Child coders teach Europe’s leaders the lingua franca of the 21st century

5 Feb 2013

Maria do Céu Patrao Neves, MEP (Portugal); CoderDojo co-founder Bill Liao; Mazej Kukovic, MEP (Slovenia); Sean Kelly, MEP (Ireland South); Nessa Childers, MEP (Ireland East); Jim Higgins, MEP (Ireland North West) and CoderDojo co-founder James Whelton

When James Whelton was a 14-year-old teenager growing up in Cork he got a call from a panicked neighbour whose nephew had just been diagnosed with a tumour behind his eye. A scan had just been completed and doctors in the US needed the scan within 24 hours but the broadband of the day wouldn’t allow it.

Whelton quickly wrote a software app that allowed the doctors in the US to view the brain scan over the internet. The doctors were able to determine the correct surgery and treatment and today that child is alive, although minus one eye.

“I learned early on that coding and writing software could make a difference,” Whelton, now 20, told spellbound MEPs recently at the European Parliament in Brussels.

The message Whelton has to give comes at a time when the world is at its weakest economically but at its strongest in science and innovation terms. A shortage of programming talent, however, is a major weak spot that could impede nations’ ability to get on the road to growth.

Whelton hit the world’s headlines three years ago, when he became the first person in the world to hack the Apple iPod nano. At school, friends kept coming up to him asking him to show them how he did it.

This gave him an idea. Two years ago and weeks after he completed his Leaving Cert with the help of entrepreneur Bill Liao, Whelton started up non-profit organisation CoderDojo on a Saturday morning with the simple idea that kids would show up and with the help of mentors learn how to code. Within weeks, CoderDojos began happening in community halls and office canteens from Arranmore off the coast of Donegal to major cities like London and New York.

Today, more than 16,000 children worldwide are taught software every Saturday in more than 120 dojos in 22 countries, including places such as LA, Silicon Valley, Tokyo, Africa and the Caribbean – all on a voluntary basis.

Software education in schools

The pressing need for schools to introduce software education to the curriculum was the purpose that brought 36 kids, along with Whelton and Liao, to the EU Parliament last week.

Twenty-six of the kids came from all over Ireland with a smattering of other keen dojo kids from Spain, the UK, Slovenia, France and the Netherlands and the chatter of six-year-olds melded with the keen questioning of MEPs, who included Cork’s Sean Kelly (Ireland South), Maria do Céu Patrao Neves MEP (Portugal), Mazej Kukovič MEP (Slovenia), Nessa Childers MEP (Ireland East), and Jim Higgins MEP (Ireland North West).

The underlying message impressed on those present was that it made no sense waiting until school-leavers went to university to learn how to write in this new language. The kids needed to start early.

Liao reminded those present in the assembly rooms of the EU Parliament that in the Harry Potter books, there were two kinds of people – wizards who knew magic and muggles who didn’t.

“Coding is not our past, it is our future and understanding the language of code is the closest thing to real magic that humanity can produce and if we can start young enough we can create a global resource.”

Liao said the reason why there are so few of the technology graduates needed to power the current global innovation boom led by players like Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Google is that people aren’t being encouraged to take an interest in technology at a young enough age.

MEP Sean Kelly said he would like to see CoderDojo-style coding included as an aspect of education that sits alongside languages, PE and music education.

“Schools have busy enough programmes as it is but it’s about creating the capacity and awareness in the classroom and following through by expanding this movement into every part of Europe and beyond.”

Gazing over at the Irish boys and girls sitting on the podium, he laughed: “They’re sitting where normally prime ministers and presidents from around the world sit and they’re sending a message directly to the European Parliament. I will be asking my fellow MEPs to establish dojos in their countries.”

CoderDojo expands

Already business leaders around the world are seeing the merits of kickstarting CoderDojos in their communities. Disney vice-president for technology Una Fox heard about CoderDojo last year and was inspired to establish a chapter in LA.

During a visit to Ireland, Belgian businesswoman Martine Temples, a senior VP at Telenet, heard about it and started her first CoderDojo in Antwerp this weekend, with more than 30 kids signing up.

But what about the kids themselves? Some of the kids who honed their software skills have gone on to make technology industry history. Harry Moran (14) at the age of 12 became the world’s youngest Mac app creator after his game PizzaBot dashed past Angry Birds last year in the Mac app charts.

Waterford 12-year-old Jordan Casey last year became one of the world’s youngest iOS app creators at 11 when his first game Green Boy Touch went into App Store.

Amid the whirr of programmed AR drones, the clatter of keyboards and the excited banter of six and eight-year-olds, the European machine was hacked this week and just maybe the penny finally dropped.

A version of this interview first appeared in The Sunday Times on 3 February

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years