Major League Hacking Local Hack Day

18,000 stickers, 2,000 selfie-sticks and 8,000 slices of pizza hurtled across the planet last week to 14 different countries. It was a day that almost 4000 students had been eagerly awaiting.

Major League Hacking (MLH) have been organising hackathons in the USA and Europe for several years, but Saturday was an event with a difference. Local Hack Day was a 12-hour mini-hackathon on school campuses all over the world, and was billed as “the largest student hackathon ever”. The vast majority of the events were organised and run by the students; bringing together their local hacker community to develop, share and celebrate their skills in building awesome technology.

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Of the 87 venues that participated in Local Hack Day, 58 of them, in places as far apart as the US, Canada, UK, Puerto Rico, Bahia, Mexico and Limassol, were able to accept under 18s. This is a huge deal. For your average kid, attending hackathons is not easy. With the exception of tailored events such as YRS Festival of Code, most hackathon venues won’t allow under 18s to attend for child safety and safeguarding reasons. MLH have continuously strived to include the next generations of young hackers, and the Local Hack Day was an extraordinarily inclusive event, letting those children who identify with the hacker community to participate or even help organise the global event.

At the school where I used to teach, Bourne Grammar School, just such a young lad exists.

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To say James is a keen hacker would be an understatement. It’s not just that he enjoys technology and programming, probably more importantly, he recognises the importance of the hacker community and is eager to get involved. It was James who learned about Local Hack Day, and proposed that his school host an event, but that wasn’t enough; he wanted to be the one to organise it all. The head of Digital Strategy at the school, Stephen Brown, was more than happy for James to take centre stage and run the whole day, and what a stunningly successful event it was.

As James’ former Computer Science teacher, I was invited along (although I’m not sure whether I was wanted for my skills as a mentor or my ready access to Raspberry Pis. I suspect the it was the latter). I took my son, Jimi, along with me, who, at eight years old, must have been one of the youngest attendees across all the venues.

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There were around 25 attending the Bourne Local Hack Day this year.

Having arrived, grabbed their swag and stickers, the kids soon got down to the important job of hacking on their projects. There were a tonne of amazing ideas, from the basic to the bizarre. We had computer games being made using anything from the Unity 3D games engine to the Raspberry Pi Sense HAT. There was some back-end work being completed on an app that enables people to brag about their latest purchases; a “Nandos cheekiness” measuring tool; a machine-learning algorithm to teach a computer to perform basic arithmetic using neural networks; and a selfie stick that automatically posted pictures to Twitter and tagged them using the Clarifai API. Jimi even got in on the action, combining his love of conkers with his love of physical computing.

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Jimi tangles with a breadboard

Fuelled by drinks and crisps, kindly donated by the local Tesco, the kids worked solidly throughout the day, only breaking at 6pm when the pizza arrived. There followed a quick diversionary game of Age of Empires, where the teachers showed the kids who the real gaming champs were, and then it was back to hacking on their projects before the 9pm deadline hit.

The winners with their Raspberry PI Selfie-stick

The winners with their Raspberry PI Selfie-stick

The chosen winner at Bourne was the Raspberry Pi/Clarifai Selfie-stick, which was a lovely little hardware hack, but this was definitely an event where the taking part was more important. Hackathons are amazing events, where inspiration, teamwork, genius and insanity all seem to combine to produce awesome projects, and it’s important that children get to experience them as well. So thank you MLH, and I look forward to Local Hack Day 3, whenever that may be.