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Let’s talk with young hackers Ekaterina, Miquel and Alexia about YH4F


The first edition of the Youth Hacking 4 Freedom contest has ended. After 5 months of coding, over 35 young people came up with outstanding projects. Three of them will be introduced to you in this interview. Ekaterina, the mind behind Music Companion, Miquel who developed Smart Table Assistant and Alexia, the creator of a basic password manager.

The Youth Hacking 4 Freedom contest, is a competition organised by the FSFE that encourages young Europeans to start working on their personal technical project. As there are no limits to the possibilities of projects that could be submitted and every technical idea is welcome, the first edition ended up with a great number of diverse and inspiring projects, making it really hard for the jury members to choose the six winners.With all those well done projects we thought about a way how to best highlight the effort and work that was put into them. Hence, we are happy to present three of the contestants.

Ekaterina is 16 years old and currently living in the Republic of Cyprus. She has written her first program for the Youth Hacking 4 Freedom competition, Music Companion. Next, we have Miquel, who is from Spain and 17 years old. Miquel has worked on his Smart Table Assistant and had some experience with programming and tinkering before joining the competition. He is studying Industrial Engineering and is passionate about new technologies, entrepreneurship and discovering new things. His goal is to help our society by developing projects in the Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) field. Last but not least, we are happy to introduce Alexia, who is living in Bucharest, Romania. Alexia also had some contact with programming before the competition and is enrolled in a technical school.

Ekaterina presenting her project “Music Companion

FSFE: Hello Ekaterina, Miquel and Alexia. Thank you for joining us for this interview.

FSFE: Before we start learning about your different projects, we would like to know a bit more about your technical background and how you started learning to program.

Alexia: The first programming language I was ever introduced to was C++. It was taught to me in my last year of primary school. I never enjoyed it as much as my classmates, but it enabled me to learn other languages such as Python and SQL which are more applicable in my everyday projects. I was lucky enough to have very passionate and supportive teachers throughout my school years. They taught me all the difficult principles of programming and always referred me to the best materials. I was indeed very fortunate in this regard.

Ekaterina: My first contact with programming was during my Computer Science GCSE which is when we started learning some basic programming concepts and coding in VisualBasic. Later in my Computer Science A-Level we started learning Python, which was when I started to learn programming by myself using SoloLearn and Stackoverflow.

Miquel: My first contact with programming was when I was about 12 years old with C++ and Arduino. I was already interested before, but I wasn't very good at the subject. I signed up for an introductory course for a few months and then started a self-learning process. I love being able to make what I imagine to come true, and through programming, 3d printing, 3d design and the desire to learn, some things are possible.

FSFE: Miquel, you have worked with hardware and have also submitted a hardware project. What was the first hardware project you worked on? How and why did you start making new devices?

Miquel: Honestly, no one in my family is professionally engaged in any field of technology or programming, but we have always been very interested in it. Since I was little, I have accompanied my brother and my parents on their little projects and our house construction. I like to work and have challenges. When I began to get more into the field of programming and robotics, my brain clicked. Since then I have had ups and downs in motivation, but I continue to undertake new projects.

FSFE: How and why did you decide to join YH4F? And what did you like the most about the contest?

Ekaterina: It felt like a big challenge. When I heard about the competition from my teacher I was very scared to even sign up. I did not have enough knowledge at that time to write something more complex than "if this condition is true, then output this" and so on. But five months seemed enough for me to learn programming and to write a program. As I was expecting, I would rush towards the end to finish the program, and when 1 week before the program was due I received an email from Alexander Sander saying "Don't worry, it's fine if you did not finish it yet. Send it anyway". It calmed me down so much that I actually finished it and submitted a few days earlier. The support was really necessary and I enjoyed it.

Alexia: I remember seeing a poster with details about the contest just outside the Computer Lab. My teacher encouraged me to participate, so I decided to join it and challenge myself. I decided to make something that would include a GUI since I never get the chance to implement it to the code I usually write.

I think the best thing about YH4F is that it promotes Free Software alternatives to people who haven’t had the chance to realize the benefits of such projects. I use Free Software software pretty frequently, especially when it comes to operating systems.

Miquel: I remember I was online with a friend, I think it was on Twitter, when I found an announcement of a free software contest. I got interested, and I looked at the information about how to participate. After a long time, when there were relatively few days left to finish the registration period for the contest, my friend reminded me to register. I told my parents and finally signed up.

This contest for me is a real wonder. I think that giving young people the opportunity to show others what they have thought, created and suffered doing is very nice. I have been very comfortable throughout the process, the mentors have been very kind and understood all the effort. It is a pleasure to share this experience with others who are interested in it.

FSFE: How did you came up with your project idea? What motivated you to do your project?

