Are You Ready for the Civic Tech Challenge?

| MSNE Staff


Generation Citizen ( is an innovative education nonprofit that is in its second year of hosting the Civic Tech Challenge, a unique youth-centered hackathon and celebration for Greater Boston’s innovation community. The Civic Tech Challenge will occur on Saturday November 7th at Microsoft New England. 

Gillian Pressman, the Greater Boston Site Director of Generation Citizen, explains more about the organization and this inspiring event:

What is Generation Citizen?

Generation Citizen (GC) is an “action civics” education nonprofit. GC believes that every young person has the right to civics education that prepares him or her to effectively participate in our democracy. In particular, young people need to experience hands-on, action-oriented civics, or what we call “action civics.” GC provides action civics programming in partnership with 35 Greater Boston middle and high schools (and over 120 nationally) while also building demand for the concept of action civics nationwide.

Generation-Citizen-2In contrast to traditional civics, which attempts to teach the democratic process through rote memorization of the three branches and how a bill becomes a law, action civics calls on students to engage in the democratic process hands-on and in real time. In our in-school course, students identify a relevant, pressing local problem (i.e. gang violence, public transit, youth unemployment), analyze the problem to identify a specific policy-level root cause, and then take real action, reaching out to local government leaders to collaboratively address that root cause. The students begin to understand their community and local power structures by immersing themselves in experiential learning, and more importantly, develop a sense that they have a voice in the community and a real role in effecting change. At the end of the semester, students present at our inspiring capstone event, Civics Day at the MA State House.

We have had some exciting successes in Boston since we launched here in 2009. Our first year, we served 300 students per year, and now we serve 3,000 students per year. We have also made some significant investments in evaluation which have allowed us to prove our impact – we are increasingly collecting hard evidence that our students improve in the skills, knowledge, and dispositions that predict both long-term college and career success and long-term democratic engagement. Further, our testimonials are overwhelming – GC gives students a feeling that they are NOT powerless; that they DO have a hope of improving their lives and communities.

Why does Generation Citizen’s work matter?

America’s democracy is failing. Out of 179 democracies worldwide, the participation of our voters puts us at 139th – this is the bottom 20th percentile. We have a less active democracy than countries like Iran and the Congo. America actually gives out foreign aid using democratic health indicators as criteria, and we would fail our own standards of foreign aid!

Generation-Citizen-3This is problematic because if decision-makers attempt to tackle society’s biggest problems, especially those related to inequity and justice, they need a fully engaged citizenry. Indeed, coverage of the Ferguson, MO riots last year focused on the importance of a robust democracy in preventing a repeat of this tension and violence.

Action civics education can rebuild our democracy by inspiring and equipping our young people to become active citizens.

Further, civics education is one of the most effective ways to build students’ 21st century skills such as collaborative decision-making, persuasive communication, and critical analysis. Indeed, evidence suggests that effective civics education can both prevent school dropout and positively impact a young person’s ability to attain college and career success. This means that civics is important to the skill development of every individual student, as well as critical to the health of our society as a whole.

Why the Civic Tech Challenge?

We at GC are incredibly proud of our students – by taking action and collaborating with local leaders they have been able to advance major systemic changes, like adding anti-bullying to their school districts’ curriculum, passing legislation to provide more services to at-risk students, and adding permanent youth liaisons to police precincts.

But we know they can be even more effective. The process our students use is very analog – they hand-write letters on school notebook paper, circulate fill-in-the-blank surveys in their school cafeterias, and make presentations to decision-makers using notes scribbled on index cards. What if our students had access to innovations that enabled them to make their case more compellingly and inspire more people to get involved? Thanks to new civic innovation groups like Code for America, government agencies that nourish innovation, like the Office of New Urban Mechanics (who will be honored at 2015’s Civic Tech Challenge), and research and best practices disseminated by groups like the MIT Center for Civic Media and the Emerson Engagement Lab, citizens today can and do engage with their government and advance new civic ideas much more efficiently than in the past. The example of these groups shows us that new innovations can also accelerate our students’ abilities to be changemakers. This is why we created the Civic Tech Challenge.

Generation-citizen-4At the Civic Tech Challenge “hackathon” on November 7th (9am to 5pm), student representatives from some of our GC classes will team up with developers, designers, marketers, data scientists, and creative problem-solvers from Greater Boston’s top tech companies and technology education programs. The students attending will be 7th and 8th grade Boston Public School students, and they will currently be in the midst of GC action projects that address such issues as homelessness, gang violence, and public transit facility maintenance. They will collaborate with technologists to take their action project to the next level by adding in tools in one of our three hackathon tracks: Data Visualizations, Information Communication Technologies, and Digital Storytelling. The hackathon is structured so that the tools created meaningfully advance the students’ action projects (while also being open-source and accessible to future young people and citizen activist groups).

At the evening presentation and reception (5pm to 9pm), our hackteams of technologists and students will present their projects in front of our Host Committee and Judging Panel of leading Greater Boston innovators, as well as 250+ guests from Greater Boston’s tech and innovation communities. The evening will celebrate the power of innovation and civic engagement, and give us a glimpse into just how vibrant our community can be when the two are combined.

How do I get involved in the Civic Tech Challenge?

Generation-Citizen-5You can register for the hackathon: If you want to collaborate to design data visualizations, ICTs, or digital storytelling tools alongside Greater Boston students, register for the Civic Tech Challenge hackathon HERE. Participation includes breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks, and will culminate in the evening reception with more great food and drinks.

Or you can celebrate at the evening reception: Join event Honorees the New Urban Mechanics and an illustrious Judging Panel and Host Committee (chaired by Microsoft Civic Engagement Manager, Aimee Sprung) at our evening reception. Open beer and wine bar, and appetizers will be served! Tickets available HERE for $50 each, and if you’re a Microsoft employee, contact Aimee for a special Microsoft promo code.

I really look forward to seeing some of you there and continuing the conversation!

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