Revolutionary Measures

The Year of Code – switch it off and on again

I’m a passionate believer in getting more people to learn to code. Like a lot of those my age I grew up with a ZX Spectrum and learned basic programming on a BBC Computer at school. Not only did it reap benefits then (my horse racing game was a triumph, albeit not a financial one), but it gave me an idea of how computers worked that removed any fear of them when I went into the workplace.

English: Sinclair 48K ZX Spectrum computer (19...

And, as my career in PR has progressed, more and more of what I do has a technical element to it – whether that is getting a WordPress site up and running or stitching together data from different tools to measure the impact of campaigns. Not understanding technology or being unable to use it would significantly impact my productivity and my overall job prospects.

When I look back, comparing my childhood to now, the world has changed dramatically. On the plus side we’re now in an era where geekiness is cool and entrepreneurs are celebrated for their ideas. But the opportunities we have to code have been lessened – rather than ZX Spectrums we have gaming consoles that cannot be programmed, except by studios with multi-million pound budgets. Yes, we have the iOS and Android ecosystems where anyone can create an app, but the majority of us are consumers, not programmers.

Clearly there’s a need for change, and initiatives such as the Raspberry Pi and the inclusion of coding in the National Curriculum from September are helping accelerate this. However the fiasco that is the government-backed Year of Code project is an unwelcome bump in the road to the future. For those that haven’t heard of it, the Year of Code is supposed to be an umbrella organisation to encourage everyone to learn to code in 2014.

Unfortunately so far it appears to be a PR-led initiative to muscle in on the work that is already being done. Backed by venture capitalists, and the TechCity community, its main claim to fame is the ill-fated appearance of its executive director Lottie Dexter on Newsnight, where she earned the ire of Jeremy Paxman by admitting that she didn’t actually know how to code. More importantly it appears to have alienated many people who have been working in the space for years by simply not recognising what has already been done.

And, judging by its website, apart from a promotional film (warning – contains footage of George Osborne) and a commitment to “banging the drum for all the fantastic coding initiatives taking place over the course of year and helping many more people engage with technology and access important training opportunities,” it isn’t actually going to do much that is concrete. Essentially it is PR spin on a serious subject, trying to take the lead in the same way as the government has decreed that TechCity is the only viable tech cluster in the UK. It is jumping on a bandwagon and trying to take the reins from those that know what they are doing.

Coding is essential to our competiveness and the future of our children – it is simply too important to be left to a slick marketing machine that is imposed from the top down. Time for the Year of Code to be switched off and then on again to remove the bugs from the system.

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February 19, 2014 Posted by | PR, Startup | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Creators versus consumers – the new digital divide

Internet Access Here Sign

The last ten years have seen massive progress in getting the UK population online, with over 86% of people now having been on the internet. There is still a digital divide however, with 4 million households without internet access according to the Office for National Statistics.

And, the ability for online access via mobile is extremely variable – as Liz Stevenson from Cambridgeshire County Council pointed out at the recent Cambridge Smart City debate, 41.5% of the county isn’t covered by a 3G signal. I dread to think what the figure is over the border in Suffolk, where I live in a village with sporadic 2G coverage. Efforts continue to help the offline into the online world, particularly by targeting specific groups such as the elderly and disabled and by providing more user friendly devices such as tablets.

However a new digital divide is emerging. As the Economist Intelligence Unit points out in a recent report, this is between those that understand and use the internet to its full potential and those that simply shop, watch or read the content that they find there. It is essentially a split between creators and consumers. You’ll always get power users in any technological change but the risk is that those who don’t take up the opportunities offered by the internet will become disenfranchised, pay more for basic goods and services and miss out on achieving their full potential.

And it doesn’t need to be that way – the internet offers the chance for everyone and anyone to create (no matter how niche or, let’s face it, downright awful) their efforts are. It also offers the tools to make compelling content either for free (for example WordPress, YouTube) or at a very low cost (with a handheld video camera for instance). Only by doing can you gain the full benefit of the internet. At a basic level imagine someone on Twitter that merely lurks, following people without starting any conversations themselves. They may find out what Stephen Fry is doing, but it doesn’t add much else to their own lives (or the lives of other people). People who treat the internet in the same way as TV, as a lean back, broadcast medium, are missing the point (and much of the fun.)

So how can we encourage more creators who understand the opportunities that the internet brings? A really simple way is to copy the behaviour of the young (though without the selfies on SnapChat). As digital natives they start with no preconceptions and no manual to read – they just get on and use the internet as a tool to do what they want to do. Not having a fear of failure, or an embarrassment gene, is going to lead to cringeworthy moments, but it will also mean you experience new things, learn new skills and create. Once you’ve mastered these skills you’ll understand what you can do – giving you better control of the medium and deepening your understanding of how organisations might be trying to channel and constrain your internet experience for their own ends (normally to sell you something).

Otherwise this new digital divide will solidify – splitting the digitally savvy from consumers and providing a two speed experience that will damage people’s enjoyment and potentially harm their prospects. Go create!

November 13, 2013 Posted by | Cambridge, Creative, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment