Is Coding the Language of the Future?

I spent a year at the white house where STEM education was a top priorityof our president, President Obama. Just last weekhe announced an initiative called Computer Science For All in which we dedicatedfour billion dollars to the states to put more computer science educationinto classrooms around our country.

Now, why is this such an importantpriority for the United States? Well, first of all, employers can’t fillopen computer science jobs. Right now, there are hundredsof thousands of jobs open and we believe that by 2024,there will be over a million jobs in computer science that we can’t fillbecause we don’t have enough graduates. Only 8 percent of STEM graduatesare actually graduating in computer science. And you may think that we have moregraduates overall than in the past but in fact, we are graduating fewercomputer science students now than we did 10 years ago. And for women,it’s actually half the number.

This is a major problemfor our economy and for our future and we believe this is related,in fact, to another problem. The same way that wereally need to get kids to think about coding as a superpower that helps themimpact the world around them they also need to thinkabout civic engagement as a superpower that helpsthem impact the world around them.

But in fact, in the United States, we have one of the lowest voterturnouts of any OECD country. And I work at the local level,where only one in five eligible voters is voting in local elections. Civic participation is a broad area and this is despite the factthat we have political campaigns spending more and more money every yeartrying to get people to vote, philanthropies and governmenttrying to get people to vote, and fewer and fewer people areshowing up, whether it’s to the polls, or to city hall, or to a meetingwith your neighbors. Only 50% of Americans were involvedin civic life in the last year.

In order to change this,we’re really gonna need for kids to think about themselvesas having impact in the world. And why is it that these twoissues are so closely tied? Well, I want to proposeone common problem: in the five hundredand ninety minutes a day that we are consuming media, whether it’s television,or a tablet, or your phone, we are exposed to about362 ad messages. And we even remember about153 of those messages. That means that over and over againduring our day, we are told one thing, and that’s this: that you’re a consumer. What is it that you’re told to do everytime you consume that ad message? Choose a brand, buy it, use it. This is something that we are toldevery day, thousands of times a day.

But there is another narrative. Not one that’s new;one that’s actually quite old but it’s got a nice21st century ring to it today. And it’s another messagethat says that you are a maker. This is a girlwho’s just made a little robot, and she’s trying it outin a competition. We now have a word for this,The Maker Movement.

But really, it’s just that DIY mentalityand those DIY activities that have always been part of our lives.We’re pulling them out of the garage and out of the schoolsand giving them visibility and making them somethingthat we can all participate in. The Maker Faire started in the Bay Area.We now have over a hundred and fifty thousand peoplethat come to the Maker Faire, but there are also a hundred and fiftyMaker Faires around the world now, where two million peopleare going every year. This is just one small expression of that maker mentalitycoming out into the world and showing itselfas an alternative narrative.

And a narrativethat really promotes a sense, I think for both kids and adults, that they have this powerto create the world around them. So if the maker narrative is analternative to that consumer narrative, then how do we raise makers? How do we raise folksthat really understand that this is their superpower? Well, I think it’s the same questionas how do we raise citizens. How do you raise kidswho understand that they’ll have an impact on civic life and government as well? And I thinkthis is a great time to also ask, how do we startto make our government in the same realm?

At Code for America,we have a program that takes mid-career professionals from big technology companies,like Google and Apple, and puts them in small start ups that go work with local governmentsover the course of the year. Now, they’re making technology,but more importantly, they’re showing how a user-centered,data-driven and iterative approach to making technologymakes better outcomes in government. Let’s talk a little bit about howmaking government really works. And this is a story fromour first year in Code for America. We had a teamthat was sent to the city of Boston, and it happened to be that year thatthere was an enormous amount of snow. Now, the Code for America fellowswere actually working in the schools; they were workingon a better interface for parents to be able to figure outwhich schools their kids could attend.

But while they were there,they looked at a bunch of other problems. And one of them was this is:they found that when the snow piles up over the firehydrants and no one digs it out, it’s actually quite a dangerif there’s a fire. All of that time that’s spentdigging up the fire hydrant, is time that’s not spentfighting the fire. Now, municipal governmentshave cut their budgets all over the United States and there’s no money in the budgetanymore to dig out these fire hydrants. But one of the fellowslooked at this problem and said, “But that there are peopleshoveling the sidewalks right in front of this fire hydrants.

Why don’t we get themto help out?” And this is the question we ask overand over again at Code for America. How could we make iteasy for the community to help where governmentisn’t able to step in? So this fellow saw this problemand quickly got a dataset of all of the locationsof the fire hydrants in Boston, put it on a map, and allowed peopleto adopt a hydrant and say, “I will dig this fire hydrant outwhen it’s covered with snow and I will makemy community more safe.” Now, this was not a lot of code; it took him about a dayto put this together. At least the first version of it.

