Baby Bindery
Fall 2017 elective at Rhode Island School of Design, Graphic Design Department. This has 1510 words and is filed under: demo.

The Web & Democracy

Posted by John Caserta on

Is the Internet making the world a better place or is it simply remaking the world – peacefully transferring capital from 20th century corporations to 21st century ones? If the digital space is becoming primary, then who is tending to the systems of self-government, defined so articulately in the age of Enlightenment?

This Web research elective asks students to design tools that further the public’s interest online. Can the Web – designed as an open and free medium – reinvigorate our investment in public space and the public good? Students will work together to engage politicians, non-profits, and fellow citizens in the pursuit of these questions.

Assignments will range from Web tools that serve democracy to civic fundraising to information dissemination. Class deliverables will be a combination of prototypes, presentations and coded mini-sites. Students will develop the parameters for the final project and work in teams. Outside collaborators and readings will enrich the conversation and the work. No previous web experience required, but Web Programming workshop strongly encouraged.

Learning Objectives

  • To put the Web in service of the common good instead of the marketplace
  • To learn about people’s views and wants for government
  • To design web tools for all audiences
  • To adapt private ventures into public ones


Shared platforms

Code demos

Weekly demos, activities held at 8am for one hour. Look at various ways to build mini-sites, etc.

  • US Web Standards framework (download and use it)
  • Framework 2
  • Jekyll, Markdown, Github, etc
  • Flex and Grid
  • Mobile, needs of mobile


Day 1: Intro to course

Syllabus overview

Who are we?

  • Introduce ourselves
  • Activity: Ask students to identify what groups they are a part of, and then, how do those groups organize themselves

What is democracy and how might the web influence it?

Brief lecture
  • Democracy defined.
  • Plato on why we form society
  • Failures, possibilities, alternative models.
  • The Web today versus its idealistic state
  • How does a government differ from a private company? (Terms of service?)
Creation of class pact
  • How might the class structure itself support, reinforce or play with the central ideas of the course. Do we form a constitution? How much of what we do is public/online?


Unit x: Information dissemination

How are participants in an organization informed about key decisions, proposed changes to that organization? There are significant portions of the population who sit at the margins of any democratic process – particularly when it comes time to voting, voicing support or opposition to civic and state matters, etc. African-Americans, immigrants, the poor do not always benefit from democratic ideals and processes. How might the Web reach these people? How might it acknowledge their perspectives, needs, etc.


  • Socrates on an informed public as necessary to a functioning democracy
  • How can design help people learn (CooperHewitt show)


  • Activity: Design a voter information guide using Web Standards framework
  • In-class activity: Split into groups of three and perform an audit of a corporation’s communication strategy (each person chooses a similar company in a certain sector to deduce best practices/norms: tech, non-profit, government, small private). What is appealing to users vs shareholders vs media? How do those writing styles differ? Debrief with each other.
  • Assignment: Part One: Perform user research. What do “people” know? What is available for them to know? What might need to be generated? Design a tool/site/system (notifications, etc) that would reach a certain sector of a community. Perform 5 interviews from a certain sector to better understand that sector (geographical community, demographic, etc). You need not be limited to governmental constituents, but also potentially organizational constituents.
  • Part Two: Design a vehicle to best communicate with your constituents. Certainly useful for city council meetings, GD Dept. meetings, etc. May also be interesting to connect it to how one voted (the actions of people). Megan Kallman’s email newsletter. Qualitative language. Meeting minutes verbatim vs summarized. Role of councilperson vs media (work of
  • How do you encourage someone to act. What fits the current lifestyle? “Busyness” vs disconnected.


  • Ryan Laughlin on tools that handle public data

Unit x: The voting machine

Asking user input is a critical part of a design process. It’s also central to democracy. Voting machines as evolving technologies, with each machine introducing its own mechanical and human flaws. Take the butterfly ballot that cost Al Gore the 2000 Presidential election, as an example. The goal, is it not, is to capture one’s intentions and be able to verify that intention. The screen will no doubt have a future in voting. Let’s look at the simple act of voting through the lens of the screen.

Mark Zuckerburg, Harvard 2017 commencement address
Mark Zuckerburg, Harvard 2017 commencement address

Reference / Readings

  • A look at previous voting machines
  • Look at more current technologies and hear about debacles: LA touch screen, IDEO, etc (John Marion, Rob Rock)
  • Voter Guides, state of voting design (Dan Chisnell)
  • Where is the Public Today essay (CooperHewitt). Porto Alegre’s participatory budgets


  • Activity: Look at javascript/jquery needed to design touchscreen
  • Assignment: How does voting engage its constituents? How specific should questions be framed to get desired outcomes?. Do voters remember their choices? Create an “election” for one of the constituencies that you belong to (a project, dorm, GD, RISD, etc). What are you trying to know? How should people vote? What are your goals for turnout? Include aspects of representative democracy (vote for a person or a proxy) and direct democracy (voting on issue where the outcome determined by majority).


  • Danny Chapman on accessibility and frameworks


  • Black Mirror episode with voting
  • Dana Chisnell Handbook of Usability Testing

Unit x: Garnering participation

How are resources gathered to take on the work of the common good? Can the Web, a “fast” medium (low effort, high volume), lead to “slower” more meaningful interactions/investments from constituents? In other words, how might the Web get someoff off their screen and put their body alongside of others? Can the Web encourage participation from communities that tend to not participate in governance? Does capitalism also mandate that wealth equals success?


  • NYC Street Trees
  • AIGA/NY Hurricane Sandy Design/Relief
  • Code for America
  • Change by Us (Local Projects), See Vimeo
  • Civil Debate Wall (Local Projects)
  • Hangout with opposite viewpoint
  • Archon Fung, Harvard, Participedia
  • Public libraries / resource sharing


  • Megan Kallman and/or Nirva LaFortune newsletter (blog?). Qualitative language. Meeting minutes verbatim vs summarized. Role of councilperson vs media (work of


  • Design a tool that engenders participation from a community (is there value associated with it?)

Unit x: Public debate (do we know each other?)

140 characters plus the like button have destroyed debate on the Internet. Early blogging played up comments in a way that they were publishing. How do we of differing opinions discuss now? How do you change someone’s mind? Can the Web facilitate this discussion, perhaps make the face-to-face discussion more palatable when it does happen.


  • Rousseau and General Will (GW as an abstraction of sorts,)
  • We live in Public (all connected all the time)
  • Zuckerman Atlantic article


  • Ethan Zuckerman on MIT news aggregator

Assignments / Activities

  • Activity: Union of Concerned Scientists. Fact vs Fiction
  • Activity/Short assignment: Go to a City Council meeting and try to make sense of it for those who weren’t there. Choose a platform/location for the content to appear. Co-opt or hijack a commercial tool for public use. How does the tool allow for follow-up conversation, feedback?
Case Studies/ ideas
  • Union of Concerned Scientists - convince of scientific fact
  • Wikipedia revisions
  • Digital Hangout with opposite viewpoint

Unit X: Open Assignment

Hone in on three to four projects. Discuss/vote and work in teams to accomplish. The project should address the basic question: how can the web ameliorate democracy: to inform people, to encourage elevated discussion, participation… all the issues we’ve discussed over the semester.

Index of all posts