In 2020, the U.S. Department of State and U.S. Census Bureau hosted the 10-week TOPx Challenge sprint: Reimagining Civics Education for a New Generation. The Opportunity Project (TOP) brings together technologists, government, and communities to rapidly prototype digital products. The challenges are powered by federal open data with the goal of solving real-world problems for people across the country. Participants included the Policy Innovation Lab at Carnegie Mellon University, the iConsult Collaborative at Syracuse University, Bites Media, and Suffolk University.
The objective of the challenge was to revitalize civics training in secondary schools by developing a digital product that drew on foreign assistance open data and equipped students with an understanding of how American institutions work.
The challenge included access to a wide range of user advocates including Boston Latin School as well as Cambridge Rindge & Latin School. Other advocates included C-SPAN Classroom, a free membership service designed to enhance the teaching of Social Studies using public affairs programming and iCivics, an organization that offers innovative, free online resources. Finally, there was LexGen, a nonprofit composed of high school students who want to make civics education simple, fun, and accessible.
This sprint also included representatives from American Bar Association, Division for Public Education, the Bill of Rights Institute, the Edward M Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate, the Florida Joint Center on Citizenship, the Indiana University Center on Representative Government, the National Conference on Citizenship, U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, as well as a parent advocate.
The members of the Suffolk Team started by exploring the federal open document archives and data sets and from there identifying questions to probe in user research. User research pertains to reaching out directly to user advocates to learn about their experiences and needs on the ground. This meant developing interview guides for both individuals and for facilitating focus groups.
In two weeks, the team interviewed user advocates from iCivics, Boston Latin School, C-SPAN Education Team, and Malden Public Schools. The team also led a virtual focus group with 6 LexGen Students. From this user research, the team learned key insights to what was needed such as a clean, streamlined, intuitive user interface that was age appropriate. The team discovered the necessity to build a sense of agency into the app and allow for the ability of students to communicate with both peers and teachers.
The team focused on both qualitative and quantitative data. It was critical to evaluate and understand the qualitative data to connect the meaning behind the categories within the datasets. For instance, the team needed to know “how the effectiveness of federal aid is measured?” They found extensive datasets and reports but many different metrics to gauge return on investment.
The scope of the data was vast in addition to the other sources, so the team’s approach was to select data in a relevant period of the past 5 years available and narrow the key area of focus to Health, Environment, and Education and Social Services. Overall, the team looked for skewness and any overall trends. Meanwhile, the team had an opportunity to ask data stewards from government agencies direct questions during a live session which guided the team moving forward with data analyses.
At this point, the stages of the sprint had built the foundation for one another. Moving toward the concept pitch, the team integrated the user research insights with data trends.
By consolidating user research from high school students, educators, and user advocates, the team was able to determine some of the critical challenges faced by educators teaching civics and pain points for students trying to learn the material. These insights led the team to focus on a solution that addresses the lack of engagement with the material and the problem of students not understanding the impact of foreign aid assistance.
During data exploration, the team had analyzed the open-source government databases provided by the U.S. Department of State. Faced with the wealth of information, the team needed to distill all of this down to what would be the most useful information to include in the app and that would bring the foreign aid process to life for students.
During the team’s design process, two different but strong ideas had emerged, and both were presented to the panel at the concept pitch. Based on the panel feedback, the team realized that the concept having a virtual aid committee table where students could discuss via video conference with peers to determine the foreign aid decisions was favored. This concept resonated more with both students and educators. From this point the team moved forward with the virtual aid table design and this became a core part of Civics Studio, the digital product from the Suffolk University Team.
This stage was a presentation where Suffolk Team shared a virtual demo of a more mature version of the app, Civics Studio. It was achieved through a combination of wireframes and walking through a progression of the user through the game by having some basic functioning features. To design the functioning features in the prototype the team used Adobe XD, a vector-based digital design tool for creating websites and apps.
The use of this design tool enabled the team to illustrate game setting to potential users and how different interactions lead to a variety of outcomes within the game. Feedback from another round of LexGen student focus group were solicited and fed to the further fine-tuning of the final product design.
Final Demo: A Success!
The final demo was invited by the Open Innovation Lab of U.S. Census Bureau to present at the Demo Week event in December 2020. It included Suffolk Team’s MVP (Minimal Viable Product) with a set of functioning features. More than 200 government agencies, nonprofit organizations, and commercial firms joined the Demo Week event.