I'm spending a week with about 50 children, teens and adults who are here for the fifth annual Cable and Wireless Childnet Awards. The award program recognizes Web sites and other Internet projects that are run by or for young people. Most are international and many are collaborative efforts of people from different countries.
The winners will be announced at a ceremony in Paris tonight. Final rankings and information about other winners can be found at www.childnet-int.org
I'm here as one of the judges, along with colleagues from Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Egypt and France.
What I love about these awards -- besides the trip to Paris -- is how positive they are. No one is fixated on the dot-com bust or even what some call "the dark side of the Web."' Instead, the focus is on how the Net can be used to benefit children and bridge national and cultural divides. In many ways, it's the realization of what the Net promised long before it was taken over by commercial interests -- the ability to link people on a global basis.
When I first started judging this contest, many of the winning sites were a bit primitive, especially compared with commercial sites. And, while the judges still put far more emphasis on substance than slickness, I couldn't help notice that many of this year's entries are quite sophisticated when it comes to technology, graphics and usability.
Matmice.com, for example, is every bit as professional as Yahoo's GeoCities, Tripod and other sites that let people build their own home pages. But unlike its commercial counterparts, this site is just for kids. What's more, it was developed entirely by children -- three teenage sisters from Newcastle, Australia.
Emily Boyd, 19, is the technology wizard behind the site, having written all of its software three years ago. Her younger sisters Sarah, 17, and Elise, 13, develop the graphics. What started out as a small project has grown to serve more than 80,000 children from over 100 countries. The site, which is nothing less than stunning, is easy to use and navigate and quite powerful. The Boyd sisters have not only been able to use the Net to express their own creativity but to enhance the creativity of tens of thousands of children.
Until judging this contest, I had never practiced the ancient art of Origami, but thanks to two individuals in Russia using 21st century technology, this 7th century Japanese art form is accessible to anyone. Yuri and Katrin Shumakov have created Oriland.com, which provides everything you need to make your own animals, plants, boxes and decorations by folding paper. The site provides complete instructions with illustrated patterns and Flash animations that show you what to do. Unlike many sites that use Flash, the animations here are actually useful, not just decorative.
Frogs are delicacies here in France, but around the world they're also used for educational purposes to help children understand the anatomy of living creatures. Unfortunately, this has traditionally required the demise of millions of frogs, but now it's possible to conduct a virtual dissection thanks to Froguts.com, one of the winners in the individual category. Run by Richard Hill, a middle school teacher from Tampa, Fla., the site not only saves frogs' lives, but enhances the educational experience. Even better than a real dissection, Froguts.com gives students an understanding of the life cycle of a frog from tadpole to adult and provides far more detail on how the frogs' various organs work together. Even if your interest in frogs is purely culinary, it's worth a visit to find out what they're actually made of.
Caring for family members can be tough at any age but is especially hard on teenagers who must tend to the needs of parents or siblings who are chronically ill or disabled. The Young Carers Club of West London is a support group for these very hard working and often stressed out teenagers. The project has plenty of offline activities but it also has a Web site: www.bubbleycrew.org.uk that gives these extraordinary young people a place to express their frustrations and joys. The teens were taught to construct simple Flash animation pages that reveal what their lives are like. Without wallowing in self-pity, it expresses their feelings about this most difficult work.
It is inspiring that most of the sites represented at the Childnet Awards are operating with little or no outside funding. They are truly labors of love from people who have invested their time and creativity. It proves that it is now possible for an individual or small group of people to have a global impact without having to necessarily look for handouts or subsidies. It also shows the potential power of children in the 21st century who often posses the skill, the drive and even the resources to reach out around the world to share a hobby, express a thought or plant an idea.
A syndicated technology columnist for nearly two decades, Larry Magid serves as on air Technology Analyst for CBS Radio News. His technology reports can be heard several times a week on the CBS Radio Network. Magid is the author of several books including "The Little PC Book." Got a PC question? Visit www.PCAnswer.com.