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Writing Apps to Empower Girls and Help the World

There has been a lot of discussion lately about the dearth of computer scientists in the workforce, and the corollary, the need to teach computer science to help fill that shortage. At the same time, a lot of people argue that software engineering (design) is being outsourced to India (and other places), so the real picture can be rather confusing. A recent program on NPR, Who's Hiring H1-B Visa Workers? It's Not Who You Might Think added more fuel to the debate. However, as a K8 computer science teacher, my impetus for teaching CS, is not about long term career opportunities, but about the actual power of computing and its impact on society.

My experience last December at the Global Random Hacks of Kindness event, brought the idea into focus, when I developed an app called Empowering Girls with Trinity College student, Pauline Lake, for the World Bank as part of the Sanitation Hackathon. The goal of the hackathon was to encourage "citizen-designed and technology-enabled solutions to sanitation challenges in the developing world." This event was not about landing a job. It was about helping people. I also did not know at the time, that there were other computer programmers from around the world, who would be developing their own solutions as well.

Our app was the direct result of the "Sanitation + girls = education + empowerment" problem that was posted to the Sanitation Hackathon site. The problem called for a text-based app that could be used to track girls' attendance in Cameroon schools, before and after gender-friendly facilities were introduced into these schools. As both educators and females, Pauline and I found that the "Sanitation + girls = education + empowerment" problem hit close to home. Also, with previous experience using mobile app creation using App Inventor, we felt that we could use our expertise to make a useful app to address the sanitation problem in Cameroon. Thus our app, Empowering Girls, was born.

The objective of our app is to help determine the impact of an NGO by tracking girls' attendance in conjunction with the implementation of a school-based health education program, improved girl-friendly sanitation facilities, and the introduction of proper feminine hygiene products. By empowering the girls at the local schools to record their own attendance, the app would help the NGO evaluate the effectiveness of these interventions.

Sadly, many girls in developing countries do not get a proper education. According to a 2005 report from UNICEF, Sanitation: The Challenge, 1 in 10 school-age African girls drop out of school when they enter adolescence or miss school approximately a week a month because of poor sanitation facilities in their school.

The lack of proper sanitation facilities and timely health and hygiene education has been shown to play a significant role in the attendance rate for young girls. It has been theorized that with proper mitigation attendance rates would rise, thus helping girls get the education they deserve.

I had no idea, when I created Empowering Girls last December, that the app would become part of a bigger project, the Sanitation Hackathon App Challenge. Over 30 apps were developed and submitted to the World Bank for review. On March 22, the World Bank announced the finalists for the Sanitation Hackathon App Challenge. Much to my surprise, our app was in the top 10.

Now we wait. The Grand Prize Award winners of the Sanitation Hackathon App Challenge will be announced on April 19, on the eve of the World Bank's Spring Meeting. In the meantime, I am thrilled to have been able to participate in such an important event. My first experience "hacking for humanity" was very inspiring. I was not looking for fame or fortune, however, I was looking to have an impact, and by participating in the global event, I did just that.

No matter how this ends, the journey is one I look forward to repeating and one I can't wait to share with my students. Hopefully they will walk away from their first Random Hacks of Kindness event with the same feeling of accomplishment, because I want more than anything for my students to believe they can make a difference.

For additional information about the finalists and to watch the videos check out:


Patrice Gans
CSTA K-8 Task Force Chair

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