Civic Hacking for Real-World Experience

by Sam Strike

Despite graduating with a Bachelor of Science degree in Applied Statistics and a Bachelor of Arts degree in Economics, Barbara Donnini of Plymouth Meeting had no idea she also would need to know computer programming for her career.

Enter Montgomery County Community College, where Donnini enrolled in spring 2014 to attain the additional computer skills she needed. She said she learned “a ton” in her first semester classes, and over the summer was looking for “a real-life coding experience.”

Kendall Martin, professor of Computer Science at the College, introduced her to the Philadelphia Brigade of Code for America, a non-profit organization that enlists the talent of the web industry into public service to use their skills to solve local and global problems.

“Code for Philly,” as it is called, allows “civic hackers” a way to organize, meet and help each other on projects using open source technology, which is accessible by everyone and not proprietary.

“These people can really run the world,” Donnini said of her fellow hackers who are working on projects like creating an app that allows people to forage for food and a handicap access map that can help plan accessible routes.

This summer Donnini is working with a group that is creating Climate Tracker, a device that can be attached to modes of transportation to collect real-time and long-term data on pollution in the city. Read more about the project in Donnini’s blog post at climatetrackerbd.wordpress.com/2014/08/05/why-climate-tracker.

She has taken on a very significant role on the Climate Tracker team, Martin said. As Donnini learns how to install software and hardware, she’s blogging instructions for others to use in the future. Her independent study project, for which she is getting credits at Montgomery, includes documenting and blogging all the experiences she’s having and the problems she is solving.

“I think when students start to see another student describe it in that detail it will reframe the possibilities of joining a project like this,” Martin said. “It puts her in position to help restructure what happens in the classroom because she has had such a high level of group experience.”

Read all of Donnini’s blog entries and watch the videos she has posted of Code for Philly here at climatetrackerbd.wordpress.com/blog.

In addition to learning hard skills, she says “once you get coding, you can learn unbelievably powerful things.” Donnini said she will definitely consider a career in computer science down the road and can see the value of using her new skills in her personal life, too.

“They imagine something, and they can do it,” she said of her fellow civic hackers at Code for Philly. She said she hopes to continue to work with the group after her independent study ends and the fall semester begins.

“She was very independent and very willing to learn,” Martin said of Donnini, and said she hopes that other MCCC students will move out of their comfort zones and venture into the city for new learning experiences. It could also help with their careers.

“There’s a big market in Philadelphia for all kinds of programming positions from web and mobile app programming to software design,” she said. “There are a lot of opportunities right now.”

Computer Science Professor Kendall Martin, left, helped student Barbara Donnini gain hands-on coding skills by introducing her to the Philadelphia Brigade of Code for America, a non-profit organization that enlists the talent of the web industry into public service to use their skills to solve local and global problems. Photo by John Welsh

Computer Science Professor Kendall Martin, left, helped student Barbara Donnini gain hands-on coding skills by introducing her to the Philadelphia Brigade of Code for America, a non-profit organization that enlists the talent of the web industry into public service to use their skills to solve local and global problems. Photo by John Welsh

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