If you’re a kid, what’s the only thing better than competing against your friends to win a fun video game? Competing to MAKE the best fun video game!
Gilbert, Arizona has been capitalizing on students’ interest in coding — and in beating their friends — in order to connect them with municipal data and town’s top priorities. For the past five years, the Town of Gilbert has hosted coding competitions through their SPARK App League program in cooperation with Arizona State University, corporate partners like Google and Waymo, and non-profit partners like the Smithsonian Institution. The competitions give high school and junior high school students a chance to strut their stuff by building games and apps with municipal service themes and Gilbert’s public data. You can watch their video on YouTube.
This past year’s competitions focused on clean water and “innovation and food.” The winning games ranged from “Deliver for Me,” a food-delivery challenge on the streets of Gilbert, to a game celebrating superhero Gilbert sanitation workers in “Gilbert Clean Up.” During each competition, hundreds of students spent two days working on their creations with Scratch, a free programming language developed at MIT. With the guidance of coaches and teachers, students of all experience levels have been able to hone their coding skills while tackling community priorities.
The competition is clearly a winner among Arizona students. However, SPARK App League is also helping Gilbert itself support two important goals.
First, as the town has grown larger and younger over the last several decades — with 71% of residents now being under the age of 45 — it has intentionally focused on connecting with its “digital natives.” Younger people expect to be able to interact with government online, and Gilbert strives to provide that experience in an excellent and cost-effective way. They have built up an impressive Office of Digital Government which manages a wide variety of internet-based town initiatives, ranging from the SPARK App League to the town’s podcast “Government Gone Digital” to the annual Digital State of the Town documentary.
In line with this town priority, the activities of SPARK App League directly target some of the town’s youngest “digital natives,” giving them a tangible way to connect with Gilbert and its services. Gilbert’s Mayor Jenn Daniels sees the direct relationship between supporting youth skills and the town’s future. “We are very aware and focused that this is the future of our community – and the future of the world. Every kid needs to learn how to program, understand what that means, and how it translates to whatever career choice they have.”
At the same time, a second motivation that drove the development of SPARK App League was the town’s interest in finding a way to more effectively use town resources. Town Manager Patrick Banger pointed out that while they didn’t want to spend a lot of extra money, they still needed to know, “How can we harness the value of the data we collect that sits on our servers and on our shelves, and put that to use for residents – for the betterment of our residents?” The SPARK App League program they designed offered a clear win-win. Engagement was significant, with high schools all around the state getting involved. The town has seen new Gilbert apps built at no cost, and has also helped build students’ skills for future career opportunities.
It seems that every year Gilbert continues to find new ways to connect through its digital services. Its most recent innovation, launched just this year, is an open data portal that comes with its own helpful animated guide, Alex. In partnership with What Works Cities, Gilbert developed an open data policy, conducted an inventory of its data and began an open data program. Characteristic of their focus on connection with the community, however, they focused on ensuring that their open data portal provides an easy online on-ramp to the community at large. Along with offering data, they have emphasized digital literacy, including a step-by-step guide to getting started with open data and “Connecting the Dots” features that use the town’s data to tell a story. Comment boxes allow residents to ask questions about the data and then let “Alex” respond.
The Town of Gilbert truly proves that municipal data and technology projects can be a lot of fun. We’ll be keeping an eye on them and can’t wait to see what they dream up next!