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Posts Tagged ‘Technology’

Creating the Next Generation of Coders

Friday, January 27th, 2017

Coded on a BBC Micro and released in 1984, space trading simulator “Elite” went on to sell over a million copies and influences the genre to this day.

If you went to school in the 1980s you’ll almost certainly have run into the BBC Micro at some point. Launched in 1982 and designed with an emphasis on education, this unassuming grey box became the gateway for an entire generation of young people to learn about coding, computing and software development. British technology luminaries such as David Braben (who used the BBC Micro to develop “Elite”, one of the most influential and best-selling video games of all time) and David Darling (founder of Warwickshire-based games development company Codemasters) owe their careers to a decision 30 years ago to not just teach young people how to use new technologies, but to provide the resources for them to apply their own creativity as well.

Fast forward to 2017, and we have access to technology whose power and scope is beyond anything that could have been imagined by those 1980s schoolchildren. Now more than ever, it is important to make sure our children have a solid understanding in how these technologies work. We don’t expect them to all become technology and computer entrepreneurs, but we don’t expect everyone who learns English to become a writer or everyone who learns Maths to become a mathematician either. We teach reading, writing and maths because they are essential to understanding the world in which we live. If it isn’t already, knowing how technology works will soon be as important to get on in life as those other basic skills.

With that in mind, the BBC has updated the venerable old Micro for the 21st century. The BBC Micro Bit, inspired by similar devices such as Raspberry Pi, is a far smaller (about half the size of a credit card) but also far more powerful device than its predecessor. Simple programming tasks, like setting its LEDs to light up in a certain pattern, can be done using just the Micro Bit itself. However, it can also be connected up via Bluetooth or USB to other Micro Bits or electronic devices to create and use more complicated programs. The dedicated www.microbit.org website also contains enough software and tools so that the Micro Bit’s possibilities are limited only by the imagination of its user.

The Micro Bit has already made its way to our country’s schools, but here in Tameside we want to go above and beyond in the name of teaching our children about technology. Our commitment was enshrined at the start of last year in our “Every Child a Coder” 16 for 2016 Pledge, and after the success of our Tameside Hack in the summer we’re in the process of finalising our plans to hold a second Hackathon over the February half-term. We’re also putting on free starter sessions for young people in Years 6, 7 and 8 at Hyde Library to help them find their way around the BBC Micro Bit and program some great projects. The first session took place this Monday, but spaces are still available at the time of writing for the second session on the 30th January. The event is completely free and you can book your place on the dedicated webpage here.

I’ve always had the view that education is not just a means to get a job and build a future, although those are undoubtedly important. It is a valuable thing in and of itself. Maybe one of the children at our Hackathon or Micro Bit sessions will go on to create the next great video game or computer program in 20 or so years, but I won’t consider our work a failure if that doesn’t happen. If we can open our young people’s minds to the possibilities and opportunities that technology can offer them to understand not just the world, but themselves, then that is an excellent return on investment in my book.

A Battle Won, But Much More To Do.

Wednesday, September 7th, 2016

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Last month I wrote in this blog about how Sports Direct was finally beginning to get found out over their draconian and exploitative work practices. To briefly recap, their litany of mistreatment included the use of insecure zero-hours contracts as the norm, a wholesale disregard for minimum wage legislation, shortcomings in basic health and safety and a disciplinary system that actively punished any attempts by employees to speak out about their working conditions. For these reasons, and many others, Sports Direct has earned a deserved reputation as the poster child for how some companies are seeking to turn the clock back centuries on worker’s rights in Britain.

That’s why this week’s victory is particularly significant. Following pressure from trade unions, politicians, the media and investors Sports Direct have agreed to offer their retail staff guaranteed hours, and pledged to review working conditions and practices at its warehouses. Shareholder groups are also putting their own pressure onto Sports Direct by voting against the re-election of the company’s chairman at their AGM today. This is absolutely something to be celebrated, but at the same time we need to acknowledge that it is not the end. Most of the company’s warehouse staff, who are employed by agencies and not by Sports Direct itself, will remain on zero-hours contracts. Action from one company also does nothing to improve the lot of workers who suffer exploitation and poor working conditions in other companies and agencies. This is a struggle that will go on a while yet.

There is also a bigger picture here as well. Like it or not, the 20th century model of a lifetime career in a 9-5 job is probably never coming back. 1 in 7 people in Britain are now self-employed, and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development tell us that since 1995, “non-standard” (temporary, part-time and self-employed) work has accounted for almost all of the UK’s net jobs growth. That doesn’t even begin to touch on more recent developments like the rise of new digital platforms such as Uber and Deliveroo (two companies who are also receiving deserved condemnation of their employment practices) and the increase in automation of all sectors of the economy. The modern workplace is more fragmented and precarious than it has ever been, and governments and trade unions have not yet caught up to the reality of it. If we don’t fill in the gaps with regulation, with oversight and with support then all we will achieve is giving unscrupulous companies more opportunities to exploit their workers and evade their obligations.