Alexia: I have a lot of close friends who think the Internet is like an endless playground where you’re anonymous and untouchable. Many of them suffered extremely painful consequences as a result of this. Even if we’re talking about stealing passwords or other types of sensitive data left unprotected, this type of negligence often brings the worst with it.

I remember wanting to make a tool with the purpose of raising awareness to the dangers of unprotected data. Or at least try taking an initiative. I thought that I could make an impact in my inner circle and inspire others to come up with similar ideas.

Ekaterina: Music has been a part of my life for about 10 years, so the idea came up kind of automatically. At first I thought about making it as a game, however later on I realized that some people wouldn't have enough knowledge about music to play it. This is how it became a small "glossary" about music.

FSFE: And what motivated you to carry out your project?

Ekaterina: Simply participating in this competition gave me motivation to realize it. I wanted to get to know programming more and try myself. The competition not only gave me knowledge on how to code in python, but also the experience of learning on the go and facing such challenges by myself. Music Companion is not a very complex app but at the same time a very educational one and I am happy that after conducting the knowledge I had about programming it turned out this awesome.

FSFE: And Miquel, how did you came up with your idea for the “Smart Table Assistant”?

Miquel: I have always wanted to be able to invent a product that helps society. Just before the registration period for the youth hacking contest my mother suffered immobility. I saw that she had some difficulty doing some tasks and I thought that a smart table would be a great idea to help her. The Smart Table Assistant is intended for those people who are affected by paraplegia. Paraplegia is a disease that immobilizes the legs and trunk, but not the arms. With this smart table, you can get to customize the furniture to help people with certain pathologies. I saw that with the opportunity of the competition I could motivate myself to develop a project of this scale and thus totally improve my knowledge.

Miquel with his self-designes Smart Table Assistant

FSFE: Ekaterina your project “Music Companion” has also won a prize at the competition. Do you think it is important for people to understand the basic of music?

Ekaterina: Yes, I think it is. For today I haven't met people who haven't somehow interacted with music or a musical instrument. But the number of students in music schools is slowly decreasing and this worries me a little bit. I believe music, especially classical, should be learnt and understood by people nowadays rather than ignored or considered old-fashioned.

FSFE: Did some of you encounter any problems during the coding period or the building period?

Miquel: Of course, in a project of this size, it is very easy to encounter obstacles along the way. I think the hardest part was at the beginning. It was difficult for me to start and organize all the ideas to be able to create something unique, innovative and efficient. The whole first period of analysing and acquiring knowledge was cumbersome but motivating. From the moment I started practising, I began to feel that excitement of the beginning of a very long journey. Also, in the programming, I found some obstacles but I got away with it. I also really enjoyed the design but I needed some help with the assembling of the robot.

I had some inspiration for the aesthetics of the product by the Sagrada Familia which is an emblematic basilica in Barcelona. With this, I was able to direct the design and thus, know what functionalities to be able to adapt in that aesthetics so that I could keep all the utilities of the robot thought in the beginning.

Ekaterina: Yes, I faced many problems. I think at least 5 times I said to myself "No, I am giving up, I don't know how to program". It was really stressful at first as I was only surfing around Youtube tutorials for about 2 months and only then I started programming. Many times the code wasn't running simply because one symbol or space was missing. And worth mentioning is that I was learning on the go as before I have never faced such complex tasks.

Alexia: I definitely encountered a lot of technical issues, and it really didn’t help that it was my first “major” project. I’ve never worked with interfaces before, so this was especially hard. I had no idea how to properly make the design, so pretty much all the effort was put into that. Thinking about it, I definitely over-prioritized it. Database management was even more frustrating as I had almost no structure and generally did things without fully thinking them through. In the end, I ended up putting more hours into debugging than actually writing the code. Nevertheless, I’m grateful for the experience that came along with all the hardship.

FSFE: Do you think you will continue working on your project and what would be some next steps you would like to carry out?

Miquel: I like being asked that. Referring to the Smart Table Assistant, I have improvements in mind and I'm sure there are still many more, but I also have other projects in mind. Just recently I had an idea of ​a device that would help rehabilitation or just massage people. These massages will be complemented with aromatic treatments and the setting of lights. This device would also be for domestic use and I would like to be able to make its aesthetics even more beautiful than this project (S.T.A). With more industrial and improved materials.

Alexia: I’m thinking of resuming the project at some point, along with my original initiative. The next step will definitely be encrypting the database itself, since without that the application isn’t really that functional. I’m also thinking of improving the interface, and maybe even switching to a better language (I’ve been using Python, but to be honest I haven’t been that satisfied with the end result). Either way, I’m happy that I went along with it, even if for now It’s left unfinished.

Ekaterina: I think I will try to implement a library for sounds and perhaps increase the number of possible notes that could be heard, scales and chords. However I really want to leave it as it is to remember it as my first ever written program.