When you’re done catching up on the horror flicks that scarred you as a child, you should hop on YouTube and check out CODEGIRL. It’s a true story about the power of young women and technology, and it’s got an amazing message. Available on YouTube and in theaters November 1, the movie centers on The Technovation Challenge, an international competition in which teen girls are asked to solve serious problems in their communities using technology. The winning team gets $10,000 to develop and release an app. The documentary follows what happens when 3,000 teen girls from 28 countries — including Brazil, India, Moldova, Nigeria, and the U.S. — are taught to code apps, create business plans, and develop go-to-market strategies. The girls build apps that address poverty, fractured communities, domestic violence, disease prevention, unemployment, and drought. It’s impressive stuff that shows the power of technology to change lives. CODEGIRL’s director, Lesley Chilcott, is an award-winning filmmaker. She told us via email how CODEGIRL came about: “I was making a short film in 2013 when I stumbled upon a contest that sounded rather unusual. I thought The Technovation Challenge was one of the coolest ideas I’d ever heard.”
None of the teams had any coding experience before the competition started — just plenty of ideas about what needed to be fixed in their communities. Adult mentors supervised each team, and the girls faced their various challenges with grace — and a lot of humor. In the documentary, we see the girls learn how to create a user experience (UX) flow by sketching screens on notepads. They pore over online tutorials to tackle Apple’s programming language, Swift. We see them testing, iterating, recording pitch videos; then, the lucky finalists (some of whom had never even been on a plane before) all head to the U.S., where the winners are announced. A few stories really stood out during the movie. For one, the Nigerian Team Charis identified rising levels of malaria and typhoid in their community due to the improper disposal of waste from homes. The girls made an app that lets users request a cart to get their trash taken away — thus both stopping the spread of disease and cleaning up their town. Many apps centered on community health issues, but the team from Mexico wanted to address something much closer to home: Team Tech Voca found that if domestic violence is all you’ve ever known, it’s hard to identify it — and even harder to ask for help. These girls created a series of quizzes that help uncover the truth and assist survivors in finding resources to escape the violent cycle. While you don’t know their personal stories, it’s clear from the expressions on the girls' faces that this is a subject they care deeply about. It’s a moving moment. Another tear-jerking sequence happens as the girls from Brazil wait desperately for their passports to arrive — and their fellow contestants in Nigeria weep over immigration bureaucracy. “Because of U.S. visa issues, one of the teams we were following from Nigeria arrived about 12 minutes before the final competition started,” Chilcott said. “They got off the airplane, changed in the airport bathroom, and came straight to the competition.” In the end, though, we see a room full of teen girls from all over the world who are now radically tech-empowered. They're holding hands with their teammates and waiting for the finalists to be announced. With their new skills, they can do anything. It’s a wonderful moment; their lives are going to be different now, because they can code. Chilcott wanted as many teen girls as possible to see her movie — and hopefully be inspired to start coding, too. She decided CODEGIRL should go straight to where most teens get their content: YouTube. So, from November 1 to 5, you can see CODEGIRL on its YouTube channel, for free. Until now, the legends in the tech industry have been mostly men pulling all-nighters in the garages of Silicon Valley. If the revolution sparked by CODEGIRL takes off (with 650 apps released from The Technovation Challenge, it's off to a good start), the next big thing might well come from girls coding in a high school cafeteria near you.