Sophie goes to Banja Luka

humming…. pen-pineapple-apple-pen…

I never thought a 6 hour bus ride could be so enjoyable (in hindsight it was partly due to the curasáns from the bakery). To be honest, if you had told me a few years ago that I’d be travelling that long for an IT training I never would’ve believed you. But here I was – on my way to the beautiful city of Banja Luka with 2 Microsoft student trainers and Erma, Aleksandra, Lamija an Armina from the IT Girls team for what became one of the most memorable weekends of my seven month experience in Bosnia & Herzegovina.

As we arrived at the ICBL training center on Saturday morning, I was eager to meet the 12 young girls who had signed up for our last IT Girls training of the year. To my surprise, many of the girls spoke perfect English (amongst other languages) and we immediately started chatting. They were confident, bubbly and full of energy – ready to take on their 3rd day of coding. As I watched them <code> away, I was amazed at their teamwork skills, the way they took on a new challenge and most of all, their know-how. Rialda and Džana, 2 of our 4 trainers who have gone on tour to give trainings in Doboj, Srebrenica, Mostar, Drvar and now Banja Luka, seemed even more at ease than usual and I was truly in awe at the way the young girls admired them.

After wrapping up that afternoon we reminded the girls of the diploma ceremony the following day and encouraged them to invite their families and friends. On our way to do some sightseeing in Banja Luka, we discussed the logistics of our final event. After a beautiful stroll on the main pedestrian street, we visited the Kastel Fortress and saw the Safikada site (my newly adopted nick-name). We then decided to have a famous soufflé at the beautiful restaurant of Mala Stanica and the team was ready to call it a night… and get a drink at a local pub!

castelPart of the IT Girls team in Banja Luka with Rialda and Džana doing some sight-seeing! – Missing Ena, Arijana and Jeremy (October 22nd, 2016).

After some unsuccessful husband-hunting, the team laughed it off by discussing the successful year. I didn’t know – but we were actually celebrating the one year existence of the IT Girls project! Older members of the team (you know who you are) reminisced about the excitement they felt receiving the news from the UN that their project had been awarded and they would get funding to implement it! Now, a full year later to the day, sitting around a drink, they had the girls’ faces in mind and could really see the impact they had made in the lives of 73 girls in BiH.

But these emotions would also carry on to the next day. Our dearest communications expert, Aleks, delivered a short presentation on public speaking and self-marketing to the teenagers before they published their final products – websites on movies, fashion, photography and the empowerment of women. They then presented these to a captivated group of parents and friends, who proudly took pictures of their daughters and commented to the team the value that such training brought to them. Even after joining the team on a mostly ad-hoc basis, it was hard to contain my emotions and I could feel the energy and optimism in the room.

14813175_10154265892769340_1148377048_oMicrosoft student trainers, participants, Aleks and Erma during the diploma ceremony (Banja Luka, October 23rd, 2016).

As difficult as goodbyes are, the 6 of us took the bus back that night and I could feel that we were all extremely satisfied. More. Girls. Had. Been. Trained. In. Coding. In. BiH! Girls learned how to create their own websites, parents backed-up the idea and *spoiler*alert* some even suggested possible ways to further scale up the project, but most of all – girls’ confidence was strengthened and they finally felt supported!

As we now discuss the next steps of the project, I am sure of one thing – Sophiekada will never forget this inspiring weekend (also because of all the jokes and great memories!). It gives me hope that incredible women, parents, IT companies and girls believe in the future benefits of coding and understand that trying something new and being challenged can bring about lasting change in the lives of girls and women around the world.

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Why being a pessimist is not a good idea!

I remember the chain of emails that said in all caps lock: PRESENT DURING INTERNATIONAL YOUTH DAY (IYD). I opened the email and hoped somebody else within UNICEF, read Lamija, would proudly represent our organization during this event so that I could continue my daily work. Passing by Lamija’s office later in the day I heard her say:

Jeremy!- (I knew she was going to ask me about the email) – Did you get the email about international youth day? – Yes. – Are you going to present? – No, I was expecting you would do something. – I hoped you would do it…

It appeared we both had the same strategy to try and avoid disappointing our UNICEF office. After a bit of discussion Lamija left me no choice but to carry the UNICEF colours on IYD. And so I decided to present something on a subject I am passionate about – technology in emergencies inspired by the work of Patrick Meier (who we interviewed for IT Girls!).

