AV, you need to get over 50% of the votes. You can’t take up your seat without the support of the majority of your constituents. Of course for some politicians, especially the 35% ones, this is very inconvenient. They will have to work much harder to keep their seats. (violins anyone?)

The process is simple. Instead of scrawling a single X against a candidate at the next general election, we will be able to rank the candidates in order – 1 in the box next to our first choice, 2 against the second and so on. You can vote for as many, or as few choices as you want.

The votes get counted and if a candidate gets more than 50% of the first choices then they have won.

If no-one has a majority the least popular candidate gets eliminated (X factor style) and there’s another vote… Luckily we don’t have to do the whole turning up at the ballot box thing again because we were smart enough to put our preferences in order. So if your first choice isn’t in the race anymore then you’ve already told the counters who you would vote for in the next round. If your first choice is still in the race then your vote counts for them again in the next round.

Its then rinse and repeat until someone gets 50% and they win.

OK… it is slightly more complicated than first past the post…. but it’s no more complicated than the X factor.

Under our current system, you win by being just a little bit less crap than the others. I don’t think thats good enough. By voting Yes we get a modern system which favours politicians who can prove they will represent a majority of their constituents – not just the minority who voted for them under a system designed for a long-gone age.

I said at the beginning of this post that it’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance. Referendums are rare – the last one was in 1975. First past the post is already past its sell-by date. If the polls are right and a majority of people vote No next week then we will be stuck with it for at least another generation. Please don’t let that happen.

 

Tonight is World Book Night. One million books are being given away by 20,000 people in the UK. I’m lucky enough to be one of them.

The World Book Night Editions of The Spy Who Came In From The Cold

The book I’m giving away is John le Carre’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. I first read it when I was around 15 or so. Since then, I’ve read pretty much everything le Carre has written, but The Spy Who Came in From the Cold remains one of my favourite books of all time.

This is how it works… On Thursday I picked up 48 copies from my nearest independent bookshop (WordPlay in Caversham – if you are local then do support them they are fab). I’ve already given a few away to people I saw at TVSMC this week and to other friends. The rest of the books will go to whoever wants them…

If you want a copy (and you are local to Reading) then I would be delighted to let you have one. Let me know via twitter (@JimAnning) or by mail (jim dot anning at mac dot com) and I’ll find a way of getting your copy to you. The only catch is that after you have read it, then I’d like you to give it away yourself to whoever you think would like it.

Its a fantastic book… it may start slowly, but once you get inside it you’ll be hooked. The moment in the book when it becomes clear to the main character that the mission he has been sent on is not quite what he thought it was is classic.

I’ll be taking all of my remaining copies to Reading Geek Night on Tuesday 8th March, so if you are planning on being there, expect to have a copy thrust in your direction.

Last week I saw this in my tweet stream from Janet Davis

I want a virtual analogue Lloyd countdown timer

I’ve read lots of good stuff about UK GovCamp (#ukgc11) and a number of people had remarked on the brilliant job Lloyd Davis did in facilitating introductions and keeping sponsors to time.

Finding myself at tuttle on Friday, I took the opportunity to take some video of Lloyd recreating his much-mentioned ‘analogue timer’ with the aim of throwing together a virtual version as per Janet’s request.

Clearly, it can never replace the live in-the-flesh experience, but for those of you who are unable to secure Lloyd’s timing services for your event…

Here’s a link to the virtual Lloyd. You can instruct him to count for any length of time you need. He can be started and (maybe more importantly) stopped at will :)

A while back, Wikileaks published Military logs from the conflict in Iraq covering the period between 2004 and 2009. The Guardian then published a cleaned-up dataset which categorises every death recorded in the logs, along with a date, time and location.

I’m interested in how we can build things that help us ‘play’ with data – to get a deeper understanding of the patterns (or lack of patterns) within – to let us ‘see’ how things change over time or geography etc. So this dataset seemed like a good starting point for building something…

Note – Theres a lot of data, so it may take some time to load… apparently patience is a virtue anyway. Oh… and it’s not going to work if you’re on certain mobile devices. (and I’m told it misbehaves in some versions of ubuntu – sorry)

The visualisation runs forward in time, plotting each death on a map. Larger circles represent higher numbers of deaths in a single incident.

