Raspberry Pi Animation

While I was in Manchester, I shared an office with two guys, Sam and Scott, who ran an animation studio called Saladhouse. Me being me, I used to talk about Raspberry Pi all the time – and my enthusiasm rubbed off on them both. Scott ordered a Pi kit from Pimoroni and once used it to display some interesting visuals (Amy Mather’s pygame implementation of Conway’s Game of Life) as the backdrop of a stage at a gig he was involved with putting on, and Sam said it would be nice to make an animation explaining what Raspberry Pi is.

We bounced some ideas around, and discussed what it would be like. We seemed to think alike and have similar ideas on how it would be – and liked each other’s input. I wrote the script, and Sam storyboarded it. At around this stage, I had just been invited to visit the Raspberry Pi Foundation – so I put Sam in touch with Liz Upton and she liked the script and the initial storyboard and they discussed our ideas. We’d intended to do this as a hobby project, but Liz was very keen to make this happen so it was commissioned by the Foundation, and we went in to production. Sam and Scott came along to Manchester Raspberry Jam in November, which Liz and Eben also attended, and I introduced them. Liz apologised for taking me away from them, and Scott replied “Oh, it’s ok”. I suggested we asked Amy Mather to do the voiceover, Sam liked the idea too (and Liz loved it), so I introduced Amy to Sam and they arranged the sound recording session. Amy gave some suggestions which influenced the final piece – such as changing the ’80s bedroom poster from Back to the Future to Hack to the Future.

I then moved to Cambridge to work at the Foundation and was regularly updated with how it was coming along, and got to see pictures like this:

amy-recording

The guys worked hard on the animation through December and January and we released it this week!

Huge thanks to Sam and Scott at Saladhouse, to Marcus Alexander for the sound design and to Amy Mather for doing the voiceover. I’m really proud of how it turned out and we’ll be using it to promote Raspberry Pi everywhere we go!

2013 in Review

This year I’ve learned lots, run events, helped mentor young people, contributed to open source, engaged in much community activity, made and developed some strong friendships and built myself a new career.

OH Digital

I began this year working as a web developer at OH Digital, having started there just two months before the previous Christmas. OH Digital are primarily a WordPress development agency; initially I was sceptical of the use of WordPress as a full CMS, but grew to realise its potential the more I used it in a range of commercial websites. We specialised in delivering a full build to a client, from specification, through design and development iterations to the launch, and also hosting, administration, third-party integration and maintenance. Our design work always was done externally, as we had no in-house designers, but had connections with quality local design companies. It meant we got to concentrate on development according to the specification (which we’d created ourselves by working directly with clients) and outsource the visuals and interfaces to professionals who could meet our clients’ needs and provide us with excellent designs to work from.

Working on all levels – specification, user experience, front-end markup and styles, back-end programming and Linux systems administration – gave me excellent experience in working professionally, being involved in the whole build, and meant I got to see a project through from concept to launch and see it in action once live. And being lucky enough to work alongside very talented designers meant I was always very proud of the piece of work we’d produce after each project – not only because of the delivery of the technical solutions involved but because the websites we made looked brilliant. I would be proud to say I worked on a site and would often show people the finished product. Here is a selection of the projects I worked on at OH Digital:

Manchester Raspberry Jam

Throughout the year I continued to run the Manchester Raspberry Jam. This started in July 2012 and I ran one every month since then, skipping just two (March, for the Jamboree, and September when I was in Berlin) which we usually had around 30 – 60 people attending. The Manchester Jam was the first in the UK and they soon spread all over the country and the rest of the world. The events I ran were very practical focused, and we regularly had a range of people attending – including young people and families, and everyone was encouraged to collaborate on projects and learning. At the event in November – Manchester Raspberry Jam XVI – we had 80 people signed up and a further 20 on the wait list. This event was attended by several members of the Raspberry Pi Foundation and we ran a full track of talks upstairs as well as the usual hacking downstairs. The talks were all video recorded by a volunteer AV Team (thanks Les, Dan, Olly & Tony).