On the day of a lot of people showed up, including senior management and Lamija. The presentations were quite interesting, and this email that was received with its fair share of cynicism, led to an excellent opportunity to learn about what other young people were doing.  But things became MUCH MORE interesting when Deputy Resident Representative Zahira from UNDP told us: let’s organize a competition for 5,000 USD for young people under 30 to come up with an innovative idea to address issues that are relevant to them! This stayed in the back of my head and I remembered a discussion we had when developing a youth strategy that teaching IT skills to young people was an area UNICEF should explore.

Walking in the corridor I saw Lamija and she said: let’s talk about the challenge! Do you have time for coffee? – Of course! After remembering our conversation about the importance of IT skills for young people, Lamija suggested: ‘It’s a good idea… but let’s do it for girls’! BOOM… ITGirls, even though it was not called that yet (that’s for another blog post), started as a concept. We were so excited and so we started brainstorming on who to get involved! Aleksandra from UNWOMEN? Yeah she’s cool! Erma from child protection? Yeah sure she just started but that’s fine! Later Erma suggested Arijana? Yeah sure the more the merrier! And the female version of the A-team plus one male was formed!

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Little did I know down the line that with this amazingly competent, sometimes dysfunctional team we would i) win the competition ii) successfully implement the first phase and iii) have such a great time doing it! ITGirls is not the biggest project I have worked on but it is the most interesting. Taking an idea from scratch and seeing it become reality is something that I encourage everybody to do and I can’t stress enough how by making a small effort these things will happen.

Being pessimistic is not a good idea. Why bother attending the IYD? Well it allowed me to get involved in a unique project where i) I had the chance to meet and hear about inspiring girls wanting to improve their lives by learning IT skills, ii) I interviewed a role model of mine, Patrick Meier and most importantly iii) I saw a group of exceptionally motivated young people take an idea from a concept to a reality with all its ups and downs. Even though I am not in Bosnia and Herzegovina anymore the IT Girls project will forever remain one of the most rewarding journeys I embarked. It started a year ago today, and  was made possible thanks to the dedication, and hard work of the girls below.

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On IYD we want to encourage all the young people to take initiatives and take risks. The information era has provided our generation with an enormous opportunity where one can learn anything online! This is what we are trying to encourage through IT Girls and this what we encourage you to do!

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The future is now: Girls work by themselves and everything works

Twelve girls aged 13 to 15 made 5 web pages (from scratch!) in 4 days, with the help from Google, Microsoft and their mentors. Below is my experience of this machinery called #PostaniITGirl.

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Author: Haris Dedović

Sunday is the day hated by many. Some call it the most depressing day. And the poor Sunday, charged but not guilty, has this reputation because of someone else – Monday. I hate Sundays as well. Actually, I hate it for some different reasons, but never mind. On this Sunday I woke up fresh- we did not go out last night. Usually we hated Saturdays, and not because of Sundays, but because of Fridays. Again, that’s not fair.

There was a training in the UN House which I had to cover and write something about. I’m thinking- just another event article. 5W, a photo, equipment, and bah- bye.

But that did not happen. In the room there were 3 trainers, 12 girls, 6 women who were organizers, Jeremy, and myself. I don’t know what Jeremy’s role in the project was, but I’m sure for that particular moment he wasn’t doing anything. I came there to get few statements from the participants and a photo or two, although Aleksandra covered the photo part more than well.

During the break I talked with the training participants and asked them how they felt and what their impressions were. I had to keep in mind that I was pretty clueless about coding and the young girls would need to explain everything from scratch to me, and they did. They started laughing as they couldn’t believe there was someone younger than 50 who didn’t know anything about coding. Well, I’m sure there are some things they don’t know about too.

So they start explaining to me from the beginning: “First we got some papers to draw what we would like to make”, says Amina, while her colleague interrupts: “they made something for students, but we also wanted to do something to help students, but since their idea was similar we didn’t want to look like we copied them, so we changed the idea into a webpage for travelling.”

Some girls heard about the training on TV, others via Facebook, and some were informed by their teachers, and I found out that at least half of them wanted to choose coding as their future career.

And then I said through my teeth: “Well, it sounds boring to me…”

The answer was more than clear, because every one of them, interlacing with the pitch of their voices, said: ”It’s not, not, nooot!”And then it was clear to me why they wanted to do coding in the future – they actually liked it!

As everything was clear there, I approached their trainers and talked to them briefly- they were IT students who are already serious coders.

On my question how is everything going on, one of the trainers answered: ”The girls are too smart.” I added laughing, “Are you already afraid for your work?” They also laughed and continued: “The girls are young, but they already know so much. It’s great, because while we were growing up, there were no opportunities like this for girls. And also we noticed something interesting. They say they talk about coding in their schools and with their peers. I’m not sure if anyone ever mentioned coding in my school, and now the kids are talking about it during recess”, concludes one of the trainers while they are serious not to prolong their 5- minute break. The break really lasted for 5 minutes.

