Saturday, June 1, 2013

What Does a "Civic Hacking" Curriculum Look Like?

I'm sitting here at the National Science Foundation in Arlington, Virginia, participating in the National Day of Civic Hacking.  What is civic hacking *, you may ask?  The about page for this site defines those who engage in "civic hacking" thus:
"Civic hackers" as we think about it for the National Day of Civic Hacking are engineers, technologists, civil servants, scientists, designers, artists, educators, students, entrepreneurs – anybody - who is willing to collaborate with others to create, build, and invent open source solutions using publicly-released data, code and technology to solve challenges relevant to our neighborhoods, our cities, our states and our country. 
What a wonderful concept!  Not only is this effort helping to build a democratic society in a very direct way, but by a thoughtful choice of name it is reclaiming a word for our community that the misguided media stole from us many years ago.

Anyway, I'm here because Code for America volunteer and Northern Virginia Code for America Brigade co-founder Michelle Koeth is organizing this event and invited me.  Michelle is a regular participant in our weekly South Arlington Hacker Space, and she has been introducing me to and getting me excited about civic hacking and Code for America for awhile now.

Despite my unmitigated enthusiasm for the philosophy behind this event, and my background as a high school computer science teacher, I was hesitant to come at first because I didn't think I had the skills to participate.  After listening to the morning presentations of the data sets by representatives from both local and federal government, I confirmed that my hesitation was well founded.  "Here we have publicly available sets of data", they told us, "we'd like you to go do something cool with them."  The problem for me was that I had very little idea what to do and absolutely no idea how to do it.

This lack of skill and understanding on my part got me thinking.  I'm deep into developing a curriculum for web design and development in partnership with the local community college (see  The curriculum is aimed at dual-enrolled high school / community college students and addresses the basic topics that would certainly be needed for civic hacking: HTML, CSS, JavaScript, Python, SQL, and putting these together into a web framework (Django in our case).  The morning presentations and the expectations of participants in today's event, however, make it clear that there are extremely important areas of knowledge that are entirely missing from our program, specifically relating to accessing and manipulating large sets of pre-existing data.

Civic hacking offers just the kind of real world, interdisciplinary, community focused opportunities for meaningful project / problem based learning that I want to make the academic focus of our IT program at the  Arlington Career Center.  What I need to do now is develop the skills list and curriculum materials that will make the bridge from where students leave off in our current program and what they need to participate in projects like the ones presented this morning.

I'll leave here today with a clear desire to work on this "Intro to Civic Hacking" curriculum, and look forward to developing it over the next few years.  Stay tuned for updates as this process unfolds...

* Note: There is not yet a Wikipedia article on Civic Hacking - perhaps someone should do something about that. I just added an entry to Wiktionary for civic hacker based on the definition above when in searching Wikipedia and then Wiktionary for the purpose of this post I found it did not yet exist.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Student Blogs

At our South Arlington Hacker Space meet up last night, Khady Lusby brought the three Arlington Public School seniors who will be going with her to Adja Penda Ba for their "senior experience".  Each of them has started a blog, which they will use to document what they do:
Combining these three new blogs with Brittany's OLPC blog and my own modest efforts, and our project should certainly not be lacking in reflections, observations, and documentation.  Our challenge now will be to coordinate these efforts in the most effective way to help the educational programs both at Adja Penda Ba and the HILT Institute.

There will be lots of changes at our school next year, with the coming of Arlington Mill High School to our campus, and the relocation of the HILT Institute on the other side of our building.  I plan to use the opportunity of the move to push for a one-to-one computing project.  For our first year students, we are looking at the XO-4 Touch, which would provide an easily portable, low power consumption, durable platform that would be a great resource for our beginning English Language Learner (ELL) students to learn English, mathematics, social studies, and information technology.

I've been experimenting with Fedora 18 in both VirtualBox vms and on a few of the laptops I have available in my lab.  Thus far, I've made the following observations:
  • The LXDE spin is by far my favorite. While on Ubuntu the XFCE (Xubuntu) is wonderful, on Fedora I found it to be both clunky and ugly.  GNOME shell is awful, but the LXDE version looks nice, is extremely light weight, and makes a great platform for then adding Sugar to the mix.
  • After the initial install, I run $ sudo yum update and then visit the RPM Fusion page to add both the free and non-free repos.  This makes a lot of the software I've come to expect from the Debian Universe repos available on Fedora.
  • After installing the Sugar packages, switching back and forth from Sugar to LXDE is easy to do and works well.
  • $ sudo yum install cinnamon will install the Cinnamon user interface developed by the folks at Linux Mint.  I get the feeling that Cinnamon may be moving toward becoming a standard Fedora spin.  This would be a good thing, since it would make GNOME 3 available without the awful GNOME Shell desktop that currently comes with it.
That's all for now.  With all the activity going on, posts should come more frequently...

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Sister School with College Adja Penda Ba

Children at Adja Penda Ba using their XO-1

The collaboration between the Arlington Career Center and College Adja Penda Ba continues to be a match made in heaven.  I wrote back in September about the project.  It has continued to grow rapidly since then, taking on several new dimensions that both broaden and deepen our collaboration at the same time:
  • Open International needed a student information system to track the data on the progress of the 250 students that now attend the school.  "It just so happens we have one", I told Khady Lusby, "It's called SchoolTool, and it will do just what you need!"  We setup a SchoolTool server for College Adja Penda Ba (in French), and Khady has been busy learning how to administer the system.
  • We sent an XO to the school for the new children's program, and it was love at first sight for the children in the program.  They asked Khady if she can bring them more, and thus began our application process to for additional XO-1 laptops for the school.  Career Center student Brittany has taken on taken on the responsibility of representing Open International for this effort and she has been writing a blog of her own to document her work.  Brittany has been studying networking and will be reaching out to the Sugar community to see if we can get some Sugar activity collaboration going between Arlington, Virginia and Nioro, Senegal.  This will entail either setting up a jabber server or finding one we can use.
  • Khady and I have been brain storming about the possibility of doing a project between her high school age ELL students and mine this Spring, giving them the opportunity to get to know each other and to learn ICT skills at the same time.

We have Sugar running in our lab using the Sweets Distribution.  The only thing preventing me from being able to use Sugar with my students is the inability to save files to the file system.  I've been in touch with Walter Bender about this issue, and he has promised to get a patch together to make file system access possible.  I'm a huge fan of Turtle Blocks, which Sugar Labs DC helped get ported to the GNOME desktop environment a few years back.  The ability to use Sugar in our lab in a high school setting would enable us to explore other Sugar activities and to provide better support to the children in Senegal.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Updating BIOS on Dell Optiplex 780

I read Using FreeDOS CD for BIOS Updates article from the website, so that I could update the BIOS on our Dell Optiplex 780 machines.

It has been a long time since I ran a DOS program, and it was fun to revisit this old process and at the same time learn how to do it on machines that don't have floppy drives.