At the weekend, I helped mentor a group of tech-minded teenagers at the community-led event, “Young Rewired State“. Held at Google’s London HQ, this was a two-day, action-packed programme for 15-18 year olds to build something better with government data on the web. And the results were truly impressive.
Young people are sometimes written-off as being apathetic, or handed patronising websites and services to interact with. Here was their chance to show the kinds of services they really want and to demonstrate that, given access to the right kinds of data and a little support along the way, they are more than capable of building it themselves.
In just two days, they created a plethora of new web apps: a mobile service to give real-time info on London buses (“TFHell“), interactive maps with routes to school that avoid local crime hotspots (“SchoolRoutr” and “Step Safe”), sexual health advice (“Blab to Betty”), a service matching new tech talent with employers (“Will Work For Peanuts“) and many others.
The team I assisted were a politically minded trio. Ben, Joe and Richard came down from Manchester and built a website that grabs the latest bills passing through parliament and attempts to show the emotional response to these bills from blogs around the web. The results are shown graphically, using the Google Charts API. The result of this blogs / politics experiment is: “Blog-o-tics“.
Although they weren’t awarded a prize, Blog-o-tics was given a “special mention” by the panel of judges, who had come from government, the tech industry and beyond.
The field of “sentimental analysis” is growing and, although Blog-o-tics was just a quick proof-of-concept, it does hint at the possibilities. Craig Elder noted its similarities with the concept for YourOwnDemocracy.
Other mentors came from Last.fm, the BBC, Yahoo, Moo, My Society and small businesses around the country. I think we were all pretty much blown away by, not only the standard and focus of the work produced, but how entirely natural everyone seemed with the stack of technologies being used. Here is a generation of people who have grown up with computers, the ubiquitous Web and the programming languages used to harness it. Government could really benefit from their input.
The original Rewired State event, dubbed “National Hack the Government Day“, had been held at the Guardian‘s offices earlier this year. It was such a success that many of us who attended were invited to the Cabinet Office to explain just what the government should be doing with its web properties, and we were given suggestions on ways through what can sometimes seem like a maze of bureaucracies.
Since then, no less than Tim Berners-Lee (the inventor of the Web) has been invited by the prime minister to help open up government data, to help bring transparency and to simply help those who want to solve problems get access to the data they need. The young hackers from Rewired State are off to a fine start.