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Milverton Wallace Organizes Hackathons in Great Britain (Video) 11

Posted by timothy
from the hacka-hacka-wacka-wacka-all-the-live-long-day dept.
Milverton Wallace (@milvy on Twitter) might seem an unlikely candidate to be setting up hackathons in the UK; his background is as a journalist, and he was born a few thousand miles away in Jamaica. Nonetheless, when I met up with him at last month’s AppsWorld in London, he was about to conduct another in a series of hackathons at Google’s London campus. He’s got some interesting things to say about the mechanics and reasons for putting a bunch of programmers (and/or kids who aren’t yet programmers per se) into a room, and giving them a good environment for creativity. He has some harsh words for the UK school system’s approach to computer education (which sounds an awful lot like the U.S. approach in far too many schools), and praise for efforts (like the Raspberry Pi Foundation) to bring programming to British classrooms, both earlier and with more depth. The same ideas should apply world-wide.

Tim: So Milverton, we’re here at Apps World, and we’re sitting actually in a room where there’s an ongoing hackathon here, and you don’t have anything to do with organizing this hackathon, but...

Milverton Wallace: No. Alas.

Tim: But tell me what is it that you do when it comes to hackathons here in the UK?

Milverton Wallace: Well, at least four times a year and sometimes six times a year, we organize hackathons in London. Most of them are at the Google Campus in Old Street in East London. And they tend to be two-day affairs, Saturday and Sunday, it’s just like a marathon.

Tim: Your hackathons are actually focused on specific areas. Can you talk about why that is?

Milverton Wallace: Well, we find that bringing up a general purpose hackathon, people will come they’ll build all kinds of stuff, they bring stuff which are done before and finish it there and it is unfocused, I mean it’s not constructive to my point of view. So rather to have a hackathon where there is a focused theme, and people know when they come they’ve got themes along which they should build stuff, we provide them with a lot of technical help, we provide them APIs, data sets which we’ve selected carefully over the preceding months to help them in building something good.

Tim: What are some examples of – what sort of kernels do your hackathons actually focus around?

Milverton Wallace: This particular one is based on building tools for teaching and learning in the classroom. We want to build some tools, some visualization tools, some apps to help teachers make learning fun for the kids in the classroom. So the kids can take part and interact and as I said, make learning altogether much more fun.

Tim: It seems like education is a big motivator for you in organizing these. Talk about what is it that draws you to organize hackathons?

Milverton Wallace: I’m a journalist by profession and I’ve taught for 10 years at the Department of Journalism at City University which is the leading journalism school here. And I’ve seen young kids come to my class year-after-year-after-year excited about technology. And they go into working for some of the big newspaper offices and so on and find themselves not able to apply the technology. So it’s a frustration there. For me personally, I watched my son who was very keen on computing when he was like 10, or 11, and how that enthusiasm basically got beaten out of him because simply the school didn’t provide an outlet for him to learn to code and to use computers every day. And so he is no different from so many children today who simply haven’t got the opportunity to build stuff for themselves. And so what is going on in the country over the last 30 years is to teach kids how to make spreadsheets and use Microsoft Word, but not how to build things for themselves. When I’m saying that we need to let’s teach them how to build things and that’s what my emphasis is on – coding for children, and my emphasis in my hackathon is on building stuff to aid education.

Tim: How often do your hackathons take place?

Milverton Wallace: At least four a year, sometimes six.

Tim: You’re here in London at the Google Campus, are there a lot of hackathons that take place that you are aware of around UK as well world that you’re not

Milverton Wallace: Well, no I’ll tell you at any given weekend just around one square mile of the so-called Tech City which is where all the tech companies are in East London, there will be half a dozen hackathons going on there. All of a sudden hackathons have become very popular, they’re like flavor of the month, but they weren’t always so because in this country the really first really big serious hackathon were done by the BBC in 2007 in North London, and it was just a most eye opening affair - it was humongous and fantastic. They teamed up with I think it was Yahoo to do that, and then they did one next year. Then for some internal reasons at the BBC there was no more. It stopped, which left a big vacuum. And so I decided after I came back from the States where I was knocking around for a while, that we should revive the hackathon. That there is a beautiful _____4:30 for building new things more so for creating a buzz around technology. And that’s why I started hackathons three years ago and they’ve been going okay, since then. I should get an OBE I think from the Queen or something for reviving the hackathon.

Tim: Yeah, a lot of our readers and viewers are American and I think they have probably as little understanding as I did about what the computer education is like over here in the UK. Can you talk about a little bit what opportunities do kids have to learn about computers here?