And probably many of you wonder- but what is news here? Well, apparently for us the news is that females also code, that they can do it by themselves, and that they are great at it. For them, it’s probably old news.

The first step for more women to step into Digital Humanitarianism is to start programming

patrickmeier-homePatrick Meier is a thought leader in the area of innovation and humanitarian aid. His pioneering work has been a major inspiration for the IT Girls as it was presented on the day in which the competition was announced showing how by using IT, development and humanitarian aid could be greatly improved. When it was suggested that we interview him for the IT Girls project, Jeremy had the impression he was asked to email Superman/Superwoman. On a short notice this internationally recognized expert was happy to share a 30 min talk with a small initiative in BiH without asking any further questions. Needless to say after years of following his work on his blog it was a fantastic opportunity to hear about his experiences in encouraging innovation in humanitarian programmes and his thoughts on the role of girls in this process.

Q1: When did you realize the potential of using technology and innovation in the sector of development and humanitarian aid?

It first started during the 2010 Haiti earthquake. My wife was doing research there when the disaster happened and it was extremely difficult to get in contact with her in the initial few hours. From my Boston dorm room I set up a crisis map using the digital platform Ushaidi which used Twitter to map hardest hit areas of Port-au-Prince. The response from crisis responders was very positive and the information we were collecting through Twitter provided valuable information to save lives of people in Haiti. In the area of epidemic mapping I also realized how by mining public data researchers were able to identify a SARS outbreak months before health professionals. This was a wakeup call. The potential of using data and technology in the broader humanitarian space was huge and the possibilities endless.

Q2: How did you overcome initial resistance to innovation?

When I started out there was a lot of sceptics which could have wasted a lot of energy and time. My blog (https://irevolutions.org/) was a great platform to overcome this. I used it as a source of ideas to be shared with anyone that was interested. It was quickly circulated within the United Nations and World Bank networks and people started understanding the value of our work. By using statistical evidence and documenting our success stories people become convinced that this could be useful in their work. The Haiti earthquake clearly acted as a key moment in this sector. The discourse changed between the before and after Haiti because we were able to use crowd sourcing to do something concrete in the real world.

An area where I am working a lot now is in using UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) in humanitarian crisis. Most efforts in this area is about documenting and building the evidence base of how UAV can be used for humanitarian purposes. There are many different initiatives in this sector and I just try to get the stories published so that others can learn from their experience. I have created a network of people that are able to fly drones for the purpose of development aid and humanitarian relief called UAViators that enables them to share experiences to learn from each other and set standards for this promising technology which comes with some risks. A recent example I shared was about a company called zipline which used UAVs to ship medicines and collect blood samples to and from remote areas of Rwanda.

Q3: Why is it important to have good IT skills?

One provactive answer is that computer literacy has become a new form of literacy. It has now become crucial to use social media for professional and networking purposes. We communicate increasingly with our community online. So learning how to programme is like learning how to write. It takes a bit of effort but programming has become easier and more accessible and you can use this to have a greater impact in your environment.

With the digital humanitarian network we try to use these skills on improving humanitarian response efforts and restoring livelihoods.

Q4: What are the recent developments in the area of ‘digital humanitarianism’?

There is a shift and understanding that the amount of data generated nowadays is huge. Manually analysing these large amounts is impossible and we need to move towards automation so that decision makers can the right information in a timely manner. This is where we shift in the area of machine computing or so called machine learning. For example in aerial imagery micro satellites and robotics allow us to get better spatial data that which has major implications for crisis mapping. However these high resolution image requires a lot of time to process and this is where machine learning is becoming increasingly capable of doing this with little efforts. It is now possible to get live aerial footage which gives humanitarian responders near real time data for planning.

Q5: What would you say to girls wanting to go into computer programming?

One thing we discovered after the Ushaidi-Haiti Crisis map project (January 2010) was that the vast majority of volunteers were women and that the Ushahidi-Chile Crisis Map (March 2010) was entirely spearheaded by women. There are many ways of entering the digital world and humanitarian relief is one of them.

In this area I think it is quite important to change the digital space. With some partner we are building a network called WeRobotics. The robotics space is gender unbalanced and it will take some time until it becomes equal. And one first step for more women to go into this fascinating world is to learn computer programming.

Thinking of your IT Girls initiative I met a very interesting group of women in Australia (http://www.techgirlsmovement.org/) who have written books to encourage girls to go in the tech field. I really liked their approach and philosophy and I think that these initiatives should be encouraged.

