Saturday Hackfest: Kids Take Control
In Baton Rouge, Louisiana, budding techies in middle school and high school get steeped in STEM through the Futures Fund. The nonprofit unites kids in high-need areas with local experts, who take turns teaching technology over a 20-week series of Saturday workshops.
Just before software engineer Czarina Walker’s turn to teach a session on databases, she received a press release from Mayor Kip Holden. His email encouraged citizens to participate in that Saturday’s hackathon, using Open Data BR, the city’s open data portal powered by Socrata.
Walker, as founder and CEO of InfiniEDGE Software, Inc., spotted a choice opportunity to empower the kids with open data. “I thought ‘Huh! That’s interesting… my lesson is Saturday, this civic hacking is Saturday, hmm! What better way to have a great excuse to show the open data portal to the kids!’”
Data Is Everywhere
Walker started off by showing the students the everyday ways they interact with data, maybe without even realizing it. She covered types of data stored in video games, online orders, in-person store purchases, and more.
Then they got into a deeper discussion about data privacy, and online safety. “These kids are bombarded with concerns about Internet privacy,” she explains. Her advice: “Just don’t think of any of it as private, and don’t post anything you don’t want to be public.”
Query the Data for Awesome Decisions
Using an online simulator, the students played detective, solving crimes by querying datasets. The kids whittled away at the crime, using data like height and age to reach resolution. Next, Walker used city park data and Open Data BR to introduce the concept of open data. “Every time you make a purchase,” she explained to the students, the tax fund for parks adds up. “The data that’s collected on parks is part of that too — it’s your data, and you paid for it already.”
Then they dug into the dataset on traffic accidents. The kids were convinced Baton Rouge suffered from a high incidence of hit-and-run accidents. “We let them drive the conversation and inquiries,” Walker comments, “by simply asking questions like ‘What percentage of the incidents do you think were hit-and-run accidents in Baton Rouge last year?’” The kids filtered and queried the data and then reported their findings.
Harnessing Data to Transform Communities
“Last,” says Walker, “we drove home the idea, ‘If you have this information, what could you do with it as someone who develops tech, to improve your community?’” Students started out suggesting billboards and public service announcements, but Walker urged them to think like civic tech experts. “As a software or app developer, what could you do” with the data, “to make your app more powerful and change the world around you?” she pushed them.
Students were keen on maps, including suggesting an app that maps pedestrian safety information and traffic accidents against their city’s streets. “Using the Baton Rouge Open Data Portal gave us a great way to teach technology, online safety, applied math, science, civics and many other topics all rolled into one engaging lesson where the kids didn’t want to leave,” Futures Fund reported.
The Last Word: Quotes from the Kids
The students in Walker’s workshop posted great feedback on her lesson:
“Data can show us exactly where our problem areas are. It shows us where we need more officers or around what time of year fires are more potent.”
“I feel that civic hacking is a great way to keep ‘tabs’ on your city’s spending habits and on its progress in maintenance of the city.”
“[Data] can be used to improve the community by helping to see the problem and fix it before it gets bad.”
“I feel great about civic hacking; it shows promise of a better future. With this type of information open to us we can know exactly how to keep ourselves safe.”