Tech & Work

CODEGIRL documentary shows high school girls that they too can use tech to change their communities

The documentary follows the 2015 Technovation Challenge, in which girls from all over the world code mobile apps to address problems in their communities.

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Image: CODEGIRL

It's difficult to want to be what you can't see.

That's one of the baseline problems women of all ages face in the tech industry — the numbers of women working in tech are low, and girls and young women have noticed.

It's also an issue that makers of the new documentary CODEGIRL are hoping to address by bringing the story of the 2015 Technovation Challenge to girls all over the world.

For background, the Technovation Challenge is a six-year-old competition for high school girls. Teams from around the world have three months to design an app that addresses a problem in their communities, write a business plan, and make a pitch video.

Last year, filmmaker Lesley Chilcott, who produced Waiting for Superman and an Inconvenient Truth, set out to make a documentary about the girls participating in the challenge.

Several years back, Chilcott was making a short film for Code.org. In the process of doing interviews, she realized she was having to go out of her way to make sure women were represented in the piece. It was challenging finding them, especially in more high-profile roles in the computer science field.

The partnership with Technovation came about as Chilcott was looking for a classroom of young kids learning code that she could include in the film, and Technovation had a partner company in Los Angeles doing just that. In that way, she learned more about the Technovation Challenge.

"I thought it was the coolest thing and was like, 'Ok, I have to make a film about this,'" she said.

The result is a documentary that follows various teams from the beginning of the process, all the way to the final pitches in San Francisco, and awarding of the top prize—$10,000 in seed money to make the team's app a reality.

Technovation is a part of non-profit Iridescent. They've had about 10,000 girls go through some part of their program so far. While they're lower profile than similar organizations, the receive funding from the US Navy, and they're the largest technology education program in the world, said Iridescent CEO Tara Chklovski.

One moment that stuck out to Chilcott was when a girl named Melissa from the Massachusetts-based team Ameka, which creating an app aimed at preventing teen drunk driving, said no one had ever asked her before to identify a problem in the community and then ask how she would solve it. But now, she sees the world differently. If she wants to solve a problem, she starts thinking about the steps she needs to take to get from point A to point B.

One challenge in making the film was figuring out who to follow during the process. About 5,000 girls from 60 different countries entered. It was impossible to know who was going to advance. That means CODEGIRL sometimes takes the viewer right up to the point where a team gets eliminated from round to round.

"All the while I was being inspired and having my heart broken at the same time," Chilcott said. Though sad, it's like real life—sometimes the best ideas don't always get to advance.

She just had to make some guesses and decisions. For one, CODEGIRL goes to Moldova because the winning team from the previous year's team had been from a Moldovan town called Ștefănești. They'd designed an app that tested for contaminants in well water given high rates of things like hepatitis and e. coli, just from drinking the water.

"It was crazy, one of the girls was 13 when they thought of this," Chilcott said.

That win inspired several other teams from the country.

CODEGIRL also follows teams from Nigeria, Brazil, Mexico, India, and elsewhere in the US, like San Francisco and Silicon Valley.

"Girls from Silicon Valley whose parents go to technology corporations have the same fears as the girls from the slum in Brazil or the slum in India," Chklovski said. "It tells you how universal these issues are, and regardless of what socioeconomic status these girls have, they have a self-efficacy issue. They don't believe they can make an impact using technology."

Though it may sound trite, Chilcot said for many of these girls, it was more about entering the contest than it was about winning. Of course they want to win, but not winning doesn't mean that they can't—or don't—go on and do more work on their apps, or in computer science in general.

"They're realizing that in order to study computer science, you don't have to be the stereotype, and you don't have to want to be a computer scientist, but it can help you in just about any chosen career," Chilcott said.

Along those lines, most of the film just focuses on the girls working, but there are moments when the subject of women in tech comes up. At one point, one girls says "It's difficult to be what you can't see," and another girl on a different team makes a comment about how lonely it can be to be a girl in technology.

Chilcott had considered using an expert voice to lay out the situation of women in tech—7% of tech startups are led by women, 4% of mobile app developers are women, all those stats.

"Every time in editing I started to cut to an expert, I realized I had the footage of all the girls saying these things themselves," Chilcott said.

Going forward, Chilcott has two hopes for CODEGIRL. One is practical. She's like to see the number of entrants for 2016 double. The other is a big swing—she'd like every high school girl in America who hasn't done so already to take a coding lesson.

"I'm hoping that there are some teen girls out there who see the film and whether they enter the contest or not, they try coding and they realize they have these capabilities that they didn't know that they had," she said.

CODEGIRL will be shown in select theaters starting Nov. 1 and will then be available for purchase Nov. 6. They've also partnered with Google's Made with Code Initiative to show the film free on YouTube, Nov.1-5.

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About Erin Carson

Erin Carson is a Staff Reporter for CNET and a former Multimedia Editor for TechRepublic.

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