Civic Hacking: 4 Ways Kids Can Learn How Programming Can Benefit the Community

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National Day of Civic Hacking promotes citizens and developers working together using publicly available data, code, and technology to reach solutions that better communities and associated governments. This international event is intended for all as a means of community and government improvement. As an example of such improvement, at a White House meeting in 2013 honoring champions of change, the mayor of Louisville, Kentucky, spoke about how his city has embraced technology and innovation to provide better services to the people. Also, the city is working with a civic-minded company to better understand how to make decisions that reduce incidents of asthma in the community.

Also in 2013, more than 20 federal agencies submitted challenges for participants to tackle, opening up datasets for them to use. The White House participatedwith more than 30 developers and designers working with White House staff on the application programming interface, or API, for the petitions platform We the People, by building new tools for finding, sharing, and analyzing the petitions.

Other federal activity has included the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s participation in Science Hack Day 2012. The event brought scientists and developers together in collaboration using data sources that included, thereby providing open and direct communication about the space program.

Math and Science

  1. Introduce the concept of data: Explain to your kids that data are information—typically numbers— about anything they might be interested in learning more about. Take a trip around the neighborhood or local park and look at the trees. Write down the number of trees and the number of different kinds of trees you and your kids find. Let them know that what they are doing is collecting data and creating a dataset, and that there are programs available whereby they can store their data in a logical, organized manner. Tell your kids they can explore various federal agency datasets to see the kinds of information collected and how they can be used. Or see how the National Science Foundation offers ways of grouping or comparing data collected.

    On your exploration, see if any one kind of tree looks unhealthyin any way—e.g., dead limbs, no leaves. Are they all the same kind of tree? Tell your kids to see if they can figure out by looking at their data. Can they do any analysis of the data with the program they’re using to store the data? Or would it be possible to write a small computer program that would help determine the answer? (See more on computer programming below.)

Coding or Using a Program

  1. Learn to code or program: Explain to your kids that code is like a language that computers can understand. With code, they can get a computer to perform different tasks. For example, a person could find all the trees with a certain attribute that are in the neighborhood tree dataset very quickly by writing some code. Or they could use an app—check out the free Leafsnap app, created by the Smithsonian Institution, University of Maryland, and Columbia University, and brainstorm about what an app of their invention would do.
  2. Try computer games or camp: Various computer games and interactive apps can help kids learn the fundamentals of coding. For older kids, some places offer technology summer camps, with courses like computer programming.


  1. See how computers can help your community: Ask your kids how they think identifying unhealthy trees in the neighborhood could help the community. Point out to them the benefits to the community of having healthy trees. If they have found that a certain type of tree is currently unhealthy, ask them for suggested solutions (e.g., if the trees of concern are on common ground, contact local authorities to discuss removal/possible replacement with another kind of tree).

These are just a few suggestions on how you can help your kids become more analytically savvy while at the same time helping their community become a better place to live.

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Last Modified: 12/01/2015