Star Wars could be key to solving UK IT skills shortage

14 Jan 2013


When it comes to boosting skills in the UK IT sector, a key message – and one often referenced in V3’s current Make IT Better campaign - is that we should try to make science and technology more ‘inspiring’ subjects to study.

The idea is, don’t scare off the next-generation of computer whizz kids by revealing that a lot of the job entails repetitive tasks and pain-staking testing; instead make sure that those leading the way – techies in government, businesses and schools – are role models for the youth of today, with enough street cred to stand shoulder to shoulder with footballers and reality TV stars.

And here’s where we fall down in the UK. Take this quote, selected from a random online article about the lack of science, technology, engineering and maths skills (and by the way, Stem hardly sounds an industry many would aspire to be in).

Lords Science and Technology Committee report chairman Lord Willis, noted, “When you have a university like Cambridge saying that even with an A* in mathematics we are having to give remedial maths in order to study engineering there is something not quite right if we are going to produce the very best to compete with the world.

"In reality the quality of the Stem graduates coming out of universities does not meet the requirements of industry and in fact is ultimately not even likely to meet the requirements of academia."

He’s making an important point, but the messaging is dull. I doubt anyone reading that quote would be enthused to rise up and improve the maths GCSE curriculum.

Lord Willis, and all your colleagues in UK government concerned about the IT skills shortage here, please take a lesson from Paul Shawcross, chief of the Science and Space Branch at the White House Office of Management and Budget, on how to engage the nation on this issue.

Shawcross spotted an opportunity to highlight the work of his department, and encourage more people to pursue a sci/tech career, based on a Star Wars-themed petition submitted to the White House.

The petition to ‘Secure resources and funding, and begin construction of a Death Star by 2016’ aimed to spur job creation in the fields of construction, engineering and space exploration by focusing defence resources on a space-superiority platform and weapon system.

The US government could have just issued a standard ‘no’ response to the petition, but instead Shawcross – clearly a Star Wars aficionado – crafted a detailed response, littered with references to the galaxy far far away and acting as a rallying cry for the sci/tech sector.

You know you’re in for a good read, when the headline of a government petition reply is: ‘This Isn't the Petition Response You're Looking For’.

Shawcross initially listed some of the reasons why the government couldn’t go ahead with the request:

"The construction of the Death Star has been estimated to cost more than $850,000,000,000,000,000. We're working hard to reduce the deficit, not expand it.
The Administration does not support blowing up planets.

"Why would we spend countless taxpayer dollars on a Death Star with a fundamental flaw that can be exploited by a one-man starship?"

In the same comical tone, Shawcross went on to detail all the current achievements by the US government space team: the International Space Station, which routinely welcomes visiting spacecraft and repairs on-board garbage mashers; two robot science labs - one wielding a laser - roving around Mars; and not forgetting Nasa's Commercial Crew and Cargo Program Office (C3PO).

“Even though the United States doesn't have anything that can do the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs, we've got two spacecraft leaving the Solar System and we're building a probe that will fly to the exterior layers of the Sun,” he noted.

“We don't have a Death Star, but we do have floating robot assistants on the Space Station, a president who knows his way around a light saber and advanced (marshmallow) cannon, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which is supporting research on building Luke's arm, floating droids, and quadruped walkers.”

And then came the masterstroke, where Shawcross proved the value of his sci-fi film fanaticism a thousand times over: “We are living in the future! Enjoy it. Or better yet, help build it by pursuing a career in a science, technology, engineering or math-related field.

“If you do pursue a career in a science, technology, engineering or math-related field, the Force will be with us! Remember, the Death Star's power to destroy a planet, or even a whole star system, is insignificant next to the power of the Force.”

That post was everywhere over social networks over the weekend, and no doubt managed to reach more of the target audience than any traditional IT skills marketing campaign could ever dream to. 

So, to all members of sci/tech committees in any far away galaxies out there, or just the UK, please find your inner Force and aim to inspire rather than bore the next generation of techies, whether that’s by following Barack Obama, with his Astronomy Night on the South Lawn, or just creating IT skills campaigns that pass on a serious message in a less than serious tone.

We need to act soon before more would-be IT stars are seduced by the dark side - or media studies, as it's otherwise known.

Web community in mourning for death of Reddit co-creator Aaron Swartz

14 Jan 2013


The web community was shocked by the death of Aaron Swartz over the weekend after the web freedom fighter took his own life. A very young man, Swartz was only 26, but one who achieved a lot in so few years.

Swartz co-authored RSS and was behind Reddit, but more recently had carved out a place in the history of online activism, freedom and protest. The news that he has died has sent shockwaves through the people whose lives he touched the most, internet users.

"Our beloved brother, son, friend, and partner Aaron Swartz hanged himself on Friday in his Brooklyn apartment. We are in shock, and have not yet come to terms with his passing," says a statement released by his family and loved ones.

"Aaron's insatiable curiosity, creativity, and brilliance; his reflexive empathy and capacity for selfless, boundless love; his refusal to accept injustice as inevitable-these gifts made the world, and our lives, far brighter."

His life was praised by notably web luminaries such as Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who wrote a heartfelt message on his Twitter page.

"Aaron dead. World wanderers, we have lost a wise elder. Hackers for right, we are one down. Parents all, we have lost a child. Let us weep."

But while he was making lives brighter, Swartz has also made enemies. In 2011 he was indicted by the US Department of Justice for misusing and publishing scientific material from the JSTOR scientific and academic database that resides behind a paywall.

His prosecution by the authorities might have contributed to his suicide, and according to another web activist, Lawrence Lessig, Swartz's opponents had come in hard and heavy over the last two years.

"From the beginning, the government worked as hard as it could to characterise what Aaron did in the most extreme and absurd way. The ‘property' Aaron had ‘stolen,' we were told, was worth ‘millions of dollars' - with the hint, and then the suggestion, that his aim must have been to profit from his crime," he wrote.

"[Aaron] is gone today, driven to the edge by what a decent society would only call bullying. I get wrong."

JSTOR said it was saddened by the news and regretted its involvement in the case. "We are deeply saddened to hear the news about Aaron Swartz. We extend our heartfelt condolences to Aaron's family, friends, and everyone who loved, knew, and admired him. He was a truly gifted person who made important contributions to the development of the internet and the web from which we all benefit," it said in a statement.

"We have had inquiries about JSTOR's view of this sad event given the charges against Aaron and the trial scheduled for April. The case is one that we ourselves had regretted being drawn into from the outset, since JSTOR's mission is to foster widespread access to the world's body of scholarly knowledge"

Since Saturday academics have been posting their papers online, in an act of respect and solidarity. They used the Twitter hashtag #pdftribute, and the papers have poured out.

It was this release of information that Swartz was so passionate about, and it is a sad, but fitting tribute.

"We need to take information, wherever it is stored, make our copies and share them with the world. We need to take stuff that's out of copyright and add it to the archive. We need to buy secret databases and put them on the Web. We need to download scientific journals and upload them to file sharing networks. We need to fight for Guerrilla Open Access," wrote Swartz in the Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto 2008.

"With enough of us, around the world, we'll not just send a strong message opposing the privatisation of knowledge - we'll make it a thing of the past."

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