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PyCon UK 2016

PyCon UK 2016 - A conference, cat-flaps and education

Wow, what an amazing conference! I've been to countless conferences over the years and none has been anywhere near as enjoyable as PyCon UK 2016. It stands out for a number of reasons that other conferences could learn from. Not only was it fun, but it was tremendously useful and, in all honesty, inspirational. There was definitely an overwhelming vibe of friendliness throughout the weekend; people were eager to chat and share ideas, opening up thoughts of collaborations and unexpected 'have you thought about?' opportunities. Here’s a summary of what went on.

Python Cat Flaps

My talk, "Python Cat Flaps", gave a light hearted introduction to creating Internet of Things (IoT) gadgets with Python and showcased The Things Network, which is bringing low cost, low power, community-owned networks for data gathering and remote control.

The Things Network is a project close to my heart at the moment (I'm in the process of getting Things Network Oldham up and running), so it was especially gratifying to discover that, by the time I got home on Saturday, one of my audience had already set up the Things Network Cardiff, as a direct result of my talk!

Fancy a PyCon talks binge?

Attendees at Pycon UK 2016 were definitely spoilt for choice when it came to the talks on offer. Happily, the generous volunteer organisers have now made all of the sessions available online, so you can catch up on any that you missed. My personal recommendations would definitely include:

The last one struck a chord with me personally, as it brought back memories of similar issues (and solutions) faced when creating and deploying the CodeBug website.

PyCon UK & Education

Computing education was a hot topic at this year's PyCon UK and one key theme was how people (both learners and teachers) need encouragement and need to see progress. This concept is something we're familiar with at OpenLX SP Ltd, as it was the inspiration behind our CodeBug device (for teaching coding to beginners) and our other education resources. Just like Python, it’s easy for beginners to see positive results from their initial effort.

Regarding how to shape the future we want to see through PyCon UK and the Python community, Nicholas Tollervey summed up the challenge well last year:

"Asking what sort of education and learning our community supports is how we decide what sort of community we become. For it is through education and learning that we engage with our future colleagues, friends and supporters."

So what sort of community do we want to become and what are the key things that we need to do achieve it?

  • Firstly, if we want to encourage and inspire the developers of the future, we need to see more developers collaborating with teachers and learning from each other's strengths. Working with the youngsters, witnessing their progress and seeing their potential, should encourage developers to get more involved in education and truly make a difference to individuals and the community as a whole.
  • We need to remove barriers to delivering quality education. Broadly, this means creating two environments: (1) An unintimidating, safe space for teachers to acquire the knowledge and skills needed to deliver computing lessons with confidence; and (2) a suitably planned and equipped classroom to allow those lessons to take place free from the frustrations of poor timetabling, unresponsive technology or restrictive IT policies.

Workshop with teachers at Pycon UK 2016

As one of the volunteers helping the Raspberry Pi education team at the conference, I was reminded how rewarding education is; seeing youngsters start the day having never coded and ending it going on stage showing what they've made, what they'd learned to code themselves and buzzing with more things they wanted to make. It almost made me miss teaching Computer Science to undergrads at the University of Manchester!

Education is the key to creating the snowball effect the community is looking for. Better education of teachers leads to better education of learners, which creates more developers and new ideas… which all creates a bigger and higher performing community. Win-wins all round.

For more thoughts on PyCon UK, why not check out Laura Sach’s "Code? Boom!" Blog?

Nightclubs and good night’s sleep don't mix

The only fly in the ointment all weekend was a poor choice of hotel on my part. Unbeknown to me, Travelodge Cardiff Queen Street is sadly situated opposite one of the city's most popular (and noisiest) clubs… with a 4am licence (even on a Wednesday) and virtually no sound insulation. Following complaints, Travelodge's website now states "some external noise can be heard", but that doesn't really do full justice to the pounding bass that made its way through 5 layers of glazing and earplugs into my head. Not exactly the best preparation for my talk at midday on Thursday!