Milverton Wallace: Well, it depends on the school you go to, as I explained to you earlier. If you go to private school then there’s no problem they’ve got the facilities, they’ve got resources, they’ve got teachers to teach kids programming from a very early age. If you’re in the public schools, which means in government school really there is almost no teaching of coding in those schools at all. They have what you call, information and communication technology, ICT, which basically teaches kids how to use Microsoft Word and Excel spreadsheet and that’s it. I personally , I’ve being campaigning against that for a long time my argument being that really all you are doing is teaching the kids how to consume, we want to teach them how to produce. Why shouldn’t they make the game for themselves rather than going and buying it off the shelf that somebody else has coded? Because behind all of those games it’s coding, - there is no mystery to it. So we want to demystify that anybody can code, and anybody can make games. And that is our mission really

Tim: It seems important for people to be exposed at a young age.

Milverton Wallace: Absolutely, Absolutely. Most coders here in the country in this room as I mentioned to you earlier will have learned code at university which means they would be least 18 before they start coding on the computer science or software engineering courses- that’s too old. They really need to know the code just like learning a new language: Spanish, French, German - it’s better when you’re six or seven, so the coding as a language whatever it is, it’s much better when you are much younger. Well, that’s my argument and I think really it is self-demonstrative too.

Tim: It seems like there is change on the way right now, you’ve got

Milverton Wallace: There is indeed. In 2011 I think it was February the Royal Society published a devastating report on the teaching of computing in the schools and they said really ICT has failed and the government should ditch it. To their credit the government reacted very quickly. I mean, within two days of the Royal Society report, the secretary of the state for education came out with a very good statement, it was very pleasing to hear: Yes we recognize that, we’ve been deficient and from 2014 we will start teaching and we’re going to put it inside the curriculum which is the critical thing. And I must say to his credit he did. Finally, last three months ago when they draft curriculum was published, coding for seven year olds was part of that. So we’re pleased with that. Our view now is that it’s a good start where we take, lead that generation for you to retool to be able to teach kids computing at school, you go train the teachers, you get the right equipment and so on. Because I were to take a job in teaching staffing teaching Android or PHP that’s not her job. So it’s going to be a long time. So my feeling is that in the meantime people who are in the tech community we have to dig in to do our part. After all who knows about coding than developers? And look around, they’re here. They’re already trained. So the hackathon is a good way we could _____8:30 but also we’ve launched a coding for kids class on Saturday morning where guys like these will come and volunteer as tutors and start teaching the kids how to program, and they start from 8 to 14 years old, that is what we do.

Tim: How about things like the Raspberry Piit has also brought a lot of interest?

Milverton Wallace: Oh, I think the Raspberry Pi is already having a tremendous effect on children. Because it’s simple it is cheap and any kid can go and buy and you need very little background knowledge to begin to use it. And I suspect it’s probably going to have the same effect or even greater effect than say the BBC Micro had, because you know, most veteran coders in the country learnt to code on the BBC Micro or the Atari or the Sinclair Spectrum it is going to have the same impact. I think there’s going to be a whole generation programmers and top notch coders because of the Raspberry Pi.

Tim: Do your hackathons concentrate on any particular languages or

Milverton Wallace: No, it’s totally agnostic, you can come and do what you please and as a matter of fact, over the last year we’ve been trying to say that you don’t even have to code, you have to have a vision of what you want to do. You maybe a designer come and come and talk to guys of coding, between designing and coding you can work something out. And you learn in that process what to do. So we for example, I encourage some people to use templates like AppMachine, around the corner, or Ripple which is another software based on dragging and dropping elements to build an app, so you go my mother can make an app okay, we won’t give her any prizes but she could can make an app, using templates which is great because it gives people a feel of what is required for you to do something that communicates to user. So we have to do that.

Tim: What’s the most important thing you’ve learned in running hackathons over the years?

Milverton Wallace: Sure, the most important things I learned, is we need to invest more money in computer education. That is the basic idea. There is some very smart kids come to my hackathons they are second year computer science students and they’re very smart, but they are the privileged ones, we need to find a way of embracing more children, right in the community where they live and that’s one of the reasons why my coding for kids club will take place in local libraries. Because the library in this country is a kind of _____11:01; it’s like a community center for children and parents in the local area. And so that’s where we start the thing in the local library to get them to come walk in off the street, anybody whoever you are and we teach you the code no problem.

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Milverton Wallace Organizes Hackathons in Great Britain (Video)

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  • We don't have classes for every subject known to us, why should programming be an exception? I only have a tiny idea about how my car works, how electricity is brought to my home, etc. What's next? Classes on CNC machining, CNC lasercutting and 3D printing? Why not classes about XML, HTML, CSS, Javascript and Photoshop while we're at it?
    • What is the use of complaining about the failure of the school system if we, as parents, don't even bother to teach our own children in the first place ?

      The fault of parents nowadays is that we OUTSOURCE the task of teaching our own children to schools.

      If we are to become parents, it's our primary responsibility to ensure that our children know how to learn, and how to enjoy the process of learning.

      Too many times I see parents throwing their children to school and then wipe their hands off as though it

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