Christmas, Crisis and the Cloud

This Christmas, I volunteered at Crisis, the UK charity that provides food, shelter and help for homeless people and rough sleepers over Christmas. It’s the first time I’d done anything like this, and – amongst stints of washing-up, manning doors, looking after showers, mopping and playing Articulate – I spent quite a lot of time helping with the suite of PCs that were provided for our guests to use.

It was a profound and enlightening experience. I use Gmail and Google Docs because they’re convenient – I regularly use 3-4 different PCs and online services are just a convenient way of keeping things accessible and in sync. It never really occurred to me that for someone who doesn’t have a computer of their own, or any regular access to one via a university or workplace, something as simple as a webmail account can be the difference between staying in touch and disappearing completely. People with no regular income, no phone and no fixed address were using Yahoo Mail to keep in touch with family and friends, apply for jobs and look for accommodation. It was quite amazing. I don’t know whether the folks at Yahoo, Gmail, Hotmail et al realize just what a profound difference this makes – but if any of them are reading, well done. You rock, and I never realized quite how much until this week.

Another interesting observation – Microsoft’s market saturation is so complete that even people who store their worldly possessions in a plastic shopping-bag insist on Microsoft Word. Their CVs are in Word format, they know the Word menus and commands – many of them are remarkably accomplished Word users. This is sad, because Word means Windows, and – even with the awesome job the people at the Aimar Foundation had done setting up a locked-down Citrix system -  some machines became infected with a malware product called “Security Shield”. Security Shield masquerades as an anti-virus package,  makes a lot of bad noise about (non-existent) viruses and then asks the user for a credit card number to “activate the virus protection”. Well, Security Shield, this Christmas you actually asked the homeless for money. Well done. You scared the hell out of frightened, vulnerable people who thought they’d broken the computer. You scared and upset the volunteers who were giving up their Christmas holiday to help those same people. I really hope you take all the money you’ve made from your little scam and spend it on something that’ll bring you joy in this life, because karma’s a bitch and your next life is going to suck.

Anyway. Karmic retribution aside, it really got me thinking. For every iPad-toting hipster raving about how they keep all their stuff “in the cloud” because it’s the Next Big Thing, there’s a rough sleeper out there who genuinely doesn’t have anywhere else to keep it. There’s web mail, web docs, online tools for retouching photos, online games ( proved very popular with some of our guests), online video – you have no idea how cool YouTube is to someone who doesn’t own a PC or a television - and I started wondering what else technology could offer.

What about a complete online tool set and sandbox for people looking to learn about software development? Tutorials, exercises, a lab, workshop, CV and portfolio, accessible anytime, anywhere, for the cost of a virtual machine and a few gigs of disk space (i.e. practically nothing). A full development environment where they can learn to code, store projects, compile, test and deploy applications and websites – but accessible entirely within the sort of stripped-down web browser you'd find in most internet cafés. There’s no material reason why someone couldn’t learn to build software, establish an online presence, contribute to open-source projects, develop a reputation on Q&A sites like StackOverflow, and generally become a demonstrably employable developer, entirely without any investment in physical resources. The days of needing expensive computer time or equipment to become a coder are gone. The financial barrier to entry in our industry is effectively zero. We should be shouting this from the rooftops, doing everything possible to put information and resources in the hands of anyone who cares to take advantage of it, and celebrating this amazing consequence of the openness that’s sustained our industry for so long.

Anyway. Crisis was awesome, you should all do it next year, and here’s to a 2011 filled with compassion, kindness, enthusiasm and excitement.

Happy New Year.