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Latifa’s advice to girls interested in coding is to just do it – she recommends tutorials and youtube videos online which can be used to learn the basics. Credit: Kate Pawelczyk

And what that means for preventing a new form of digital divide

In September I travelled as part of a small UNICEF group to Costa Rica for the 2013 Global Youth Summit. Arriving at the summit venue in the morning of day 2 we were greeted mostly by empty hallways and rooms. Most of the participants were out at the National Stadium of Costa Rica attending the first session of the day – Be Healthy.

One room, however, was occupied – the venue for the summit hackathon. We had tried to go in the day before when the hackathon had just started, but were told that we would have to wait until later to gain entrance, as the participants were just beginning to work on their respective challenges. This time around, the door was open and I eagerly peered in. The room was full of teams hard at works, with coffee cups and snacks strewn on the tables among the laptop computers; and a couple of blankets crumpled on the floor – used by those who had worked straight through the night.

The purpose of the hackathon was for teams to design and code digital solutions for development challenges linked to the MDGs. You can read more about the details of the hackathon here. I had a few minutes to spare and was really eager to speak to some of the hackathon participants as they prepared to put the final touches on their prototypes.

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Many of the participants of the Global Youth Summit hackathon worked through the night to design and code their solutions. Credit: Kate Pawelczyk

I was thoroughly impressed – during the last few years at UNICEF I have listened to many tech developers present their solutions to various development issues; and much of what I heard while talking to two of the groups from the hackathon was certainly on a par with these.

Furthermore, it was really cool to see that the room was not just dominated by guys (who, let’s face do still tend to outnumber women in the computer science and coding field). I was especially keen to speak with some of the female coders who were taking part in the hackathon challenges. I spent some time talking to Latifa, who is 21 and from Qatar and she told me how she got into coding and hackathons:

 “I decided to take part in the hackathon because it was an amazing opportunity that I couldn’t pass on. A chance to take part in a 24hr event where you code and try to come up with a solution is amazing. My group has been assigned the category of environment and we’ve been given data on CO2 emissions in Qatar. One of the things that emits a lot of CO2 is vehicles, and in our country people don’t carpool or walk. So we’re looking at a solution to raise awareness and encourage people to change their behavior; but also to influence government and policy.

We’re developing a mobile app that users can use in their vehicles and track their emissions. In addition, it will also provide stats that can be sent to the Government who can use it to inform policy. We also want to make the app into like a game, incorporate social networks and allow users to build communities with their friends and see who is doing better. If this is taken up by the Government we could also have rewards for people who reduce their emissions.

I got into tech and coding because I was taught com-sci (computer science) in high school and I loved it. I know many girls don’t have that opportunity. Since then I’ve participated in many competitions. If you don’t have a chance to learn about coding at school try and participate in events outside of it. There are also resources on the Internet that can help you learn and Youtube tutorials that make it really simple. It is also fun to get involved with your friends. It might be hard when you start; you’re not going to get it right the first time… but keep trying… and eventually even when you get a small thing right when programming, it feels really great.”

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Latifa and her team work on their solution during the 2013 Global Youth Summit hackathon. Credit: Kate Pawelczyk

I was really inspired by Latifa’s story and by some of the other young women I spoke with. Their stories left me feeling that there is a need for us to show girls and young women that this is something they can do – no matter who they are and where they are from.  Some of the data and research I have seen shows that while girls may have equal (or almost equal) access to mobile phones and internet, they aren’t necessarily using these digital tools in the same way as boys. And in an increasingly digital global economy it is crucial that girls don’t get left behind because they don’t have the same technical skills as boys.

By Katarzyna Pawelczyk
Digital Citizenship and Safety Coordinator
kpawelczyk(at)unicef.org
Tel +1 212 326 7370

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