A particular success of the Raspberry Jam has been one of the young people I have mentored for the last couple of years – 14 year old Amy Mather (known as Mini Girl Geek). Amy is a really keen and very bright young coder and maker. At last December’s Jam, we started a small coding exercise – a test-driven implementation of Conway’s Game of Life in Python, for her to learn coding techniques and the language of Python. She came back to the next Jam in January with a fork of the original code, ported to work with PyGame, a gaming library for Python, rather than just drawing ASCII characters in the terminal. She improved upon the PyGame version some more at that Jam, adding features and learning more about Python, and then came back the next month with a version of the code powering a small LED matrix from a Raspberry Pi and an Arduino. She was then asked to present this at the Raspberry Jamboree in March (just 13 years old at the time). The video of her presentation was a big hit online (currently over 50,000 views) and was praised by many people including Kent Beck and Jimmy Wales. The video was also featured on the Raspberry Pi blog.

Amy went on to speak at bigger events such as CampusPartyEU at the O2 in London (on stage with George Osborne and Jimmy Wales), Wired Next Generation, Wuthering Bytes, and won the European Digital Girl of the Year Award presented in Lithuania. I’m very proud of everything she’s achieved and I’m pleased to have been lucky enough to be one of the many people who helped her along the way – and given her the chance to shine.

STEM

I also attended an event at Manchester University for STEM Ambassadors to be introduced to the Raspberry Pi. After meeting the coordinators of STEMNET, we discussed the idea of running a Raspberry Jam for schools – and so over several emails and phone calls, we put an event together, invited schools to attend and ran the first STEM Raspberry Jam. This kickstarted Raspberry Pi activity in the STEM network of the North West and there have since been a number of Raspberry Pi sessions run by the STEM team with a team of trained Ambassadors – in schools and colleges around the North West, introducing young people to programming and making projects with the Raspberry Pi.

Pi Weekly

About six months ago I had an idea to set up a weekly Raspberry Pi email newsletter featuring news and projects from the community – and invited Ryan Walmsley to join me in running it. We called it Pi Weekly. We grew steadily and a few weeks after launch it was featured on the Raspberry Pi blog – which sent out subscriber count through the roof. We then sought sponsorship to continue running at the new capacity, and developed new features as time passed. I worked on the website, the newsletter and the generator over time, and wrote up a full account of its evolution on my blog. At the end of 2013, we’d sent out 28 issues and had over 5,600 subscribers. This week, Pi Weekly was translated in to French by a Pi enthusiast with a Raspberry Pi news website.

Manchester CoderDojo

Another project I’ve been involved with in the last year has been the Manchester CoderDojo. This is a youth club for kids learning to code and make things. This was started in December 2012 by Steven Flower, and we started out at Madlab but after a few months outgrew the space and moved to a new venue at the Sharp Project. I volunteered as a mentor and coach at each of the events in 2013 up to November, where I ran sessions in Python, HTML/CSS, WordPress and using the Raspberry Pi. I recently revamped the website and set up a Pi Weekly style newsletter we now send out to parents and supporters.

User groups and Conferences

I have been attending user groups in Sheffield and Manchester since late 2009 / early 2010, and this year has been my peak in attendance. This year I’ve been regularly attending Python North West, PHPNW, XP Manchester, manc.js, Manchester Maths Jam, IMA North West TalksManchester Werewolf and Preston GeekUp, as well as helping out with Manchester Girl Geeks, volunteering for Manchester CoderDojo and running Manchester Raspberry Jam. I visited a few events further from home, as one-offs, such as the York Raspberry Jam and Blackpool GeekUp I gave many talks at these user groups throughout the year, the majority related to Raspberry Pi. I gave a total of 32 talks in 2013, including a discussion panel at the Raspberry Jamboree and a couple of talks at user groups in Berlin.

I also attended the first Raspberry Jamboree (Manchester), my first MozFest (London), my second Oggcamp (Liverpool), my third Barcamp Blackpool, my third Code Retreat, my third U3, my third Maths Jam Conference (Stone) and my fifth PHP North West conference (Manchester).