Tea Šušić: I believed that in life nothing is impossible

tea 1The world of information and communication technologies is so vast and diverse that everybody can find something that they would like to pursue in this field. From making apps, building robots, flying drones to graphic designing and other creative challenges. Another good thing about this industry is that regardless of your limitations you can find a way to adapt your working environment to your needs and make the IT work for you. Tea Šušić, a 25-year old graphic designer from Zadar, has done exactly that, and she keeps on building up on her skills and knowledge as an aspiring graphic designer in Croatia. She holds a degree from the Faculty of Graphic Design and is currently working with a non-governmental organization “Zamisli” (Imagine) in Zagreb. Tea is also a person with hearing impairment. Read more about her path to success in our interview below.

IT Girls: How and why did you decide to study graphic technology?

Tea: I completed my secondary education at the School of Natural Sciences and Graphic Technology in Zadar with a focus on media technology. It was in high school where I first got to work with multimedia, website development and graphic design software. Due to my hearing impairment I was much better at visual media. I became interested in graphic technology and the possibility to create different visual projects. When I finished high school I wanted to go to university and specifically Graphic Design because I couldn’t picture myself doing anything else.

IT Girls: Did the fact that you have a hearing loss ever hinder your plans to pursue a career in graphic design? How did your fellow students behave at university?

Tea: Hearing loss is no obstacle for doing graphic design. In fact, better-developed visual perception can result in a special graphic expression, and a special way you see reality. My professors at university always treated me with respect and acknowledged my efforts. They included me in all the activities, even presenting in front of other students. Of course, in those situations I had assistance from the sign language translator, as well as during oral exams. I followed all the lectures with the help of a typist who typed everything that was being said onto a screen and this is how I was able to follow everything. Thanks to the support of the translator and typist, I completed my studies without having to repeat any year, and without any leftover exams. Many people around me, especially from the Deaf Association, tried to talk me out doing university studies. They were saying that it is impossible for a deaf person to study at this level. However, my will power and motivation was stronger than their negative forecasts. I believed that in life nothing is impossible. Of course I had to put in more effort than people who hear well, but I wanted to prove myself, and others that I can do it. And I did it!

IT Girls: During your studies you also did an internship. How was your first work experience? How did people accept you in their work environment?

Tea: I did my first professional internship at a big printing house where I got familiarized with the entire printing process, from placing an order, preparation, printing to distribution of the printed product. During my internship I had the support of a sign language translator. My coworkers were very friendly and they tried to explain the best way they could how the workflow went. My second internship was at a company that does graphic design and printing of promotional material. There I didn’t have a translator, but I communicated with everyone through email, which is how I received my tasks.  

IT Girls: Do you code? How can coding help you in graphic design? Are those two connected and how?

Tea: Three months ago I started a course in web application development. Coding and graphic design are a good match because in order to make innovative and informative web applications you need to know how to do computer programming, from the most simple such as contact forms to the more complicated processes. 

IT Girls: Which programming languages are you learning about and why those?

Tea: I am learning how to work in C#, ASP.NET, SQL, ADO.NET and XML. It’s a software package offered in this course, probably because they are easily applicable and sought after in the labor market.

IT Girls: What are you major interests and what would you like to do in the future?

Tea: I am interested in graphic design, but also wider graphic technology, different types of printing on different materials. I like to see the final product, with print on it. I’m also interested in digital and art photography, which is something I would like to do more in the future.

IT Girls: What would be your message to girls and young people in general who wish to take on coding and graphic design?

Tea: It is important to do something we like, we are interested in and something we take pleasure in doing. If we are interested in something then we will be ready to put in an extra effort and learn how to do it. It is important for any occupation, including graphic design and coding. Also, one has to be ready to embark on lifelong learning because the graphic technology sector and coding tend to develop fast with the development of new technologies, and it is a trend we need to follow. Things we learn at university might be considered already obsolete by the time we enter the labor market, because in the meantime other graphic software or programming languages will have been developed. Therefore, it is important to keep abreast of new inventions and new technologies.

Nagin Cox: “Dare to do mighty things”

“Find what you are interested in doing and find what you want to pursue. After 20 years I am still passionate about what I do.”

