Plaque at National Software Centre in Cork marks CoderDojo’s 2nd birthday

24 Dec 2013

Minister for Agriculture, Food and Marine Simon Coveney with CoderDojo co-founders James Whelton and Bill Liao at the unveiling of the plaque at the National Software Centre in Cork

Simon Coveney, Ireland’s Minister for Agriculture, Food and Marine, unveiled a plaque at the National Software Centre in Cork on 13 December to mark the second birthday of coding movement CoderDojo, which today operates in 31 countries.

One might wonder why the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Marine? But it was no accident that it was Coveney who officiated the ceremony.

When 19-year-old coding enthusiast James Whelton and his CoderDojo co-founder Bill Liao reached out to Government back in July 2011, Cork-based Coveney was quick to spot the potential of this new coding initiative, and came along to the first CoderDojo to be held in the National Software Centre in Cork. The pair were keen to repay his early faith in their idea.

Today the movement has been lauded by many of Ireland’s ministers, and has been twice housed in special sessions at the Irish Houses of Parliament, as well as the European parliament and the US State Department. In just over two years since its foundation by Whelton and Liao, the movement has spread to 31 countries, and this month announced it had joined forces with the US State Department’s Global Partnership Initiative and the Lions@frica initiative, to teach youth in Africa 21st-century coding skills.

afriCoderDojo takes off

CoderDojo at NSC

The CoderDojo logo is projected onto the National Software Centre building in Cork, where a special plaque was unveiled on 13 December

afriCoderDojo is a pan-African effort to teach young people to understand and build fluency in coding, and the computer languages that are used to develop websites, mobile phone applications, computer programs, and electronic games. Based on CoderDojo, afriCoderDojo will rely on a volunteer network of implementers and experienced coders located across Africa to run the two-month learning programme.

While CoderDojos have sprouted up in New York, London, Paris, Tokyo, LA, the Caribbean, Africa and Australia, Ireland remains at the heart of the movement, with 104 dojos today. Liao said his vision is for 1,000 dojos taking place each Saturday in Ireland. “That would give us blanket coverage and mean that every child in Ireland that has even an inkling of learning to code would have that opportunity (to learn).”

It is no surprise CoderDojo gains so many plaudits in Ireland. The November 2013 Forfás report from the Expert Group on Future Skills Needs indicates a continuing strong demand for high-level ICT skills, with 44,500 job openings forecast to arise over the period to 2018. If we Ireland is to aspire to fill these jobs, it certainly needs initiatives that teach kids the skills and abilities that will stand to them in the 21st-century economy, said Coveney.

“When you look at James and Bill, you are talking about visionaries here, and I think Irish people don’t say that about themselves,” he said. “We tend to look to other countries for inspiration, particularly in business, but let nobody underestimate what began here a relatively short time ago, with people who were willing to take a risk and had an imagination so broad and ambitious that they have turned what was a room with a few computers and kids into a global movement.

“In a few years we’ll look back on this as an extraordinary new way of teaching, with young people teaching other young people,” Coveney added. “In my view, it’s a concept we could use more broadly in education in Ireland.”

Whelton said it’s great to see CoderDojo – the first one in July 2011, particularly – ‘set in stone’ at the National Software Centre.

“It was a great month for me as it was not only the birth of CoderDojo, but I had just finished my Leaving Certificate,” said Whelton, serving up a reminder of just how young he was when he met Liao and got CoderDojo under way.

Creation by community

Liao said it is rare to have something like CoderDojo created by a community. “It doesn’t happen that often. We are only here because of the good will of Irish people in tough times,” he said, referring to the CoderDojo mentors and supporters who give their time for free.

“You might have been able to start this in Silicon Valley in the boom times with a tonne of money and publicity. But in the toughest of times, Irish people got the idea, took a risk and said ‘let’s do it.'”

The movement has not done Ireland’s image abroad any harm either, according to Liao. “Every CoderDojo around the world sees Cork as the centre of the universe, and they see Ireland as this wonderful tech hub,” he said.

He went on to recount a story of a US tech founder he had just met that had moved to Galway, where his kids were learning to code at a dojo, whereas back in Palo Alto, California, they had never had that opportunity.

Further afield, the inaugural afriCoderDojo clubs are due to launch in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania, and Lagos, Nigeria, in January 2014. This Cork-born movement could well become a household name on one more continent.

A version of this article appeared in The Sunday Times on 22 December

Ann O’Dea is the CEO and co-founder of Silicon Republic and the founder of Future Human