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.

Hero Kayakers Rescue Whitewater Dinghy Man

Last Wednesday, 26th September 2012, two friends and I took advantage of the rainfall and headed to the River Irwell in Bury to paddle from Nuttall Park to the Burrs Activity Centre. Upon arrival at the park the rain began again, and as we approached the bank to put on, the water was extremely high and running very fast:

We got on and within a couple of minutes we hit the gorge section, which I would say was pushing grade four. Not particularly technical, but rather severe in its volume, with very big waves and rapids:

About half way through the gorge we spotted something orange ahead, as we got closer we noticed it was a person wearing a life jacket, clinging to a branch. We immediately got out to see what we could do to get to him. I paddled over in front of him and got out as close as I could. One of my fellow paddlers, Louis, had run around (there was a bridge ahead) and got to a position above the man. He set up a rope from above and I clipped myself to a tree with a sling. Louis threw the rope to him which he caught, but kept hold of the tree until we instructed him to get hold of the rope with two hands (he also appeared to be pinned against a rock, which made it hard for him to get out of where he was) – once he let go and freed himself, keeping hold of the rope, we guided him to the bank and I stepped out to pull him in (the sling restricting me from getting dragged out in to the flow), and between us we managed to get him safely on the bank. Meanwhile our other paddler Liam had called for the emergency services. I stayed with the casualty, waiting for assistance while Louis went to get a jacket for him to keep warm. The man was bare legged (just in underpants) and barefoot as his trousers and shoes had been swept off him. His legs and feet were cut and very bruised. I spoke to him once I got him seated safely, ensuring he stayed put and not try to stand up. I asked what he was doing, he said “rafting”, I said who was he with, he said by himself. I asked how long he’d been stuck where we found him, he said about half an hour (it was probably less). I asked his name, where he lived and if anyone knew he was out, stuff like that. I reassured him we would get him out soon (we were stuck on the steep rocky bank at this point, with need of assistance to get him up to the path). He kept muttering things like “I’m too old for this” and “I’m not doing this again” – he told me he was nearly 50 (though the papers said 55). He was extremely cold, somewhat bruised and battered (though no serious cuts or gashes) and obviously very shaken up. I also noticed he had a scratch on his head (at this point it occurs to me he wasn’t wearing a helmet!) – he said he’d done it last week, on another river. Shortly after, some rescue workers arrived on the path above and I signalled to them where I was. There were a few minutes of deliberation before they threw a throwline (Palm, might I add – the same ones we all had) down to me and instructed me to wrap it around both of us a few times – I did so, and they sent another one down telling me to do the same – so the two of us were now roped together with the ends tied to trees above. We heard and saw a helicopter above us, and more and more rescuers appeared above the bank. A few times they shouted things down to me, one of which was whether he could walk out. I didn’t think so but asked him, he said yes, so I relayed and added that he was barefoot. Some time later a couple of them (from Fire & Rescue) approached us from the side. They asked him his name and asked if he thought he could walk out if they guided him – he said yes but that he was concerned about sharp rocks, and complained of hypothermia. They shouted up to see if they could get him some shoes but didn’t in the end. They helped me unravel the ropes around us and said to leave them to walk him out. I was with him for about 40 minutes from getting him out of the water to leaving him in the hands of the rescue people. I went round to where it was easier to walk up the bank, and was asked to relay the information I knew to the police and the rescue team. There were about 30 people from the police, fire brigade, paramedics and such – all standing by on the path above, and then I noticed the array of their vehicles along the narrow road! They managed to get him out ok and sent him to hospital. The rescue people told us he had described his craft as an “inflatable dinghy”. We were thanked by the team and eventually we headed back to our car.

Thanks a lot to the fire service who really helped us get this man to safety. Excellent service and fast response. I was impressed with how quickly they started to review the situation and analyse how they could have improved coordination of getting their vehicles to the right place.

The three kayakers had every piece of equipment going, including ropes, wet suits, helmets and mobile phones, and without them and their equipment the man would almost certainly have died – the water was staggeringly fast. When crews arrived, the kayakers were in the water with the man and he was up against the bank, practically unconscious. The crews secured him using rope lines to stop him going down into the water while the water rescue boat made its way to the scene. He was suffering from hypothermia and some cuts to his legs and was taken to hospital for treatment.

~ Station Manager Kev O’Connor, Greater Manchester Fire Service The man was very foolish to be out on his own in an inflatable dinghy in flood without a helmet. (four no-no’s for me!) The annoying thing is this sort of thing gives paddlesport a bad name – when it’s not even real paddlesport. We were definitely in the right place at the right time – and just as importantly – with the right kit. It’s amazing how useful a few slings, carabiners and throwline can be. We could have easily said “we won’t have chance to throwline each other on this river” and not taken them, but we did by habit. To be honest I didn’t take everything I would if I was leading a larger group – no first aid kit, no spare clothes, etc. This has reminded me it’s important to carry emergency kit. It’s unlikely that anyone would have seen him to call for help. If we hadn’t have been there he’d have probably drowned, and then the papers would have said “canoeist dies in accident” – so at least we were there to turn the headlines around as well as rescue the guy.

Thankfully, some well-prepared kayakers were brilliant in helping the man and got our crews to the scene quickly and, with the professionalism and training of the firefighters, they were able to rescue this man. We hope he makes a speedy recovery from his ordeal.

~ Councillor David Acton, Chair of Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Authority Here are some links to articles:

Also here’s a photo of today’s Manchester Evening News with the picture the fire service took of the three of us:

Update 9th May 2013: We received an award from the fire service.

ram_kayakers_smalljpg_497x350

Receiving the Chief Fire Officer’s Commendation for bravery at a presentation in the Ramsbottom Fire Station ~ River rescuers presented with bravery award

Backflip

I did a backflip off a rock in to a river on a kayaking trip one day. My friend Leif took this picture using my cheap point-and-shoot camera, he somehow managed to capture this perfectly. The sky is photoshopped but the rest is true. Original here. It was on the River Lune in the Lake District in March 2012.