She wrote code for fun – now she’s EU Digital Girl of the Year

Niamh Scanlon (13) started writing code through CoderDojo and hasn’t looked back

Niamh Scanlon: one of her apps won her a CoderDojo Coolest Projects award in 2014 and recognition at the 2015 Eir Junior Spider awards. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Niamh Scanlon: one of her apps won her a CoderDojo Coolest Projects award in 2014 and recognition at the 2015 Eir Junior Spider awards. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

Niamh Scanlon is not an average 13-year-old.

Sure, she loves her iPhone, and thinks Justin Bieber’s new songs are okay. Like others of her age, she’s never had the “pleasure” of dial-up internet access, she’s never heard of Netscape or Napster, and the floppy disk has never featured in her life.

“You know the save icon on the computer? They used to exist in real life,” her mother tells her.

But where she breaks from the mould is she has just been named the European Union’s Digital Girl of the Year.

Before she turned nine, Niamh had never written a line of code. But with the encouragement of her mother she joined CoderDojo in DCU and under the mentors there began to lay the foundations for her interest in writing software.

CoderDojo is a global movement of programming clubs aimed at encouraging children to learn how to code in a fun way.

Founded by James Whelton and Bill Liao in 2011, the movement has stretched across the globe with Dojos in more than 60 countries.

It is all aimed at exposing children to ICT at a young age. If you were to use Niamh Scanlon as an example, it is doing something right.

Niamh has already built two apps, one of which won her an award in the CoderDojo Coolest Projects in 2014 and recognition at the 2015 Eir Junior Spider awards.

Recharge My eCar is an app that tells electric car drivers which charging stations are in use in real time, meaning fewer wasted journeys for drivers who need to find a charging point in a hurry don’t want to waiting around in queues for people to finish charging.

The idea came from a conversation with her father before he invested in his electric car.

Niamh contacted ESB to see if she could use its data to determine which stations were currently in use.

“I found it quite difficult at the start to put the data in because I’d never really done anything like that before,” she says. “But with the help of the CoderDojo mentors, I figured it out.”

The final app hasn’t been released to the general public yet – she’s still perfecting it – but there’s already interest in it online.

The second is Auto-Journalist, an app Niamh worked on for Coolest Projects 2015 that helps journalists to conduct interviews by sending a list of questions to interviewees.

“The interviewee can record themselves with the camera on their phone or the microphone, answer the questions and send it back to the journalist. They can do all that through the app.”

It could have wider uses though, for families and friends to keep in touch, or for companies carrying out product repairs, or for schools, using the app as a digital version of penpals.

It’s not all about tech for Niamh. She’s heavily involved with GAA, playing football since she was four years old. That particular influence comes from her father, Fearghal. Another hobby is playing the piano, which she took up at the age of seven.

She admits it’s more difficult to find the time to fit in schoolwork, hobbies and the tech side of things but Niamh is still committed to CoderDojo. One of the key principles of the club is that it’s a community, staffed by volunteers. The children who start off in CoderDojo and stick with the programme can end up as mentors as they progress, giving a bit back to the community and passing on the benefit of what they’ve learned.

“I started mentoring a year after I started at CoderDojo, first at the girls CoderDojo. Instead of having soccer games, you’d have fashion games instead – things are tailored for girls instead. Then I started mentoring for the Scratch CoderDojo , which is like a drag-and-drop interface for basic learning how to code.”

Not everyone will reach Niamh’s level of commitment to coding. But today’s generation of children are growing up with technology as something that’s woven tightly into their lives, and the idea of not having always-on internet access is an alien concept. It doesn’t do any harm to find out a bit about how these things work, particularly given the emphasis on high-tech jobs currently coming from the Government.

Her coding work has given Niamh a new appreciation for the work that goes into building apps.

“I guess I just thought it appeared. I never thought about what happens in the background. I just saw it and thought I’d play this game – it never even came to mind that someone might be working on it in the background.”

The CoderDojo for Girls in particular has been a useful tool to help encourage more girls to participate in technology, with projects that are more tailored to their interests.

Niamh has also helped with the Hour of Code project, a global initiative that was supported by Microsoft

“I did an hour of code with fifth and sixth class people. It was just a small one this year – this was their first one – and they’re thinking next year about having a bring your own devices hackathon maybe.”

The teenager has also started to make contacts outside Ireland, through a trip to the Outbox accelerator in London may yet yield more for Niamh. The programme, which is aimed at girls between the age of 11-22, gives the participants access to talks on marketing, pitching, coding, as well as opening their network up to new people. There was also a trip to Amsterdam for an Appathon, and Niamh has also spoken at the launch of Inspirefest and the Web Summit in 2014.

For now, Niamh is still getting used to her new title. The award was presented to Niamh and her UK counterpart Yasmin Bey at a ceremony in Luxembourg.Her school – Niamh is in first year – didn’t mind giving her the time off to attend the ceremony.

“I think it’s going to open up a lot more doors,” she said.

Her school doesn’t have any tech focused programmes to help encourage students towards technology, but that may be changing.

“My principal was congratulating me and she said maybe in the new year I could do something in the school with coding. Maybe they’re starting to see the need to introduce more tech and more coding in the school.”

Although she knows she wants to have her own technology business in the future, Niamh isn’t rushing into things just yet. It’s a difficult decision, she says. But potentially on the list for a future project is a more hardware-focused path.

“I’d like to learn more about the hardware side of technology – taking things apart, putting them back together, building robots,” she says. “I’ve tried a bit out in CoderDojo, sometimes they have Hackathons.” A recent Christmas-themed hackathon saw participants light up baubles, which was a fun introduction to things.

Whatever path she takes, it’s worth keeping an eye on this particular teenager.

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