Open Source

This year I submitted my first patch to Ubuntu – a fix for the Guake package (Quake-style dropdown terminal) which was merged in to Ubuntu 13.10 (Raring Ringtail) and then-upcoming 13.10 (Saucy Salamander). See the changelog on launchpad.

guake-fix

I also fixed minor bugs in a number of smaller projects such as the Python Koans, as well as working on a number of small personal and community projects which are open source, such as Python Intro, Acacia Acuminata, Acacia Vanilla and Pi Weekly.

My (public) GitHub contributions of 2013:

bn-github-2013

from github.com/bennuttall on 4th January 2014.

Bravery Award

I was also presented with an award for the river rescue I conducted the previous September with friends from the canoe club. We each received the Chief Fire Officer’s Commendation for bravery at a presentation in the Ramsbottom Fire Station. See the articles from the Manchester Evening News: Award for Brave Kayakers who Saved Man’s Life and the Greater Manchester Fire & Rescue Service: River Rescuers Presented with Bravery Award

Raspberry Pi Foundation & 2014

In mid-October, around the time I celebrated 1 year at OH Digital, I was invited to visit the Raspberry Pi Foundation and was offered a job there. Obviously I accepted, and made plans to move to Cambridge. Prior to this opportunity I had no intention to leave Manchester, and certainly wasn’t looking for a reason to move on from my job or from the city – but the chance to work full time promoting the thing I have dedicated much of my time and effort to advocate purely because I believed in it and the Foundation’s mission – meant that there was no hesitation in taking the opportunity to move. I moved at the end of November, two weeks after my final Jam – which was a huge success, and a great chance for me to show the Foundation what I’ve been building up over the last 18 months.

Around the time this happened I had just started taking driving lessons again, and I managed to pass my test a week before I moved to Cambridge – although I didn’t get a car until around Christmas. Finally at the age of 25 I am no longer a pedestrian!

ben-pass-test

My role at the Foundation will be in development and outreach. Initially I’ll be working on a revamp for the website, which will be launching early 2014, diversifying the content to include educational resources, projects and such in a way that helps young people learn and aids teachers delivering material, so as to progress with the Foundation’s educational objectives. Also I will be working with young people, speaking about Raspberry Pi at events, helping to make the learning experience with Raspberry Pi more engaging, doing general outreach and fulfilling the Foundation’s mission as well as writing educational material, building tools, working on Pi projects and doing further development and maintenance on the website. I was there for three weeks before heading back to Sheffield for Christmas, and loved it so far. I’m getting on really well with the team, and getting the chance to see the amazing things we have in development. Big things coming in 2014! We hit the 2.3 million sales mark at the end of 2013, which is incredible. We also have the wonderful award winning teacher and new author Carrie Anne Philbin joining the team (starting tomorrow!) which I’m particularly excited about, and very pleased for her to (like me) be getting the chance to work on what she loves. See my introduction: Welcome Ben! and my first contribution to the Raspberry Pi blog: Pi Powered Ping Pong Pursuit.

I plan to start a CodeClub in Cambridge in 2014. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a while, but never had the chance. Now I’m working for the Foundation it’s important for me to get involved in this and see how young people learn, how they interact with technology and other people, and what they find interesting and engaging. As well as providing the means for a group of young people to learn to code and build things, I will be learning lots about the process for myself. Starting a CodeClub is something of a resolution of mine for the new year – and I’ll also try to personally do more hands-on projects, particularly with the Pi. I’ll also aim to make my way through some books I’ve had but not worked through yet – particularly Seven Languages In Seven Weeks. It’s about time.

