Code for Youth
For most 12-year-olds in Singapore, the final year of preteen life is devoted to one all-consuming cause: studying for the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE),
Vayun Mathur, however, is not your average 12-year-old.
He is already a coding whiz, and a veteran at hackathons and maker events.
He has even programmed his very own voice-controlled Alexa chatbot (which you can download here) that calls on Singapore’s open data APIs at Data.gov.sg to tell you when your next bus is arriving — and what the weather forecast is.
TechNews catches up with the pint-sized programmer — and his dad, Mr Arvind Mathur — to talk about tech.
Q: What got you interested in learning to code?
I was first exposed to coding when I was in Grade 1, when I got to try programming with a Lego Mindstorms robot at a school science fair.
Later that year, I participated in The Hour of Code, an annual global event that encourages kids to learn the basics of coding using simple, block-based programming.
Q: What inspired you to use the Singapore Data APIs?
Close to the end of my CS50 course, I chose to do a research project on conversational computing, specifically the Amazon Alexa, which we have at home.
Participating in last year’s Smart Nation Hackathon inspired me to develop tools that would make people’s lives better, so I decided to make a transport and weather solution for the Alexa.
For this, I turned to the Open Data APIs at Data.gov.sg, which are free to use.
Using the APIs was fairly simple. The documentation was good and other people had used them and blogged about them, so I could learn from them.
Q: What difficulties did you face while making the app, and how did you deal with them?
Coding for the Alexa and integrating the APIs was harder than I thought.
One issue was getting the voice-based inputs and outputs to interact with my code.
To solve it, I watched some online videos where other people had already figured it out.
When I got to the forecast APIs, I noticed that they were written in a format that was incompatible with Alexa.
I spent over a week searching for a solution until I found a code translator that allowed me to convert it into the right format.
Q: What advice do you have for young coders like yourself?
I believe that technology is the future and coding is how you control technology. All kids should have the chance to try coding and see if this is something they enjoy.
Singapore is probably the best place in the world for kids to be exposed to technology and coding.
Every few months there are events like Tech Saturday (organised by IMDA), Science Hack Day, Kids Hackathons and Maker Faire.
Go for those and try it out!
When you start coding, start small.
Learn the basics and don’t jump into complicated code right away.
But don’t stay on block code forever; it has limitations and if you don’t move on, you will never be able to code for a living later.
It’s hard to move into line programming, but when you understand the rules and start building some experience, you will really enjoy the flexibility and power it will give you!
Q: What would be the coolest thing you’d like to see being made possible in a Smart Nation?
I believe the Smart Nation initiative is fantastic. For kids like me it’s great to have so many opportunities to learn about technology and experience how technology can help us.
It would be cool if all kids in Singapore had access to the best teaching and education at an individual level.
Imagine teachers assisted by intelligent robots like Alexa that can talk to individual students and figure out exactly what subjects and topics he or she needs help with.
The teachers could then customise their lessons to the student. That would really make all kids super-smart.
Having done this project with Alexa, I think such a solution is possible in the near future!
TechNews also had a fun chat with Mr Arvind Mathur.
Q: Daddy Arvind, how do you encourage your children’s interest in technology?
The interest in technology runs in the family. I work in the tech space and my wife is a tech entrepreneur and startup mentor.
Both Vayun and his younger brother are surrounded with technology, and this gives them a lot of stimulus to want to understand it and learn to control it.
Up till last year, I was giving them hands-on help.
However, they have now gotten so deep into computing and programming languages that I cannot help them directly anymore.
When they ask a question, I encourage them to figure it out for themselves by reading books or blogs, watching YouTube videos or taking online courses.
Q: How have events like hackathons helped to spark their interest?
The annual Code::XtremeApps Hackathons have been a major influence on both our kids.
The Hackathon challenges them to create a new solution or app to a real world Smart Nation challenge within three hours.
Although they have not won a prize yet, the rigorous competition brings out the best in them; they work hard to prepare and learn new skills.
Q: What other initiatives would you like to see?
This is a tough one. I think there is already a lot happening in Singapore thanks to its progressive leadership and the Smart Nation declaration.
One opportunity I see is for more public participation.
One way to engage more people is to take the events to them, which is already happening via events like Lab on Wheels. It might also help if such events are advertised more actively in the local town councils.
- Main image (top photos) courtesy of the Mathur family.