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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth

ODU Students Establish Country’s First Collegiate Code for America Group

Stanley Zheng has always been interested in public service. The Old Dominion University computer science major from Norfolk has volunteered for ODU's Center for Service and Civic Engagement off and on since arriving on campus.

However, Zheng, now a junior, never felt like the service projects he had a chance to join truly married his skills and passions with work that needed to be done. "These community service operations didn't speak to me," he said. That is, until he came across Code for America.

The national organization Code for America does what is known as "civic hacking." Despite the name, civic hacking is concerned only about the public good.

Code for America volunteers use their skills in a variety of areas - from computer programming and graphic design, to urban planning and communication - to help citizens better access government services.

It's a passion for Zheng, and he and Onapha Rattanachottiteeparkon, also a junior computer science major from Norfolk, have created the first Code for America brigade on a college or university campus in the entire country.

"Code for America wants to change the way citizens interact with their government," Zheng explained. "By helping create a brigade at ODU, we want to organize students, to get them civically engaged."

Rattanachottiteeparkon said the projects that Code for America has launched or is planning will be a resource that can help students link to their own service initiatives on campus. One example is the app the ODU brigade is developing to better track Adopt-a-Spot, tiny areas on campus and in the surrounding community that can be "adopted" for care and cleanup by diligent members of the campus community.

"Right now, it's not well organized. You don't know who is responsible for each spot, and how to get involved if you want to adopt one," Rattanachottiteeparkon said. Another initiative is to provide graphic design work for the Textizen Campaign, which solicits online feedback on a variety of issues from users of Hampton Roads Transit.

Eventually, the group, which numbers about 10 members, would like to be recognized as a formal campus organization and to help connect other similar individuals - civic-minded students, but those perhaps not inclined to join in activities such as a riverbank cleanup.

"We would like to engage students in civic hacking, a creative, often technological approach to solving civic problems, and empower community members to rethink and reevaluate how they interact with their government," Zheng said.