Coding 911: How a Lesson in Computing Can Be a Lesson in Saving Lives

June 5, 2018

“Computer science can tackle any issue or topic you care about, from poverty to climate change. If you want to make a difference in the world, study computer science.”


– Rose Broome, Founder and CEO, HandUp



You’ve probably read the statistics on the economic advantages of code. The news is filled with variations on your child’s hypothetical future that all go a little something like this: You teach your kid to program, they gain a skillset that will enable them to engineer the next bestselling app or spearhead a new social media platform that could potentially skyrocket to the level of Twitter or Facebook.


Impressive, no? Who wouldn’t want to develop a proficiency that could spell big bucks in the years to come?


But here’s something even more impressive: Coding isn’t just a resume builder that can lead to a perk-filled job or a hefty salary—it’s also a tool to help save lives.


Turns out learning to program can benefit society as much as it can benefit your bottom line, and small efforts made to teach our children about coding today can protect our community from disaster tomorrow.


Consider, for example, two recent cases in which good coding assisted in fixing a communal problem before it got completely out of hand.


The first occurred in 2014, when the state of Washington found itself in the midst of a crisis during a systems glitch that shut down the 911 switchboards manned by a third-party service operating out of a Colorado dispatch center—effectively leaving millions of people with nowhere to turn in an emergency. Within a day, however, savvy coders were able to isolate the problem: the programming software had reached an arbitrary 911 call quota set up by the system designers, and the switchboards were therefore behaving as though they had reached full capacity and couldn’t take on any other calls. The coders then diverted all incoming Washington calls to a properly functioning dispatch center in Miami and ultimately restored Washington’s own 911 service by editing the in-built quota numbers and placing them in the billions (pretty hard to exceed that limit).


The second case unfolded a lot closer to home. In the winter of 2011, the city of Boston lucked out when it chose to host a few Code for America engineers as part of a national initiative to bring expert coding into city halls…and the programmers just so happened to hit town right before a snowstorm. Stuck indoors, the coders put their heads together and decided to tackle one of the city’s ongoing difficulties, namely that, during heavy snow, firefighters often needed help finding and digging out hydrants so they could combat flames. The result of the programmers’ efforts became, a website that encourages Beantown locals to volunteer their time in order to shovel out nearby hydrants during winter storms. Even better? The coding behind the website was open-sourced, which enabled other snowy cities to reconfigure the underlying software for similar preventative action.


Want further proof that coding saves lives? Just take a look at the thought process involved. “The greatest contribution the young programmers [bring to society] isn’t the software they write. It’s the way they think,” Mother Jones contributor Tasneem Raja observes. Indeed, when a child engages in the intricacies of code, the activity promotes what the industry calls “computational thinking,” which in turn fortifies students with creative analytical skills that will allow them to recognize overarching societal issues and match them to an appropriate digital solution. The takeaway? Computing code can lead to computational thinking, which can lead back to critical coding that advances the greater good.


And a surefire way to jumpstart this cycle is to introduce our children to the building blocks of programming—starting now. 




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