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TFIC: A Young Civic Hacker Could Be the Next Generation of Gov Tech

Equipped with publicly available data and an interest in making a difference, a 14-year-old self-taught coder is doing for government what it did not do for itself.

Elias Fretwell works on a coding project at his family’s home in Lafayette, Calif.
Elias Fretwell works on a coding project at his family’s home in Lafayette, Calif.
Luke Fretwell
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It has the makings of a “kid in a candy store” moment. The kid in this case is 14-year-old Elias Fretwell who lives in a town called Lafayette in the East Bay of the San Francisco Bay Area. The candy store is made up of the 255,065 data sets posted on the federal open government website, “It’s fun looking for things and imagining what could be done with it,” Elias said.

His excitement piques when he finds something he can improve upon in that vast universe of uneven, sometimes random data. And there is an unequaled thrill when a big, faceless bureaucracy responds to one of his submitted issues or, better yet, acknowledges his contributions.


Elias’ first hacks involved Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data about state vaccination rates in the early days of COVID-19. His dad, co-founder and CEO of the local government digital platform ProudCity, Luke Fretwell, introduced him to APIs. “So then I went and I looked it up,” Elias said, “and I figured out how to do it. Then I wanted to find something that was interesting and build something with it.”

Elias coded, Luke handled the web design and the father-son civic coding team launched its first hacking project early in the pandemic. The project morphed over time into a hoverable map of weekly cases across the United States based on the CDC’s National Notifiable Diseases Surveillance System API.

Other civic hacks have followed, including making an easy way to access NASA’s photo of the day and, perhaps most notably, creating a survey mark finder app based on public data from the National Geodetic Survey, whose mission is to increase maritime safety by creating nautical charts of the nation’s coastlines. Elias’ app maps a list of survey marks across the United States, a pinpoint to current location and ability to search survey marks in any location.

“My favorite is the map of survey markers,” he said, “because we can work with the data and then go out and see them in real life.

“They are like little reference points for surveyors that they can use when they need to do something in the area. And so the National Geodetic Survey has their list of ones they have but that’s in a format that’s not easy for a computer to read. It’s kind of hard to use. And if you don’t really know what you’re doing, you probably won’t understand it,” the young civic hacker explained. “So I had to make a program to change that. I think ours is easier to get around.”

These projects are rewarding experiences, the elder Fretwell reports, both as civic hackers and as father and son. “With the survey markers, it’s really allowed us to engage with one another in a way I can’t imagine we ever would have.” Urban scouting with the app has been an adventure. “We spent hours just sort of urban exploring parts of the Bay Area that we’ve never seen before. We spend time in the car talking, and we’re exploring and we’re problem solving when we disagree on when we think we can’t find the survey marker and asking, how much time should we spend on finding something that one of us may think is not there? And it’s just been really great. It’s been an amazing experience. It’s been an opportunity to connect with him in a way that I never had an assumption that I would.”


On first meeting, Elias explained that he plays piano and video games, and likes to draw and solve problems — that’s where the coding and hacking comes in. The nearby Contra Costa County Library offered a summer Scratch camp, based on the MIT-developed coding environment for kids. Elias signed up. He organized a coding club with a group of up to 20 friends at his middle school, whose members increased their computational thinking by working together at both the school and library.

Luke did his best to stay hands-off at the club. “Elias and his friends were responsible for it. So I said, if you need help, say, ‘I need help,’ and then somebody is going to come help you. And if nobody came to help them, it was up to Elias to make sure the person got helped. The kids would learn Scratch, build things and then in the last 10 minutes, kids would go up and demo. It was really cool. Parents would come. And kids would give a 30-second demo, and everybody would clap.”

Elias wanted more. “I wanted to make a mod for Minecraft,” the 3D sandbox game in which players learn how to harness and make use of the world around them. “But I realized that I couldn’t do that without knowing how to actually code the game. I looked up where I can learn Java, which is the programming language for it. I started learning that, and that was my first introduction to more advanced coding.”

There is a synergy between Minecraft and the wider world of civic hacking — both are about harnessing and making use of resources those in the respective communities have at hand. And both are renewed by fresh eyes on problems. “It’s the beginner’s mind, right?” Luke observed. “In the expert’s mind, you know, there are limitations, but in the beginner’s mind, there are none.”


Luke said, “It’s just great to see Elias experience civic hacking through his beginner’s mind” as he learns and builds his technical skills and his knowledge about how government works. “I also really like learning from him a lot. Because, you know, if we had a hacking competition between the two of us, he’d probably win.”

The odds are also with the younger civic hacker as current trends work themselves out. “Seeing the way the Internet is evolving into much more of a collaborative space and the way that the open source movement is becoming more prevalent and more accepted,” Luke said. “The kids are there, they’re involved in the work and it’s normal for them.”

The question is whether this newest normal will scale. Luke is encouraged: “These projects have really allowed me to rethink how government can deliver digital services in a better way.”

The elder Fretwell believes a reciprocal relationship between public agencies and civic hackers is vital. “The first time Elias submitted an issue to the Library of Congress about its API, they responded back. It was fairly quickly, and they closed it out,” Luke said.

Seeing it through his son’s eyes, Luke thinks the message received was, “I did something that, you know, that the Library of Congress acknowledged. I helped them fix an API.” That’s an important impression to leave. “That expectation is there for them.”

“But for me, those things have helped rethink how we build that virtuous civic cycle. How do we create that moment of joy? Even micro moments of joy?” asked Luke. “It doesn’t have to be this big or formal engagement project. It can be these tiny micro moments that help build trust within government, in the sense of we’re all public servants.

“But I think through this experience, and working with Elias, has really opened my eyes to the reality that government can be collaborative, help facilitate creativity and also bring moments of joy.”

For his part, Elias anticipates a college degree in computer science is in his future. His foray into civic hacking has been, to use his word, “fun,” but he has a gut sense that what remains is a lot of work. “I think what I did helps people and anyone who wants to use the data, but there’s still a lot of stuff out there that either is in a format that’s not good for people or it’s technical. So, there’s still a lot of stuff out there to do.”

This story originally appeared in the July/August issue of Government Technology magazine. Click here to view the full digital edition online.
Paul W. Taylor is the Senior Editor of e.Republic Editorial and of its flagship titles - Government Technology and Governing.