Why We Need to Get Civic Tech Into the Classroom

We could introduce an entire generation of students to civic tech by introducing the material in popular courses like computer science and statistics.

In 2005, as a political science student at the University of Maryland, I was asked us to go off-campus and into two nearby communities. One was home to golf courses, the other to recent immigrant populations. The assignment was to collect data and observations on the local grocery shopping experience. We were asked to record the price of staples like milk and orange juice, and also to pay attention to the general experience of shopping, from the state of the parking lot to the presence of security staff to the hue of the lighting. This assignment did more to underscore the inequality between Langley Park and Bethesda, Maryland—only a few stops apart on the D.C. Beltway—than any number of damning statistics presented in the same class.

A core theme that’s emerged across our Microsoft Technology & Civic Engagement team’s work is making it easier for more and more people to enter the field of civic technology. As many others have noted, the field needs a talent pipeline to succeed at scale. It’s why we built the Civic Graph and launched the Tech Jobs Academy with the City University of New York. It’s clear from the number of open positions and the amount of work to be done to modernize democracy that we need to attract more talent, and more diverse talent, to this sector.

Through conversations with students attending colleges across New York City, we realized that many classes cover subject matter that could, in their projects and assignments, introduce an entire generation of students to civic tech.

There are a growing number of college- and graduate-level courses focused specifically on civic and social innovation. They’re taught by civically-minded academics like Susan Crawford, Dan Nguyen, and Sasha Costanza-Chock, and in programs like MIT’s DUSP. These courses are great for students with an existing interest in applying their skills to shared challenges, especially when they encourage students to get building.

But there are many more courses teaching even more students statistics, policy, computer science, and many other topics. Students’ efforts throughout a semester represent a huge and unrealized amount of latent value, in the work they produce in the short-term as well as the career paths they take in the long-term. The faculty instructing these mainstream courses could compound their educational impact over decades by embedding examples where the existing subject-matter gets applied in civic tech. This wouldn’t require changes to the curriculum, simply a link between the topics they’re teaching and the professionals applying those same topics to improve society in the real world.

For example, students learning statistics work with a fair amount of sample data. Rather than work with hypothetical or random data, the students could be instructed to download raw data from their city’s open data portal. They would end up learning not just the statistics lesson itself, but also that open government data exists, and how to download and do something with it. Students learning Javascript could build a sample application that calculates the speed of a bus sitting in traffic.

Civic Tech Case Finder

To make it easier for faculty to introduce their students to applied case studies from civic tech, we’re designing a civic tech case finder. It’s a lightweight aggregator—most of the cases themselves will continue living where they were originally published by their authors. Our task is to make it easier for instructors to easily identify relevant cases to bring into their curriculum in a short amount of time.

Screenshot (95)

Instructors can select the subject and approximate grade level they teach, or just browse all cases.

We’re prototyping the application now and collecting feedback from civic-minded academic faculty across a wide range of fields. We’ve started with the civically-focused faculty we’ve come across in our work, but would love to spread the word and get this in front of professors without current connections to the field.

Long-term, we need to collect more cases and find an appropriate home for the project. Get in touch if you’d like to try it out and provide feedback in a user interview, or better yet, share it with the professors in your life.

Props to John Paul Farmer, who came up with the civic tech case finder, and Saron Yitbarek, who has led the technical development of the case finder as well as the user interviews.