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.

1 comment:

  1. I, for one, would be thrilled to see civic hacking integrated with these kinds of curricula.