Civic Tech Education



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 CrawfordDan 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.



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.

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.

First Post



Big Philanthropy and its impact on the rest of us; where a “Facebook rant” took Guatemala; and more.

  • Giving it away: This year’s Giving Tuesday broke records, with more than 1 million recorded gifts and at least $116 million raised from about 700,000 donors, its co-founder Henry Timms of the 92nd St Y reports. That’s more than double what was raised last year.
  • While InsidePhilanthropy’s David Callahan offers some tempered praise for Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan’s pledge to donate most of their megazillions to charity, and in particular to promoting equality, he still thinks it’s “darn scary.” Here’s why:

    Today’s economic inequality may be nothing compared to tomorrow’s civic inequality as more activist mega-donors emerge with big money and big ambitions—at a time, I should add, when government will be spiraling down into fiscal paralysis due to soaring entitlement costs as the boomers retire. If the 20th century was the era of Big Government, the 21st Century is shaping up as the age of Big Philanthropy. This power shift is one of the most important stories of our time….Close your eyes for a moment and imagine that yesterday it was the Koch brothers who had pledged to use their entire fortune (of $85 billion) to shape the direction of U.S. society. The picture would look a bit different, right? Philanthropy is not a meritocracy, nor is there a moral litmus test for entering. Anyone with enough money can play. And as more billionaires enter this game—whether we cheer them or fear them—it’s getting harder for the rest of us to be heard in the public square.

  • The New Yorker’s John Cassidy points out that by (eventually) giving their Facebook stock to an LLC, Zuckerberg and Chan’s giving “comes at a cost to the taxpayer and, arguably, to the broader democratic process. If Zuckerberg and Chan were to cash in their Facebook stock, rather than setting it aside for charity, they would have to pay capital-gains tax on the proceeds, money that could be used to fund government programs. If they willed their wealth to their descendants, then sizable estate taxes would become due on their deaths. By making charitable donations in the form of stock, they, and their heirs, will escape both of these levies.”
  • This is civic tech: Congratulations to this year’s Big Apps NYC winners: AddicaidIssueVoterBenefit KitchenJustFixNYCCityCharge, and Treasures.
  • Writing for the Brookings Foundation blog, Blair Levin of Gig.U and Adie Tomer of its Metropolitan Policy Program offer a concise and useful list of technology issues for cities and economic growth that the presidential candidates ought to be talking more about.
  • The Guatemalan Spring: Radio Ambulante reports on how a Facebook rant by a 53-year-old Guatemalan woman led to a giant public protest rally last spring that took down the country’s president.