Never too old to code: Meet Ja­pan’s 82-year-old app-maker

Kuwait Times - - TECHNOLOGY -

When 82-yearold Masako Wakamiya first be­gan work­ing she still used an aba­cus for maths-to­day she is one of the world’s old­est iPhone app de­vel­op­ers, a trail­blazer in mak­ing smart­phones ac­ces­si­ble for the el­derly. Frus­trated by the lack of in­ter­est from the tech in­dus­try in en­gag­ing older peo­ple, she taught her­self to code and set about do­ing it her­self. The over 60s, she in­sists, need to ac­tively search out new skills to stay nim­ble.

“As you age, you lose many things: your hus­band, your job, your hair, your eye­sight. The mi­nuses are quite nu­mer­ous. But when you learn some­thing new, whether it be pro­gram­ming or the pi­ano, it is a plus, it’s mo­ti­vat­ing,” she says. “Once you’ve achieved your pro­fes­sional life, you should re­turn to school. In the era of the in­ter­net, if you stop learn­ing, it has con­se­quences for your daily life,” Wakamiya ex­plains dur­ing an AFP in­ter­view at her home near Tokyo.

She be­came in­ter­ested in com­put­ers in the 1990s when she re­tired from her job as a bank clerk. It took her months to set up her first sys­tem, be­gin­ning with BBS mes­sag­ing, a pre­cur­sor to the in­ter­net, be­fore build­ing her skills on a Mi­crosoft PC, and then Ap­ple’s Mac and iPhones. She asked soft­ware de­vel­op­ers to come up with more for the el­derly, but a re­peated lack of re­sponse led her to take mat­ters into her own hands. Wakamiya learned the ba­sics of cod­ing and de­vel­oped ‘Hi­nadan’ one of Ja­pan’s first ded­i­cated app games for the over-60s-she is now in such de­mand that this year Ap­ple in­vited her to par­tic­i­pate at their pres­ti­gious World­wide De­vel­op­ers Con­fer­ence, where she was the old­est app cre­ator to take part.

Source of in­spi­ra­tion

‘Hi­nadan’-’the doll stair­case’-was in­spired by the Hina Mat­suri, a doll fes­ti­val which takes place every March, where or­na­men­tal dolls rep­re­sent­ing the em­peror, his fam­ily and their guests are dis­played in a spe­cific ar­range­ment. In Wakamiya’s app, users have to put them in the cor­rect po­si­tions-a task which is harder than it sounds, re­quir­ing mem­o­riza­tion of the com­plex ar­range­ments. The app, which is cur­rently only avail­able in Ja­panese, has been down­loaded 42,000 times with hun­dreds of pos­i­tive com­ments from users.

And while these fig­ures are rel­a­tively small com­pared to Ja­pan’s big-hit­ting apps which are down­loaded in their mil­lions, ‘Hi­nadan’ has proved pop­u­lar enough that Wakamiya plans to re­lease English, Chi­nese and pos­si­bly French ver­sions of the app be­fore next year’s fes­ti­val. Its suc­cess has pro­pelled her on to the tech world stage, de­spite the in­dus­try’s rep­u­ta­tion for be­ing no­to­ri­ously ageist In Sil­i­con Val­ley, work­ers in their 40s are con­sid­ered old by some firms and ac­cord­ing to me­dia re­ports cit­ing re­search firm Payscale, the me­dian age for an em­ployee at Face­book is 29 and at Ap­ple is 31.

But in­ter­na­tional tech firms and start-ups are slowly wak­ing up to the eco­nomic po­ten­tial of pro­vid­ing for sil­ver surfers, and Wakamiya has al­ready met with Ap­ple’s chief ex­ec­u­tive Tim Cook. Wakamiya re­calls: “He asked me what I had done to make sure that older peo­ple could use the app. I ex­plained that I’d thought about this in my pro­gram­ming-rec­og­niz­ing that older peo­ple lose their hear­ing and eye­sight, and their fin­gers might not work so well.” “Mr Cook com­pli­mented me,” she says proudly, ad­ding that he had hailed her as a “source of in­spi­ra­tion”.

No time for sick­ness

Wakamiya con­cedes that she finds “writ­ing lines of code is dif­fi­cult” but has a vo­ra­cious ap­petite to learn more. “I want to re­ally un­der­stand the fun­da­men­tals of pro­gram­ming, be­cause at the mo­ment I only learned the el­e­ments nec­es­sary for cre­at­ing Hi­nadan,” she ex­plains. More than a quar­ter of Ja­pan’s pop­u­la­tion is aged 65 and above, and this is pro­jected to rise to 40 per­cent by 2055. The gov­ern­ment is strug­gling to en­sure its pop­u­la­tion re­mains ac­tive and healthy-and so also see the dy­namic oc­to­ge­nar­ian as an in­spi­ra­tion.

“I would like to see all Ja­panese el­derly peo­ple have the same mo­ti­va­tion,” one of­fi­cial said. Wakamiya says her ul­ti­mate goal is to come up with “other apps that can en­ter­tain older peo­ple and help trans­mit to young peo­ple the cul­ture and tra­di­tions we old peo­ple pos­sess”. “Most old peo­ple have aban­doned the idea of learn­ing, but the fact that some are start­ing (again) is not only good for them but for the coun­try’s econ­omy,” said Wakamiya, who took up the pi­ano at 75. Hint­ing that her good health is down to an ac­tive mind and busy life, she adds: “I am so busy ev­ery­day that I have no time to look for dis­eases.”—AFP

FUJISAWA: This pic­ture shows 82-year-old pro­gram­mer Masako Wakamiya speak­ing dur­ing an in­ter­view with AFP in Fujisawa, Kana­gawa pre­fec­ture.—AFP

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