The future's bright

PyCon actively works to be inclusive. And this is absolutely genuine. Practical matters like a creche, a code of conduct and a varied program of talks ranging from teaching computing in education, to neurodiversity looking into autism and the human mind to how companies can deploy Python. While PyCon UK does already provide bursaries for teachers to cover the cost to attend, perhaps these could be extended for those able to demonstrate that they had financial challenges?, PyCon UK apparently distributed £4000 to help those with financial challenges attend the conference. Obviously I missed it (maybe because I wasn't looking to find it), but that's really good news.

All in all, PyCon UK was a fantastic experience and one I wouldn't hesitate to recommend to anyone in the Python community. Many thanks to the organisers for inviting me to speak at the conference and for all the work that goes on behind the scenes. I'm already looking forward to attending future PyCon events. When's PyCon Europe again?

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Ideal Father's Day gifts for your gadget-mad Dad!

Have you decided what you're getting your Dad this Father's Day (Sunday, 19th June in UK, Ireland, US and many other countries)? If you'd like to find a memorable alternative to socks, then you've come to the right place.

Here at OpenLX, we're passionate about quality and simplicity by design and we have a range of fun and easy-to-use devices, which make ideal and inexpensive gifts for gadget-loving Dads this Father's Day. From CodeBug, which is aimed at beginners, to PiFace add-ons for Raspberry Pi, which allow makers to take their creativity further, there's something for every tech-loving Dad.

CodeBug

CodeBug is perfect for gadget-mad Dads who like to tinker with new devices or those who have always wanted to learn to code, but never found the time. A small, programmable and wearable device retailing for just £15, CodeBug is aimed at complete beginners and is so easy to use that anyone can complete their first program in just a few minutes. It's not just for beginners, though, as CodeBug can also be used as the “brain” in more complex computing projects.

You can also personalise your CodeBug gift with ease. Simply follow the tutorial on the CodeBug website to create a basic program with your own scrolling message for your Dad. Download the program to your Dad's CodeBug and it will appear the next time the CodeBug is powered up.

PiFace add-ons for Raspberry Pi

Is your Dad a Raspberry Pi enthusiast? Or does he have a Raspberry Pi languishing in a drawer, because he has run out of ideas on where to take it next? Fear not! The PiFace range makes creating with Raspberry Pi as easy as pie!

Are you spoilt for choice thanks to the many PiFace boards available? If so, we recommend PiFace Control and Display 2, as it will allow your Dad to work easily with inputs and outputs and connect things like motors, switches and lights and it is therefore perfect for a wide variety of fun and interesting projects.

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Business Rocks & Raspberry Jams

I am very much a man of many hats: CEO, designer, maker, researcher, trainer…etc. The last two days, however, have revolved around my role as one of the volunteer co-organisers of the Manchester Raspberry Jams.

If you're not familiar with Raspberry Jams (except of the edible variety), they are community groups set up to help users get the most out of the Raspberry Pi – a low-cost, credit-card sized computer. Although small, it's very versatile and Jam members (who range in age from 7 to 70-odd) can build a seemingly endless variety of projects, e.g. using the Pi as the “brain” of a robot that can drive itself.

Over the last two days at Manchester Central, we've been showcasing the latest inventions by Manchester Jam members at Business Rocks: “The global stage for tech innovation”, with headline speaker Steve Wozniak (co-founder of Apple Inc.). The event provided ample opportunity to impress and entertain influential people from key industries with Jam members' creations and prove that digital innovation is alive and well in Manchester.

Highlights on show included racing robots and yet another of my hats: the CodeBug RPi3 Pano Hat, which takes 360° panoramic pictures in an instant using 8 Raspberry Pi3, 8 Pi cameras and, of course, our very own CodeBug.

PanoHat at BR

It's always great fun to be part of the Jams and help people bring their ideas to life. At Manchester Jam, we are committed to helping people get involved in digital innovation — whether experienced makers or complete beginners. As President Obama recently said:

In the new economy, computer science isn’t an optional skill — it’s a basic skill, right along with the three ‘Rs’.

As learning to code becomes increasingly important in our increasingly digital world, the Jams can provide both a useful hobby and a fantastic learning environment for both young and old — and they're open to anyone.

