Tech Lab Pilot Designed Solutions to Improve Civil Discourse
Photo by Diane Baldwin/RAND Corporation
December 4, 2017
Technology can present many challenges for public policy, but it also enables improved research methods. As a first step in standing up a future permanent technology lab, Pardee RAND piloted a tech lab experience this past summer with nine students.
Nick Broten (cohort '15), Steve Davenport ('15), Lauren Davis ('15), Karen Lee ('16), Claire O’Hanlon ('13), Sujeong Park ('15), Josh Russell-Fritch ('16), Bonnie Triezenberg ('14), and Sara Turner ('15) applied to the pilot by submitting original creations that ranged from illustrated stories to physical contraptions to written proposals. (See Introducing Design Studios and a Tech Lab in the Winter '17 issue of Findings.)
Lab members were given the freedom (and funding) to design and create projects that used technology to improve civil discourse. They were encouraged to use skills and create products that were outside the scope of their previous RAND work. Lauren, Karen, Sujeong, Josh, Bonnie, and Sara were full members of the pilot, while Nick, Steve, and Claire served as advisors in a "labinet" (lab cabinet) and also worked on projects.
Tech Lab Projects
Exploring Points of View
After visiting an exhibit at the Museum of Tolerance, Bonnie and Sujeong set out to create an online experience to help people explore their own views regarding the boundary between free speech and hate speech. With programming help from Karen, they designed, built, and tested an interactive tool that allows users to explore a range of points of view regarding speech incidents pulled from recent headlines. They used the tool to gather data on whether users' listening and empathy skills are impacted by their perception of their own similarity to the person relating a point of view.
From the start, Sara knew she wanted to focus on using technology and art to create a physical installation within the Pardee RAND space. For her project, she designed and built a visualization platform based on arduino boards.
In one of the Pardee RAND classrooms, she installed 20 lamps that each contained an arduino microcontroller and LED lamps — components that she and other lab members soldered themselves. Each lamp connected wirelessly to an Internet of Things broker that passed input feed data to the lamps. For her demonstration, she used real-time Twitter data related to U.S. political discourse to control the color of the lamps.
Inspired by a Twitter account at the San Francisco Museum of Art that responds to tweets with a random work of art from the museum's collection, Sujeong built and programmed a Raspberry Pi Twitterbot that responded to tweets with links to RAND reports. Users could tweet at the bot using the phrase "Research (keyword) and it would randomly pick a RAND report related to the keyword and tweet back to the user with the link.
Inspired by a recent online demonstration that placed an LCD behind a reflective surface to create a "smart mirror," Josh wanted to use this basic concept to explore unintended facial signals when hearing opposing political opinions. The mirror also allowed him to explore bias in choice of news sources based on a user's political leaning: it provided "nameless news" — the day's top stories stripped of news sources — allowing users to read news from across the political spectrum.
During the discovery phase of the Tech Lab pilot, Lauren found there was a lack of instructional materials for how children can engage in civil discourse online. Lauren created a series of training videos and even a proof-of-concept virtual reality experience designed to help kids better navigate social interactions using emerging technology.
Written and filmed by Lauren—with programming help from Karen—the project was a prototype for an entire ecosystem of content designed to help parents and kids prepare for more effective online discourse.
ControVersus Card Game
Claire initially designed the basic premise of this game as part of her Tech Lab pilot application. In the game, two players take on the roles of Liberal and Conservative, to match polarized and extremist definitions of politically charged terms. Claire and Steve then worked together, with Tech Lab pilot consultant Julia Pollak (cohort '12), to write the definitions. The idea was to present how each side might think about words and phrases commonly heard in U.S. political discourse. Quibbling about the definitions was definitely part of the game.
Overall, the pilot's goal was to better understand what it means to operate a lab-like environment within the graduate school. Professors Dave Baiocchi and Bill Welser said the experience yielded many valuable insights related to space planning, strategies for managing student-created intellectual property, and ways to integrate tech-based projects into dissertations.
It was also eye-opening for the participating students.
Claire said the biggest difference between her Tech Lab pilot project and other work she's done at RAND is "the final product was not pre-ordained at the start. The pilot expanded my ideas of what can constitute a research product or policy intervention."
Steve appreciated that he "could work as an entrepreneur, with little supervision, and with wide latitude for me to guide the project and implement its details as I saw fit."
Nick, who along with Claire and Steve was an advisor and member of the "labinet," said of his experience, "The lab fostered a culture of creativity and exploration." Like other members of the Tech Lab, he was able to dabble in different technologies. "I mocked up a Python script that responds to human speech, learned about the linguistic subfield of "dialogic syntax," and helped design a communication game."
Bonnie said of her experience, "I have renewed respect for how difficult it is to use language in an unbiased manner."
Josh said he liked the Tech Lab pilot's focus on experimentation "with data methods, building methods, user experiences, and out-of-the-box ideas." He added that he learned "how to apply concepts from my outside hobbies, such as game design, to view policy problems in a new light and implement novel solutions."
"The variety of the work product was more than any RAND project I've worked on. I felt empowered to take risks and try new things," Sara said of her Tech Lab experience.
Dave Baiocchi added, "Part of my goal for this pilot was to show the Pardee RAND community what’s possible when you give students some resources and the freedom to make something new. Bill and I are so proud of the students’ creativity and vision, which is evident in the end products that the tech lab created.”
The findings from this experience will help inform current design efforts as Pardee RAND moves towards deploying a full-scale tech lab in the coming years.
Tech Lab Pilot Open House
Members of the Tech Lab Pilot presented their final products during an interactive open house in October.
All photos by Diane Baldwin/RAND Corporation