Thanks to all the friends I made in Manchester – particularly those involved in the machinery of the tech community, who really do make things happen for people, and often (without realising it) get the ball rolling for many people’s personal and professional lives, and put them on a path to where they ought to be. Special thanks to Madlab founders Dave Mee & Hwa Young, who gave me the chance to learn, and then the chance to shine; to Andrew Disley, who ran Manchester GeekUp – which was my gateway to all of this; to Jag & Hannah Goraya who ran the Sheffield tech scene (Jag hosted my first ever tech event); to Steven Flower for doing what he does so well, and bringing out the best in people; to Sam Tuke who helps me understand and appreciate freedom; to Jeremy Coates for always keeping an eye on me; to Jon Spriggs for helping me and others do anything we want to do, and for sharing all he has with the world (with such passion); to Robie Basak and Sam Headleand for being alongside me all this year; to Lisa Mather for being like a second Mum; to Les Pounder for making great things happen and living the dream; and to all the geeks of the North West scene who’ve been like a family to me the last few years.

Pi Weekly – MVP, Evolution and My Dream Job

Pi Weekly is an email newsletter I run with fellow Raspberry Pi enthusiast Ryan Walmsley. Recently it occurred to me that for such a small project, it’s evolved a lot since we launched – and that it’s quite impressive that we launched it so soon after the idea came about, and how it landed me my dream job.

I’m a subscriber of a handful of weekly tech newsletters – most notably a Python one called PyCoders Weekly. I considered one day that there wasn’t, to my knowledge, a Raspberry Pi one. I had a quick look and found nothing – I thought it would be a good project to run – I began to imagine what form it would take, how it would get put together, who it would benefit and such. I thought if it was weekly, it would take a lot of effort to take the time to find links every single week – and realised I’d be best to find someone to help me run it. My immediate thought was Ryan, which is odd as I’d never met him before – I just know him on Twitter through his involvement in the Pi community. He’s young, keen, dedicated and he makes things happen (see Rastrack, Pideas and others) – so I pinged him a DM asking if he would be interested. That was a Thursday night – we agreed a name the next day, and I registered the domain and a Twitter account (unfortunately @piweekly was taken (Personal Injury Weekly – gah!) so we took @pi_weekly) and threw together a basic single page WordPress theme (a responsive design) with a signup form. We had a website – and even users signed up – by the Friday night. Minimal Viable Product, right?

The website looked not far from what it looks like now – the red background, white centre, centralised signup form and minimal text, but just the one page. Obviously I was keeping this in version control – see Initial Commit and (two commits later) Version 1.0 first live deployment.

We talked about how we would format the email itself – and decided there would be three sections: News, Projects and Articles. We threw some links in to a Google Doc and shared ideas for the style. I said I thought we should keep the list of links to a minimum – and make sure they were good quality, rather than just throw every single one we find with “raspberry pi” in it. I got some inspiration from PyCoders – I liked their intro paragraph, their Reddit-style domain-in-brackets after each link (e.g. Some Article (bbc.co.uk)) and I particularly liked it when they went through a phase of naming their issues with a single word (Redux, Submit, Air, Glass, Docker, Bugs) – though they don’t do this all the time; I decided we would.

After a couple of days, I threw the links in to a standard mailchimp template, picked some colours for the titles and links, and it looked ready to go! I said to Ryan “We can launch on Friday”. We agreed and decided to keep it to ourselves (and a handful of close friends we’d asked for name ideas) until we sent out the first one – intending to use Issue #1 as a taster to give people something to go on. That’s what we did:

We tweeted the link to the Mailchimp-hosted HTML version of the email and to sign up at piweekly.net – and the link got tweeted by Liz Upton who runs the @Raspberry_Pi account, and that brought us 100 subscribers within an hour – and over 300 by the end of the weekend:

We also tweeted that people could tweet or email us links for inclusion. Once the first issue had gone out, as well as including link to the HTML email on the homepage, I added a some pages – About, Archive and Submissions. These were fairly minimal too. I didn’t imagine us needing much more in the website. Content-wise, this is still the case today – we’ve not added much wording to the site. By the second week I’d implemented the link curation in to WordPress using Advanced Custom Fields and its (unfortunately premium) counterpart ACF Repeater. This meant we could edit the upcoming newsletter as if it were a WordPress post – with custom (repeatable) fields in sections for news, projects and articles – along with the intro paragraph:

piweekly-acf

Initially this would only be viewed in the back-end of WordPress and not be public facing, and was only used so both of us could edit it in the browser on the web – and the HTML for the email was generated by a plugin I wrote based on the Mailchimp template and these sets of fields – the second issue was sent from this generator.

