It is a well-established fact that children learn better and absorb their lessons faster when they are personally involved in applying the fruit of their knowledge, or when they participate in the actual development of tools meant to teach what they are learning. In an era of prevalent technology for children in homes and schools alike, coding and software development - including for games - are increasingly becoming an important and inescapable step in the education process, helping to enhance student's critical and computational thinking, problem-solving and digital literacy skills, creative thinking and determination.
This positive trend has been an integral part of UNODC's Education for Justice (E4J) initiative, a component of the Global Programme for the Implementation of the Doha Declaration. While educational tools are being developed by E4J for all ages at the primary, secondary and tertiary level, coding exercises and competitions, known as hackathons, are specifically aimed at middle and high school students aged 13 to 18.
The impact of using interactive factors at the secondary level has also been appreciated by numerous NGOs around the globe, some of which partner with UNODC as they try to extend the benefits of coding to youth from disadvantaged communities. Among them, to name but one, is Africa Teen Geeks which provides IT training in South Africa and which joined UNODC in co-organizing a global hackathon.
Nearly a year after having competed in - and won - UNODC-organized national hackathons in Jakarta ,Johannesburg, and La Paz, these ambitious, tech-savvy children found themselves enthusiastically walking into the headquarters of one of the world's leading cyber security corporations, Symantec, in the heart of the iconic Silicon Valley. Joined by a local team convened by Oakland-based 'The Social Engineering Project', the 20 youngsters from four countries came together in California to design and programme games promoting UNODC-mandated issues, including crime prevention, criminal justice and respect for the rule of law. This mix of teens from Africa, Asia, and North and South America, ensured that a wide range of backgrounds, experiences, languages, and insights into the world were present.
At stake in this global hackathon, as the students now competed against one another, was the top place amongst the teams developing games revolving around the general context of justice and the rule of law. Over the course of three invigorating days, these young justice coders designed mobile apps meant to educate on global challenges such as corruption, organized crime, human trafficking, migrant smuggling, firearms trafficking, terrorism, and issues relating to cybercrime and cyber security.
Helping guide the contestants on these issues, UNODC staff were on hand providing insights into these topics to ensure accuracy in the final apps. Each team was also assigned Symantec mentors, who were instrumental in helping fine-tune ideas, consider app feasibility, and offer technical guidance around development and programming. As several of the mentors noted during the competition, it was an amazing experience for them to see how such young minds were considering the potential of technology to promote justice and social good.
Both the South African team - 'Wakanda Vibes' - and the participants from the US - team 'Hidden Coders' - built apps focussing on human trafficking, highlighting the importance in the minds of young people of tackling this crime. The two apps, which were developed independently of one another, provide users with quick, handy resources to get information about the topic. Meanwhile the Bolivia participants - team 'Cultura Marraqueta', named after a traditional Bolivian bread - looked at online risks that social media can pose, such as cybercrime and human trafficking. The app is designed to teach teenagers how to be safe online by protecting their personal information. Lastly, the Indonesian team - 'Beyond Zero' - chose to focus on cybercrime in their game. The teen creators aimed to promote equality and equal development within society through players having to build infrastructures such as schools, hospitals, and police stations. To advance, a series of problems such as corruption, cybercrime and migrant smuggling have to be navigated.
There could, however, only be one ultimate winner. With both the jury and the contestants voting for their favourite submission in an equally weighted split, the team from South Africa was placed first. The teenagers from 'Wakanda Vibes' were ecstatic to have won, explaining that their idea was rooted in better informing people about the evils of human trafficking. Ultimately, the judges awarded this first place thanks to the apps ability allowing people to take action and report instances of human trafficking to authorities.
Initiatives such as these aim to inspire tomorrow's adults to promote change among their peers in order to build a better, safer world. In this respect, while the underlying purpose of most hackathons is indeed to introduce and train young minds to all facets of programming and to promote a culture of innovation, this global hackathon was also designed to propagate the values and the concepts which can help strengthen a culture of lawfulness. In many ways, these young coders were all winners, their output a true testament to empowering students to play an active role in the development of educational games.