15 young women and one seven-year-old boy sit around a table above the office of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Beijing. On the table are bright orange Kano kits — machines designed to teach the basics of software programming to beginners of all ages — and circling around the group is Senegalese entrepreneur Mariéme Jamme.
Jamme is the founder of iamtheCODE, a global, UN-backed educational initiative with the stated goal of “enabling 1 million women and girls coders by 2030.” This is Jamme’s eighth visit to China in as many years, but her first iamtheCODE hackathon in the country. The excited chatter filling the room indicates that it’s off to a good start.
After a brief breakaway session with Jamme, the 16 young coders rejoin the rest of the group — 60 people total, two-thirds women, with an average age around 22 years old — for the main event: a three-way competition to hack together a solution to some of the UN’s sustainable development goals.
One group, who’ve named themselves Education for Everyone, is tackling Quality Education; the GoForHer group has selected Gender Equality as their mission; a third, GoGreen, chooses to battle Climate Change. The groups labor for hours on the afternoon of Sunday, August 27, developing concepts for mobile and web applications that could address these challenges in China, and hacking together prototypes under the tutelage of a handful of teachers on loan from the Beijing office of technology consultancy ThoughtWorks.
Lunch is a small mountain of six-inch subs, which are picked up and ported back to the three long tables, eaten carefully over the array of laptops, tablets, and smartphone screens given over to the task at hand.
Most of the participants are from top universities in Beijing, says ThoughtWorks employee Zhong Yuan, who is working the event as a coach facilitator. “Beijing has a big city mentality,” she says, adding that people in third- and fourth-tier Chinese cities, small towns, and rural areas might be more in need of iamtheCODE’s services. Nevertheless, she says that she’s personally inspired by the mission, citing a passion for gender equality in her own line of work. ThoughtWorks selected 10 coaches for the event out of 1,000 CVs — all are men.
Some of the attendees of iamtheCODE’s China launch did travel from outside Beijing. Wu Renyu, a 21-year-old undergraduate at the Jiangxi University of Finance and Economics in central China, said that she traveled to Beijing to network and pick up additional skills that might help her with future postgraduate studies. A self-taught coder, Wu began with the C programming language, and last year attended a MATLAB coding competition pitched at solving big-data problems around traffic flow in Chinese megacities.
Wu said that in her university, software programming is usually assumed to be the domain of men, but that some of her professors have encouraged her to learn coding despite the gender gap in the field. Wu plans to stick to finance after she graduates, but believes she’ll need programming skills to maintain a competitive edge. “This is an era of technological development,” she says. “In the future having a postgraduate degree will be the equivalent of having an undergraduate degree today. Being able to program helps alleviate competitive work pressure.”
Cen Huixin, a 24-year-old social worker from the southern tech hub Shenzhen, had just started teaching herself coding basics a week before she came up to Beijing for the event “to meet new friends.” She expresses an interest in teaching her colleagues what she learns at iamtheCODE, in part to help accelerate repetitive tasks like data entry.
Beijinger Li Xi, at 7 years old the hackathon’s youngest participant, said he was there because his mom dropped him off. When asked what he thinks about it, he says, “it’s ok.”
As the aspiring hackers hack, 22-year-old Bai Hefei floats around the room, maintaining communications between Jamme, iamtheCODE pupiles, ThoughtWorks coaches, reporters from an African television station, and fellow UNDP personnel. Originally from Guangdong in the south, Bai studied International Relations in college and has been working with the UNDP for almost a year.
“I can tell from their sharing, and discussions with them, that both experienced programmers and coding freshmen have had gains from the event,” she says. “For the former, they understood [UNDP’s] sustainable development goals, and knew there were possibilities to connect their technology skills with development areas which broaden the opportunity of their future career and work. For the latter, they learned basic coding in a fun way and experienced on their own how a prototype can be built.”
In the end, GoGreen won the day with their thoughtfully hacked together prototype for an app that awards “C Coins” as the user diminishes their carbon footprint by leaning off use of connected appliances like air conditioning units. Jamme, in tears during her closing remarks, is careful to point out that every participant contributed to the event’s success. “Code transcends language,” she says, announcing a plan to multiply the day’s proceedings and enlist 1,000 girls in China into iamtheCODE’s ranks by 2019. “Sometimes I doubt it’s gonna work, but now I know it’s working,” she concludes. “iamtheCODE works. It works for everybody. It works for a girl in Mombasa, it works for a girl in Beijing.”
Photos courtesy UNDP