We kept it running smoothly for the next few weeks and gradually over the next few weeks I made a number of minor changes to the website template – never altering the content much but tweaking the markup for SEO and improvement of the mobile experience. I kept slightly changing the way the generator worked and reworked how the ACF fields were used and such. Ryan I would chat on skype most days, and throw ideas at each other. One idea we had was to include a  ‘Picture of the Week’ – which we introduced in Issue #12. That week was particularly special for us as we’d just been featured on the Raspberry Pi website. Liz posted a shout out to readers to subscribe, which included flattering us – Ryan was “Raspberry Pi superfan”, I was “brain-on-a-stick (and kayak rescue hero)” – and we she couldn’t have recommended us more highly. This feature sent our subscriber count from a few hundred to a few thousand in mere hours. We hit the 4,000 mark from the spike in traffic.

While this was great news, it meant we had to start paying for Mailchimp. We could have run a mail server ourselves but I’d rather have peace of mind knowing it was dealt with properly – and have no problems with outage, delivery uncertainty, blacklisting and such. In any case, I knew we would easily find a sponsor to cover our costs – like most tech newsletters I know of, some even have paid jobs listings in the email. One quick email to the awesome people at Bytemark (who also provide our hosting for free) and we were set for the month. We said we’d try to find another sponsor for the next month – and decided we’d only allow relevant sponsorship, not just a general ad. We wanted to provide our readers with something useful, not insult their intelligence, dating habits or ability to maintain an erection, or whatever ads look like these days. We said we would only approve sponsors we were proud to give a hat-tip to.

I also consulted with my friend Dan, who works in my office as a freelance web analyst who gave me some tips on how to monitor effectiveness. Dan kept on at me any time a user would be shown a page that wasn’t ours – our archive page just linked to the Mailchimp HTML email views, our confirmation and thankyou pages were Mailchimp’s, and because of the minimalist style of the site – there was hardly any relevant content on it. I added our own confirmation and thankyou pages (and included a twitter share link):

I expressed that minimalism was to be preserved – especially on the homepage as the focus was on the signup box – but agreed that the past issues should be hosted on the site in the same template. Luckily, I had them in WordPress as posts – ready to be templated and shown to the world. And soon after that, I was able to replace links to past issues in the archive to pages on the site, with nice URLs – like piweekly.net/lumberjack – better than http://us7.campaign-archive1.com/?u=a3e42d3ea4355ad45198b39ba&id=31b9d1c811&e=

One of the key things about Pi Weekly for me, at least, is the perfectionism. From day one I said that our lists of links would take a particular form: Title, in sentence case, followed by Reddit-style domain-in-brackets, and a one-line description of the link below. The inconsistency in other newsletters bugs me! Some links in PyCoders Weekly are one line, some two, some a whole paragraph, some just don’t have a description, which just seems indecisive and lazy. I want mine to be uniform and well presented. Some newsletters I’ve seen have broken HTML when sent out, so fonts get messed up, things become misaligned, it just looks unprofessional. Ok so you may think I’m being obsessive/compulsive, and yeah I probably am, but surely only good can come from being a perfectionist on this matter? It doesn’t take a lot of time, and can be done during a link check before it gets sent out. A few weeks after launch we discovered there was another weekly Raspberry Pi email newsletter – but the site hadn’t been updated, it looked poorly maintained, no care had gone in to it and the author was promoting several other tech newsletters. To this day, the archive still only lists three past issues (it’s been that way since we found it).