You can select which categories of info are displayed by clicking on the checkboxes on the right hand side. You can change how quickly the visualisation runs and change how long each dot stays on the screen by moving the sliders on the left.

It’s my first stab at doing something like this, so all feedback much appreciated.

If you want to have a play with the application, it’s written in Processing and here’s the source code. The dataset I used was a cleaned up version of the original wikileaks logs which was published by The Guardian.

Yesterday the Greater Manchester Police tweeted every call they received for 24 hours. Heres a word cloud I generated (using a script to ‘harvest’ the info from twitter yesterday and wordle.net to make the cloud)

Greater Manchester Police Calls

Greater Manchester Police Calls

The cloud just contains words used in the official police tweets (ignoring re-tweets etc) on the #gmp24 hashtag between about 9.30am and 11.30pm last night.

Looks like men feature more than women, and Salford generates more interest than Trafford….

A week or so ago, I accidentally found that my Local Council (Reading) have a web page displaying live information (every 5 mins) on how full each of the town centre car parks is. Its a few clicks into the site and presented as a table and a basic map. You can see it here.

Whilst I think its great that someone has done all of the hard work to collect the data and get it up onto the site, it didn’t feel like it was particularly useful in the format its in. Above all its not particularly mobile friendly… which is kind-of what you’re likely to be using at the point when you want to know whether the carpark you are heading for is full or not.

So as an exercise in ‘how easy would it be to do something with the data’, I built this… Its a live view of how full each of the six main car parks in Reading is right now. (Note: For some reason it doesn’t work in Internet Explorer – sorry – although fine in Firefox, Safari, Chrome etc)

UPDATE: 9th Sept 2010 – The councils website is currently saying that its carpark web service is unavailable… So the map below doesnt work at the moment Update: 24th Sept 2010 – Appears to be up and running again :)

… It shows a google map, uses Yahoo Query Language to scrape the information off the councils web site, converts the info to a ‘percentage full’ figure, then pops markers on the map which are coloured green, yellow, or red depending on how full the carpark is.

Its not particularly polished – and there are loads of ways it could be improved, but for a quick hack, its not a bad start.

If you want to use it yourself (without having to link to this blog post) then you can get it here http://jimanning.com/rdgcarparks

Having hacked this together it set me thinking along the lines of…

  • It took around 2 hours to make this
  • I’m not a fantastic coder & it was the first time I had used the google maps API & Yahoo Query Language
  • based on the above, one days work, from someone who knew what they were doing, would be all it would take to make this a super useful thing.
  • If Reading council made the data available in a more ‘consumable’ way then it would be even easier to build stuff like this.

So the thought I’m left with is… what’s stopping Reading Council from turning all the data they have into formats that are more easily accessible and therefore more useful to the people who live here?

Eric Joyce MP is organising an All Party Group to campaign against the Digital Economy Act.  The Act was rushed through parliament before the Election and badly needs repealing / changing / reforming.

The more MP’s who join the group, the better chance it has to make a real difference. Please consider taking 5 minutes to write to your MP and urge them to join the group. Here’s my letter to Rob Wilson (Reading East).

Dear Rob Wilson,

In your letter to me of 12th April regarding the Digital Economy Bill (as was) you said…

“My party has pledged, that if we are elected to Government on May 6th this year, we will revisit the Bill an look at alternative options…..”

I understand Eric Joyce is organising an all party group to campaign to change this flawed legislation and that the first meeting of this group will be on the 25th May. I would urge you to email Eric (joycee@parliament.uk) with your intention to join the All Party Group on the Digital Economy. If you feel unable to join this group I would be very interested to understand your reasoning given the strength of feeling in your constituency regarding the Digital Economy Act.

Yours sincerely,

Jim Anning

Slaps wrist. Must start blogging again. Must start blogging again.