Girls design artificial intelligence solutions during virtual hackathon held by Microsoft and UNESCO


“This has been a year of deep disruption for students everywhere, and ensuring that girls have the digital skills to participate in education, society and the world of work is more important than ever before”, said UNESCO’s Assistant Director-General, Stefania Giannini. “UNESCO’s message is that AI must serve and benefit humanity – the digital revolution must be inclusive.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has made distance and hybrid learning increasingly part of the new normal. However, the digital revolution that is transforming our societies continues to be mostly led by men in a context where 2 billion women are offline.

Without steps to close the gender digital divide and build girls’ and women’s digital skills, contributions from half of the world’s population will continue to be left out.

Microsoft, a partner of UNESCO’s Global Education Coalition, and UNESCO held a virtual hackathon to engage girls as Artificial Intelligence (AI) protagonists and to widen their understanding of what AI is, how to adapt to a constantly-changing AI landscape, and take ethical control of the development and use of AI. 

The Imagine Cup Junior Virtual AI Hackathon Girls Edition brought together 80 secondary school girls and their teachers from 11 countries in Africa, the Arab States and Europe.

“This hackathon really opened my mind in terms of how big a part AI will be in our lives”, said a participating girl. “AI is something I want to study at university.”

The theme of the hackathon was ‘AI for Earth’ and all activities were linked to the relevant United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Across two days, participating girls undertook practical exercises focused on how AI can be used to better understand sustainability – particularly climate change and biodiversity loss.

For example, the girls learned different AI prediction modelling and techniques, such as decision trees and random decision forests. They also learned about data collection, data cleaning, image classification algorithms and statistical testing. 

As part of a design challenge, girls worked in teams to envision an AI solution to save an endangered species. Eight finalist teams pitched the problem they chose to focus on and their proposed machine learning solution to address it to a jury.

  • Team Clustering from Spain won the design challenge with an AI solution that would preserve the Mediterranean Sea by predicting the evolution of sea temperatures and identifying the most polluted areas.
  • Team Cognition from South Africa placed second for its AI solution aiming to save African wild dogs – a species endangered by habitat loss, disease, predator hunting, and humans – by providing detailed tracking information based on the dogs’ behavioral patterns and environmental changes that would inform and improve on rescue intervention time
  • In third place, team OCR from Croatia was recognized for its complex solution to save griffon vultures, which play an important role in promoting a natural cleaning cycle.

Girls DO want to be in tech. The level of talent, passion and commitment shown by the girls during the hackathon was truly moving

Lead tutor at the Imagine Cup Junior Virtual AI Hackathon, Joanne Healy, Microsoft

UNESCO leverages young people’s digital creativity to shape solutions for the future. “Online events such as this Hackathon can have a considerable impact in improving young girls’ confidence to become actors in the digital world”, says Davide Storti, Coordinator of YouthMobile – a UNESCO initiative that fosters the innovative use of technology to solve local sustainable development issues and whose members participated in the Hackathon.

The event was a contribution to the Global Education Coalition’s Gender Flagship. Launched by UNESCO in March 2020, the Global Education Coalition brings together more than 160 members from the UN family, civil society, academia and the private sector to ensure that #LearningNeverStops.

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Photo: Dmytro Zinkevych/