This might sound like a daunting task, but I know it can be done. It’s fashionable these days to be cynical about the possibility of fighting the inequalities in our society and economy, but if we don’t make an effort to shape the future then companies like Sports Direct and Deliveroo will be more than happy to do it for us. If this week has shown us anything it is that, no matter how bad things might look, a better and fairer Britain is absolutely possible if enough people work together to achieve it. Let’s face the challenge and make it happen.

Fight for Worker’s Rights in the 21st Century

Wednesday, August 17th, 2016

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For those who still believe that employers should offer a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work there were two pieces of good news this week. Down in London, workers for restaurant food delivery startup Deliveroo successfully protested against changes to the company’s payment policy that would lead to them being paid substantially less than the national minimum wage. At the same time, thousands of workers at Sports Direct are set to receive back pay totalling almost £1 million after the retailer, which is also facing an investigation by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, admitted that they had broken the law by not paying their employees the national minimum wage.

It should be noted that neither of these companies are struggling financially. In the three years since its creation in 2013 Deliveroo’s value has reached over £700 million, and Sports Direct remain a fixture on almost every UK high street, bringing in a profit of £241.4 million last year.

Both companies, in their own ways, show how businesses and employers who should know better are trying to find ways to get out of their obligations to the people who work for them. Deliveroo insists that the people who work for them are not employees but “independent contractors” working through a tech platform that they provide. As such, despite these “independent” employees being forced to work set shifts and wear a branded uniform, they do not receive the most basic of rights, including sick pay and holiday allowances. Workers for Deliveroo have also been made to sign contracts that prevent them from taking grievances to any kind of employment tribunal.

In the case of Sports Direct, Parliament found that their practice of staffing their warehouses with agency workers on insecure, zero-hour contracts led to a laundry list of exploitation, including routine breaches of health and safety regulations, financially penalising and summarily dismissing workers for breaking minor rules (including complaining about their treatment and conditions), and making workers wait, unpaid, for mandatory security checks at the end of shifts, which brought their average earnings below the minimum wage (£6.50 an hour against the then-minimum rate of £6.70 an hour).

It is my hope that these two events will send a very clear message: paying employees at least what they are legally entitled to is not an optional extra, and treating employees with dignity and respect is not a nice to have. While the overwhelming majority of businesses have never needed reminding of this fact, we must always remain vigilant against those that seek to push the boundaries of what is legal and decent in the pursuit of profit over all.

But there is also a bigger picture at stake here. A hundred years ago, the Industrial Revolution transformed our economy and society, generating enormous wealth and enormous hardship in equal measure. We didn’t respond by trying to turn back the clock, we responded with laws and regulations that kept the good, prevented the bad and reduced the inequalities between different levels of society. The march of technology is now changing the how we live and work inPorterlight-Bicycles-X-Deliveroo-Custom-London-Cargo-Bike-3-1024x575 a similar way to the Industrial Revolution, and the same principles must apply. As a country, we must embrace progress, but we cannot and should not allow it to be used to justify the stripping away of rights and benefits that workers fought for centuries to acquire. A future that does not carry everyone with it is no future at all.

Join the Tameside Hackathon

Wednesday, July 27th, 2016

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Are you aged between 13 and 18? Are you into coding and computers? Looking for something new and exciting to do in the school holidays? Then the first-ever Tameside Hackathon may be just the thing for you.

The concept is simple. As part of the Council’s “Every Child a Coder” Pledge for 2016 we are launching a free competition to test and challenge the digital skills and creativity of our young people. Teams of young hackers aged 13-18 will pick from a variety of challenges set by our sponsors and will then develop a digital product or solution over the two day event. These will be presented as the end of the Hackathon, with the winning team walking away with some great prizes.

For the young people who take part, it will be an opportunity to have fun, meet people with similar interests and develop the skills that will help them to success in the workplace of the digital future. Every one that takes part in the Tameside Hackathon will also get the opportunity to join a Greater Manchester-wide hack meet-up at the Sharp Project in Newton Heath, Manchester on 13th August.

The Tameside Hackathon takes place at the refurbished Aston Old Baths on Tuesday 9th to Wednesday 10th August, 10am-4pm. If you want to join us, either alone or as part of a team, you can register by going through to the Eventbrite page here. For those who need transport to and from the event, we may able to assist if you call us on 0161 342 5138.

While the focus of the Hackathon will be on meeting new people and learning new things, there’s always the possibility that it could lead to the creation of something with potential to succeed as a business idea. The mobile group messaging app GroupMe, which was coded in a day and a half at a hacking event in 2010 and sold to Skype for almost $80 million a year later, is one of many famous examples. So if you think you and your friends have what it takes to make the next GroupMe, or even the next Pokémon Go, then come to Ashton Old Baths in August and show us your stuff.

But we’re not just looking for young people to take part in the Tameside Hackathon. We’re looking for businesses to sponsor the event and provide mentors for the young people taking part. We already have Purple and Banter Media on board providing challenges and prizes for the Hackathon, and we’ve received support from other local and national organisations such as Active Tameside, O2, Bradley’s Bakery, Tameside Reporter and Care Together. If you want your name added to that list, you can find out what it involves and how to get in touch with us on our website here.

Good Luck and Happy Hacking.

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