Dr. Zainab Nagin Cox is one of the leading scientists involved in NASA’s mission to explore Mars. Nagin graduated from Cornell University with a BS in Operations Research and Industrial Engineering and a BA in Psychology and was commissioned as an officer in the US Air Force. She worked in F-16 Aircrew Training and received a Master’s degree in Space Operations Systems Engineering from the Air Force Institute of Technology. As a captain, she served as an Orbital Analyst at NORAD/Space Command in Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado Springs. In 1993,she joined the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and has since served as a systems engineer and manager on multiple interplanetary robotic missions including NASA/JPL’s Galileo mission to Jupiter, the Mars Exploration Rover Missions and the Kepler telescope mission to search for earth-like planets around other stars. She is currently on the mission operations team for Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) – NASA’s Mars Curiosity Rover.

ITGirls team had the chance to meet this inspirational woman in April this year, when she visited Sarajevo. Dr. Cox revealed to us how NASA uses Computer programming to explore space, but also how she personally feels about coding.

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When did you decide you wanted to be in the space industry and how did you go for it?

I knew that I wanted to work for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) on interplanetary, robotic missions when I was 14. Growing up in a ‘religiously restrictive’ household made me think: “Why can’t I do what boys do?” And so, I started exploring to find something that brings people together instead of dividing them. When I was a little girl, Star Wars and Star Trek were extremely popular. For a while, I wanted to do something related to science fiction, but then I realized there’s a real space programme and that was something that one could be involved in, but it was also about something peaceful and for the whole of humankind. I wanted to do something for all the humanity, so I set my mind on becoming a space engineer.

What do coders do in NASA? What is the connection between space operations and writing a code?

The rovers that travel to space are computers you make do what you’d like them to do. The interesting thing about writing a code for space ships is that the code is far away. We don’t write the shiniest, fanciest codes, that’s not the goal. The goal is an understandable, reliable code that does what you want it to do efficiently. Writing code for rockets, for space ships, is more about working with other software developers, so that your code interfaces with what other people write. I don’t need a coder who is going to sit in their office and never talk to anyone. The new coders are the ones that can communicate, have social skills, write good code and are modest enough to understand that that code needs to be well-tested, reliable, and – here’s one that’s always tough – they need to be decent writers. You need to be able to document your code. Some of the space missions last for number of years, it’s important that the coders are able to write down what the code does, in case there’s a bug and the developer is not available at the moment.

What is unique about your job?

I start every day by looking at new images from Mars that most humans have never seen. Also, I wear two watches on my wrist – one showing the Earth time and one showing the time on Mars.

What would be your message to inspire young girls to pursue a career in coding?

Girls are already interested but the key is to keep them from thinking “that’s not feminine, that’s not girly“. One of the things that I have noticed about coding and apps is that there is almost a set of products that are about how to write a code that enables you to have a better system for organizing your jewelry, or a code that will turn a bar in your closet so all your dresses show up. These things show that coding is also used for what is ‘traditionally’ considered feminine projects. What I want to say is, just find what you are interested in doing and find what you want to pursue. After 20 years I am still passionate about what I do.

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IT Girls work hard AND play hard

Having a healthy work-life balance is one of the prerequisites of success, you might agree. Letting your work run you over like a paver doesn’t only hurt your body and soul, your relationships with others, but it can ruin your carefully bred, assiduously cultivated social life.

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Luckily, we at IT Girls don’t worry too much about that. It’s true; we work on this as a side project to our existing work commitments. This means we put in a huge amount of after-work hours and weekends. Sometimes we overdo it to the extent where we start snarling at each other, in an attempt to channel frustration, but come across extremely amusing and end up as protagonists of a perpetual joke. Such was the situation when, after a six-hour brainstorming exercise for the purpose of our strategic long-term planning, we wanted to review our budget and expenditure. I think you could really see the sparks flying when Lamija finally screamed: “Give me the freaking keyboard!” For the rest of us it was a queue to stop before we all set off into an IT girls break down. That phrase remained as a substitute for when you really want to do something without wanting to explain yourself too much, and we all get it.

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Working is, though, by far not the only way we decide to spend time together. The fact that we brought this idea to life together and that we can stand proud at the kind of success it has had so far, created a special bond between us. It’s the kind of bond that emerges among like-minded individuals, with different backgrounds and various interests, but with one (or at least one) common notion. The rest was a process. By rest I mean communication, team building, work relations – they were all built up around this binding idea. So were friendship, support, care and understanding for one another. It was no longer enough to work together, so we decided to take it outside. And we’re having a blast!

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It can be a bit less of a blast if you have to work the day after. Once, after a long night of partying, IT Girls decided to make a working Saturday. It will be remembered by a long and painstaking task, the outcome of which was the glorious IT Girls logo with purple arrowheads and guess what else? – The dot on the “i”. I can proudly say it took me almost five hours to color the arrowheads and put that dot on top using an online photo editor. Not the most cognitively demanding assignment, but that day it seemed like rocket science.