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Rapid Router: why Ocado Technology turned to open source

Retailer’s technology division open-sources learning-to-code initiative to encourage continuous development of coding game

Ocado Technology has open-sourced its free coding education application to encourage a wider community of contributors.

The firm’s free Rapid Router coding education resource is teaching 38,500 people across the UK to code.

The retailer’s technology division decided to open-source the app to get more people working on the game and allow the wider community to suggest new features.

“By making Rapid Router open source, we hope to get more people involved in its development,” said Chris Brett, one of Ocado Technology’s team leads, who volunteered his time to work on the project.

“The open-source community is huge and, for many contributors, computer science education is an important issue.”

Developers can contribute to the project through Github, which lists the application’s issues and the priority of fixes.

Potential contributors are asked to find problems with the game and report any that are not already known to the project’s issue tracker, or to suggest new features for the game.

Developers can also pick up issues affecting the project and try to resolve them to improve the app.

“We would love to add more features to the game, to teach more programming concepts and make it more usable and fun for kids,” said Brett. “Our volunteers are already working on this, but it would be great to get fresh input and pick up the pace of development.

“It’s not just software engineers who can contribute. There’s a lot that goes into a game. UX designers, artists, animators, copywriters, translators and a whole host of other people could get involved.”

Brett pointed out that allowing the open-source community to contribute to the project would reduce costs and make sure the project remains a free-to-use resource for teachers and children.

Ocado Technology first developed the Rapid Router game as part of its Code for Life teaching initiative, aiming to provide free resources to help teachers teach children programming skills.

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This followed changes to the national curriculum in September 2014 which introduced computing as a mandatory subject to be taught to children between the ages of five and 16.

But many teachers were not trained to deliver the new curriculum, with many believing their students are more confident in using technology than they are.

“A lot of teachers don’t have software engineering skills and didn’t have readily available resources to help them teach programming,” said Brett.

“That is why we have put a lot of effort into working with teachers to develop teaching plans, unplugged activities and videos, in addition to ways teachers can monitor their students. This can all be accessed through our app.”

The Rapid Router team is currently developing automated tests for submitted changes to code, which Brett hopes may be combined with skills learnt during gameplay to encourage children to contribute to the game’s open-source platform in the future.

“There are certainly a lot more of them than there are of us,” said Brett. “We have around 40,000 users, so if only a small fraction get involved, we could really push the game forward.

“The back end is written in Python, and the later levels of the game teach Python, so that should smooth the transition from player to developer.”

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