If you'd like to get involved, why not sign up for the next Manchester Jam session at “The Shed” at Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) on Saturday, 11th June. Or find a Raspberry Jam near you here.

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If I'd known then...

Many people ask what advice do I wish I'd been given before I started OpenLX and while transient flashbacks of working well past midnight elicit an overwhelming urge to respond “Don't do it!” overall starting a business is amazingly rewarding. Joking aside, there are always things that you wish you'd known earlier, done earlier...or avoided altogether.

Probably the best piece of advice that I can pass on, though, is: Focus on what you're good at. This is why you started the business in the first place; because you're good at copywriting, because you're creative, because you can design new products, etc. Try not to waste too much of your time on the day-to-day running of the business (once you've got things up and running); your time is more valuable elsewhere. Get something in place to deal with it.

So work out what value your skills bring to the business and consider outsourcing anything that you can pay someone else to do for less. You are what makes your start-up unique; you need to exploit that power and skill-set as much as possible to make your business a success.

One of my other favourite tips – and one that it's always useful to remind yourself of, however long you've been in business – is: Never think that you know it all. Even when you've been running a business for years, there are always new things to learn (and old things to remember!).

It's easy to feel quite alone when you're starting out; as if it's you against the world. But it doesn't have to be like that. There are lots of courses and support networks out there to encourage people to set up their own businesses, as well as excellent (UK) national and local government resources to keep things as easy as possible.

This is probably the best place to start: https://www.gov.uk/starting-up-a-business/start-with-an-idea. In particular, check out your local support options, e.g. your nearest Growth Hub in England, as well as what is offered by your local council. Plus look for funding opportunities, especially grants to get you started.

I don't pretend that I've got it all sussed; I still find myself running round doing admin and buying loo roll (though we've now got a spreadsheet that proves it's cheaper at Tesco than via Amazon!), but I like to think I'm getting closer to spending more of my time on my key activities of designing and testing new products, consultancy and training...which just has to be more rewarding than doing the shopping!

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CodeBug Wearables Competition: Rooting for STEM

Wearables are becoming increasingly popular at the moment with the rise of smart watches and fitness bands. Although perhaps a slightly strange concept when you first hear it, a “wearable” is exactly what it sounds like; a piece of tech that you can wear, e.g. a badge, bracelet or even clothing. So it felt rather well-timed that yesterday I had the very great pleasure of judging the element14 CodeBug Wearable Technology Schools Competition (not the catchiest of titles, perhaps, but at least it's descriptive) at Leeds Beckett University.

Back in December, we delivered a CodeBug workshop for the teachers from the ten participating schools – empowering the teachers to empower and support their pupils. Each of the schools were then given a design kit, which included CodeBug and various other bits and pieces, and their Year 7-9 pupils were challenged to create an original wearable tech device. And they certainly rose to the challenge!

STEM subjects are often written off as being 'boring' or 'too difficult' once pupils get to secondary school, but I think that's because they become disconnected from real world relevance. There was no doubt that the youngsters had excitement and passion for STEM from the astonishing array of fantastic ideas on show, ranging from a 'winter warmer' coat with heated back and pockets, to a glove that keeps firefighters safe by warning of temperature or harmful gases.

With so many excellent projects being showcased, it was a pleasantly tough job to decide on the overall winner. In the end, the Judges' Choice award went to Netherwood ALC with their light-up t-shirt to encourage children aged 4-8 years to be more active. Taking inspiration from dance mat games, pupils mounted lights and buttons to the arms and legs of clothes and created a program that randomly turned the lights on and kept score of when the corresponding button was pressed in time.

Seeing CodeBug helping to inspire these pupils to be so creative with technology was really simply fantastic. There was such a buzz in the room and the pride in the pupils' faces was clear to see; they had designed something, made it and it worked! The absolute icing on the cake, though, was hearing several pupils stating that the CodeBug competition had inspired them to study STEM subjects, further. My work here, though far from done, is certainly starting to bear rich fruit.

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