We launched the hosted back issues in time for Issue #17, when we also announced a new regular feature – Interviews. We arranged to interview Paul Beech (Paul designed the Raspberry Pi logo) of Pimoroni (they make the awesome Pibow rainbow case), which we conducted by writing questions and sharing him in a Google Doc – he filled them out and I built the idea of Interview post types in to the WordPress build – amending the original ACF fields to allow optionally attaching an Interview post to an Issue post, we were good to go. We put Paul’s intro in to the email and linked to the interview page on the site for the whole transcript. We were really pleased with this and look forward to conducting more in future. Pimoroni also sponsored the newsletter the month after Bytemark – saying they just wanted to support something they loved, which was great to hear.

More recently, while I was in London for MozFest, I had a lot of time when I was just sitting around with my laptop and nothing else to think about – so I worked in some tweaks and new features. I thought the archive page would look a lot more appealing if I was to use the picture of the week as a thumbnail by each issue, in a grid. I coded the grid template to test the concept and it looked great – but only the last few issues had pictures attached to them. Rather than implement this and leave the old ones blank, I thought it would be worth retrospectively adding images to each issue (11 without), which didn’t take long – and I looked at a few links in each issue to spot a suitable one. This feature was done fairly quickly, so I added some style rules to make it work just as well on mobile, and deployed it straight away and showed Ryan. I then swapped out the text link on the homepage (“Check out our latest issue”) for a row of the grid to show the images for the last three issues. I think it looks much nicer this way:

piweekly-archive

The most recent feature I’ve added was one essentially by request. Most of the link submission emails we get are for Raspberry Pi events. We always said we don’t feature events as they’re geographical, and the newsletter should really be for all. Also they didn’t really fit in any of the sections (news, projects, articles). We compromised and I added a section where we would list upcoming events – I imagine these will mostly be in the UK, but we’ll gladly promote awareness of Raspberry Jams and other related events elsewhere in the world.

I could have waited till I was at this level of happiness with the site before launching – but look how far we’ve come in the last few months. It was definitely the right decision to launch when we did, and I’m proud of how it’s evolved. If I’d kept it to myself and worked on it alone without any feedback it might not be what anyone wants. But I’ve seen the reaction and looked at what works and what doesn’t. I’m sure many people will think I’m stupid to run an email newsletter out of WordPress – but it works brilliantly! It’s so easy to put an issue together, and you click a button to get the HTML out to paste in to Mailchimp. And it’s all integrated with our website, so no need for duplication or external linking (any more) – and all the issues are immediately (and permanently) available to view on the web.

Email’s a funny thing – it’s so easy to subscribe, and to like the ideaof subscribing to something, but actually bothering to read it is another matter. Last year I bought a PyCoders t-shirt (they ran a teespring campaign) and I wear it with pride (even though I’m only a reader) – it’s the one I’m wearing in my Google+ profile picture, speaking at the Raspberry Jamboree (I realise people will confuse Pi Weekly with PyCoders weekly, especially if I wear their t-shirt so proudly). Maybe one day Pi Weekly will have t-shirts – I know Ryan and I both want one to wear! I genuinely do read PyCoders every week – and click through any links of interest, aided by Gmail filters & labels allowing me to find it when I have time. Some things I like the idea of, such as the Full Circle Podcast, I just don’t make the effort to fit it in to my life, as much as I’d like to. With these things you have to have a system for fitting them in to your lifestyle – some people have schedules, some naturally work well with routines, others use reminder systems, but at the end of the day we can’t fit everything in.

I keep doing bits of work on the page titles around the site, fixed small CSS bugs and continued to test the responsive layout, making small adjustments all the time. I really enjoy working on it, and putting the newsletter together. I imagine this is what it feels like working on a startup or an open source project. I guess this is something in between! It’s all open source, and I see it as a community project – and Ryan and I do own it, but we don’t intend to make any real money out of it. It feels great to contribute to the community (and the Raspberry Pi community is an awesome one). We’ve had some great recognition for it, and (along with running the Manchester Raspberry Jam) it’s a major part of how I’ve been hired by the Foundation to do development and outreach (my dream job). We’re close to six months now, and it’s going great. Here’s to the next six months.