I have a six-year old daughter, "Bug," and like many kids her age she loves watching shows and playing games on an iPad. I don’t mind her staring at the screen all day, but I’d like her to create as much as she consumes.
Part of that is learning to code—and there are excellent resources out there to help kids learn how to do that. But coding strikes me as a "how" problem, and before that I needed to tackle the "why." I want her to understand that the machines around her are for making, and that any person has it in themselves to mod an existing app to their needs.
Even at six, Bug recognizes Google as a tool her dad uses in his phone, on his tablet, and on his computer. (The laptop is her favorite, because when I scroll to the bottom of a search page, Google spells it’s name "Goooooooooogle" which she thinks sounds stupid, so she walks around our home saying it over and over.)
So I decided: If I wanted to show her that she really could get under the Internet’s hood and tweak its engine, the best way would be to show her how to create something better than Google. The idea of how to do it occurs to me when she asks me for ice cream and I point out that there are no ice cream parlors nearby—a fact I seem to point out to her every day at 4:30 p.m.
"Why not?" she asks with unstoppable kindergarten curiosity (and a keen personal interest).
"I don’t know. Do you want to build a map of the ice cream places in the neighborhood and try to figure out why?"
"A map that’s better than Goooooooooogle’s?"
I strap Bug into her carseat and we drive around the neighborhood taking note of every ice cream shop we see. She looks left, I look right, and I take notes on voice memos at red lights. We stop at the last one to eat ice cream and discuss next steps.
When we get home, there’s an hour before bed and I have a moment of existential dread as I realize I’m introducing my daughter to data entry. But as is often the case when it comes to parenting, there’s no time to linger on that thought, as I walk her through the process of opening a new Google Spreadsheet and explaining the basics.
What’s a spreadsheet? A way of organizing information. What’s a cell? A single piece of information. Why do we do this? So we can organize everything and find it. We break information down under two headings: Names of ice cream establishment and address. (We use Google Maps to find the addresses but not the names of ice cream parlors since, as I point out to her Google Maps often has them spelled wrong. Our first competitive advantage.)
I try to pull her into the process of entering this information one cell at a time, or predicting why the name of the place goes here and the address goes there, but it’s kind a relief when she seems bored. We quit after filling about 20 rows.
The next morning I drop Bug off at Brooklyn Game Lab, a day camp where kids learn to make their own games and modify existing games. When I pick her up in the afternoon, she tells me she is creating a game about Cinderella (you can’t fight Disney) and she has decided to start by grouping the characters in three groups: Bad people, Medium people, and Good people. She walked her father—an English major who has more than once lamented the disruptive effects of spreadsheets over storytelling—over to a wide sheet of paper where she had listed them in columns, making a primitive spreadsheet.
I felt the mix of horror, pride, and relief at the prospect of powerful offspring similar to what Rosemary Woodhouse must have felt when she realized her son was Satan’s heir.
There was nothing left to do at that point but take my budding data entrant home and show her how a spreadsheet of names and addresses turns into a Better Than Google Maps map.
I opened up Google Fusion Tables and showed her how to create a map. If you have a spreadsheet of good data ready to go, it’s straightforward. You open a spreadsheet, identify a column as containing locations, and then tell Google to map them. (Google has a quick and easy walkthrough here.)
In a few minutes, our map, with its 17 locations to get ice cream—filled with un-Googlable information like where ice cream trucks park and the Connecticut Muffin shops that offer soft serve—was live:
We compared it to a Google Map search for ice cream in our neighborhood, which turned up 10 results:
Bug asked why Google Maps showed some ice cream-selling stores with restaurant icons and some with shopping icons. We couldn’t find any logic to their classification, but we decided we weren’t going to be out-gunned. We would color code the neighborhood’s three ice cream-dispensing chains (including Uncle Louie G’s, which Google Maps spells wrong) and the locations of ice cream trucks. Our product was, as judged by ourselves, undeniably better than Goooooooooogle’s.
This exercise might not be successful a year from now, of course. Google seems to be improving its local search every day. But the hope is that the lesson—with work, you can build something better than what you’re given—lasts a lifetime.