But what happened is thatothers picked it up. In Honolulu, one of our othercity partners saw this and said, “You know what?We don’t have a fire hydrant problem on the beaches of Honolulu. But we do have a problemwith our tsunami sirens.” It’s very importantthat the tsunami sirens work, and yet, the battery packswere sometimes stolen, and the city didn’t knowwhich of them worked or not. So he also created a map,and let citizens adopt tsunamis sirens. So that the city could focuson fixing the ones that were broken instead of constantly going aroundand seeing which ones needed help.

Now, I live in Oakland, California,where the problem there is drains. There’s a drain full of leaves and it backs up,you have flooding in your street. Well, it’s easy enough for me to go outand clear those leaves out of the drain. Much easierthan it is to send the crews out. And so we have,in Oakland, “Adopt a Drain”. There about two dozen of theseprograms around the world and they’ve spread very,very easily by people picking up the open source code, adapting it to their needs,and publishing it for their citizens. Now, this is what we callcivic hacking; it’s just the processof being in your city, realizing that you need skills, and getting in front of thisamazing movement.

Lauren Ancona is a womanin the city of philadelphia, who didn’t know how to code. But she wanted to get involved;she had a problem with parking permits. And she taught herself to codeand to use data in order to be able to do this, to be able to show the city the problemsthat she needed to have solved. And she said, “civic hacking changedthe way I saw my city and saw myself.” She saw code as her superpower and she learned to do it,and she became part of this movement.

Now, what is the futurefor engaged citizens? The future for educatingstudents in STEM careers? Well, I think it’s important that we askourselves; as important as code is, what if it were not actually the mostimportant thing to our future? Do we really need kids who canjust pomp out lines of JavaScript? Or if you think about that example with the fire hydrants; do we need kids who couldunderstand what code can do? What it can do for their communities,and what it can do for them. Now, if we’re going to createthis generation of citizen makers, who understand that codeand civic engagement is their superpower and their way to haveimpact in the world… Yes, we’re going to have to have many,many more programs that teach kids to code.

There are thousandsof them outside schools, but if we’re going to getto the numbers that we need, the heavy lifting will have to happenin public school classrooms, which means we’re going to haveto have coding as part of the curriculum in every public schoolin the United States, and probably around the world. But we’re also gonna haveto understand that it’s not just coding, but it’s this mindset of making and the maker movement.And that’s why President Obama, before he announcedthe Computer Science For All initiative, brought makinginto the White House years ago. He held a White House Maker Faire, and held a Maker Faireon the National Lawn. He’s been making this a part of hisadministration since the beginning. There’s another thingthat President Obama did to make this initiative so visible. And this happened during the yearthat I spent in the white house.

I went in to create something calledthe United States Digital Service, which is modeled after theGovernment Digital Service in the UK. But it didn’t have a lot of traction until something happenedin October 2013. President Obama spentmuch of his first administration trying to pass somethingcalled the Affordable Care Act. It was supposed to makehealth care available to all Americans. But one of the thingsthat this law needed was a website that allowed people to enrollin health care in the United States. And when that website launched,it didn’t initially work. Most Americans who triedto use the site saw this message” “The System is down at the moment.” And it was so bad, that there was talkof actually repealing the law because the website didn’t work.

This was a major challengeto the Obama administration, and one that we were askedto rise to the occasion and help fix. So what did we do? Well, we brought in some amazing folksfrom outside to help fix the site. These were not folks from government; these were folks from Google and Appleand other companies, who came, sometimes literally,on a moment’s notice, to come to help make work. One of them in the middle,Michael Dickerson, was a Googler, who was askedto come on a Wednesday and was there in D.C.the next day, on Thursday. And they worked 20 hours a dayfor a hundred days straight to get the site working better. Now, at first, it didn’t work very well, but as time went onwe got headlines like this; “Healthcare.govis slightly less terrible today.” And by the time thatthe open enrollment period for this health insurance was over, the site had actuallysigned up eight million people, which is more than the originalestimates before the site broke and that’s a remarkable accomplishment.

What’s remarkable alsois that the digital skills that came in through this call tothe American people to come help actually stayed on. This United States Digital Service, a group of amazingtechnology folks who came in to help save the site,actually lives on, and Mikey Dickerson, that guy whocame on one day’s notice, is actually leading the USDS. When we talk about governmentfor the people and by the people, it’s not just adopting hydrantsor adopting storm drains; it’s really making ourgovernment technology work.

This only workswhen the people get involved. Government for the peopleand by the people has to work in the 21st century, and we need citizen makersand citizen coders for that to happen. Now, it’s been said that we are still inthe scribal stage of the computer age, where the skills are justin the hands of the elite. We know when we look atthe problems of the 21st century that we’re gonna needthat to change, we’re gonna need thatto be part of everybody’s skillset.

If we’re going to face the challengesof the 21st century, we need everyoneto be computer literate, we need everyoneto think of themselves as a maker, not just a consumer, and we need everyoneto think of themselves as a citizen. Now, in order to do that, certainly, we’re gonna needan enormous investment in computer science education, but we’re also gonna needa change in mindset. We need to think of codingnot just as a language of the future, but also as the language of citizenship. Thank you very much.

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