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Coder Dojo takes Ireland by storm – new tech initiative gets Ireland's kids coding

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An Austrlian-born entrepreneur with a penchant for global reforestation is the unlikely figure behind Coder Dojo, a sprawling network of 'coding clubs' where Irish teens can come together and help programme a dazzling array of hi-tech projects.

Bill Liao, whose credentials, beside global philanthropy, include a listing as the co-founder of global business network Xing.com, founded the movement with James Whelton, a schoolboy who had the bright idea of founding a computer club at my old highschool, the wonderful PBC Cork, before deciding to take things to the next level.

Despite the generational gap between Liao and his young sidekick, the project kicked off like wildfire, and a burgeoning global network of 'dojos' (the name, for those interested, comes from an ancient Japanese temple adjunct) continues to bring hobbyist coding together in new territories.

The official dojo directory bears testament to this furious global expansion. From humble beginnings in the 'real capital' of Ireland, the dojo network has begun a veritable world takeover: Stateside, clubs exist in Washington DC, New York City, and just about every State in between, while chapters have also sprung up in Cape Town, South Africa, Brudan, Uganda, and St Petersburg, Russia. Soon, practically every major city in the world will be host to a dojo where young coders can come together to meet like-minded individuals and hone their craft.

A typical dojo (take, for instance, the Manhattan outlet, at W 21st Street) meets once a weekend. The young age of some of these precocious 'coding monkeys', as they are sometimes sarcastically known, is evident by the disclaimer that those under 13 must be accompanied by an adult for the duration of the dojo meet.
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A series of resources are provided on the Dojo website (a HTML Cheatsheet to guide the young coders through the rudiments of coding in the net's best-known markup script), while due to the sky-rocketing popularity of many dojos, places often have to be booked in advance of each session.

In Ireland, where it all started, the 'movement' has created quite a stir in the local and national news media, with many pundits hopeful that this blossoming generation of bright young computer geniuses will overtake the current skills-deficient one and lead Ireland's way, once more, back into the heart of the hi-tech, high-knowledge, digital economy.

Liao, who counts over 100,000 followers on his official Twitter channel, has emerged as something of a champion for the cause of tech-saviness among Ireland's youth, and as an outspoken critic of the government's general failure to foster this success.

Last weekend he blasted jobs Minister Richard Bruton for his fairly timid explanation of Ireland's notoriously unhelpful work visa programme on popular politics programme The Week In Politics and stands as a bastion for the belief in what young people, with hi-tech skills, can achieve.

And while the sight of a group of youngsters gathered around working stations to code computer programmes on their weekends rather than play sports is certainly one that takes some getting used to, the fruits of this strange but successful initiative are hard not to spot.

The world's youngest Mac app developer hails - un-coincidentally - from Cork, and is also an active member of the CoderDojo meeetup in Mahon Point here. His pizza game app was described on RTE.ie as a modern day sort of Space Invaders, and landed him a coveted place at the top of the Apple apps chart.

Elsewhere in the county of Cork, two young teenagers were reported to have invented an iPhone application that performs the unusual but useful function of translating Cork's notoriously unintelligible version of Hiberno-English into the standard form as taught, and understood, outside of the Rebel County.

Stock rural phrases such as 'Shove Whest' (lit. 'move west'; meaning, 'move over') will now longer be to the bedazzlement of hapless tourists who can purchase the app from iPhone's AppStore for less than the cost of a Berlitz guide.

Fittingly for the movement, however, it's perhaps in its cradle of Ireland that it stands to make the biggest contribution to society.

Ireland is notoriously under-equipped to deal with the manpower needs of the many hi-tech companies that have based here, something which has been identified as a major obstacle to development by government.

Technical literacy, as taught in high-schools, tends to extend no further (even if then) to an education in the humble European Computer Driving Licence an archaic and under-impressive qualification that merely attests to basic skills in functions such as word processing and spreadsheet use.

Besides the decline in software such as that needed for this qualification (with everything 'moving to the cloud' some believe, that one day, there'll be no need for desktop software at all), hard and highly sought after skills such as coding, web design, and information systems, do not comprise part of the curriculum at all.

The Industrial Development Authority (IDA) has for years been hell-bent on selling 'hi tech and technology courses' to students in the hope of increasing enrollment in such programmes and boosting the output of graduates.

Besides the known concerns of high labour costs, dwindling OECD education scores, the economic implosion, and more, concern rightly runs high that a failure to produce sufficient highly computer literate graduates will be the straw that finally breaks the camel's back and forces foreign direct investment (FDI) out of Ireland or offshore.

For that reason and more, Ireland should be thankful for the entrepreneurship that Liao and Whelton have shown in setting up the Coder Dojo movement, and for the huge job generating potential this will be proved to have had by the time the child prodigy coders have entered the workforce.

And the amazing little bits and pieces they'll come up with along the way -- even the Cork-ish - English translation app -- is a happy bonus.

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