Course description

This course is an opportunity for a small team of students to lead a realistic, complex, and open-ended project. The course staff select a challenge and some of the success criteria, but what to do and how to do it is almost entirely up to the students.

The specific challenge for Fall 2020 is to reimagine civic engagement during and after the pandemic

This is a broad challenge. As the first step, the team will need to investigate the broad landscape of civic engagement to identify more specific opportunities for intervention. The team will have to understand the system of individuals and institutions that are relevant to the civic engagement activities, and decide if and where a technical intervention may be valuable. The team will then design, implement, and evaluate one or more sociotechnical prototypes demonstrating how civic engagement might look like during and beyond the pandemic.

The final product will be a public proposal document (that can include text, video, code, interactive demonstration) capturing the formative research, the approach, relevant analyses, and data.

We will leverage the geographic diversity of the team to examine civic engagement across many different locations in the world. We will assemble a team with diverse life experiences and academic strenghts to help ensure that many relevant voices are represented on the team.

While the team will have a lot of freedom in how to scope and pursue the project, we set down two axioms:

  1. Reduce inequalities. It is not enough for a solution to "make things better" for a large number of people. The team will also have to demonstrate that the solution reduces inequalities. Any real world intervention (a policy, a tool, a piece of infrastructure) benefits some more than others. The world is also full of inequalities. The team will have to demonstrate that the solution(s) they pursue reduce rather than amplify existing inequalities.
  2. Be accountable for "unintended consequences". Any real-world intervention has both direct and indirect consequences. The team will develop preocess to anticipate and appropriately address indirect consequences of their solution(s), including those that fall beyond the bounds of computer science and engineering. Under no circumnstances will the team claim that a serious unintended consequence is "somebody else's problem". In case a serious unintended consequence is uncovered late in the process, the team will publicly acknowledge the problem and retract their proposal.

Ethical foundations

We accept the premise that artifacts (and software) have politics. By politics, we mean fundamental questions about how we relate to one another, and how power and resources are distributed in a society. We do not equate politics with alegiance to particular parties or ideologies.

I (Krzysztof) do not know how to succinctly present this idea, so early in the course we will all read an essay by Ben Green that presents this argument effectively (building on Langdon Winner's influential 1980 paper). But once we accept the premise that software artifacts have politics, then it follows that we should be explicit about our politics. The second axiom above (Be accountable for unintended consequences) is meant to force us to think explicitly about all potential impacts of our work on the society and consider whether they are desirable. It is up to the students to make those decisions, but they have to be made explicitly. The teaching staff contributes just one political axiom: our solution(s) should be design to reduce existing inequities.

To build an effective intellectual toolkit for reasoning about the politics of our work, we will look to a variety of disciplines including ethics, STS, feminist theories, critical race theory, disability theory, and others. Everybody will have to learn something new.

Learning objectives

  1. To practice using many different kinds of knowledge to analyze and address a complex, open-ended societal problem. Specifically:
    1. To learn/practice how to analyze and design sociotechnical systems, that is, systems comprised of people, institutions, and technology.
    2. To learn/practice how to anticipate and design for indirect consequences (including impact on inequalities).
    3. To learn/practice how to design and implement complex interactive software.
  2. To practice effective teamwork. 
  3. To practice effective communication across disciplinary boundaries.
  4. To practice being accountable for one's choices.


This course is intended for juniors and seniors. Some CS background is helpful, but not required. Students from all concentrations are welcome.

Course Policies and Expectations

  • Students lead. The course staff will structure the course activities for the first 2-3 weeks so that we get off to a quick start. After that, the student team will be in charge of planning what to do, when and how. 
  • Regular attendance is expected. We will do actual work during class time so it is essential for everyone to attend the scheduled class meetings. By default, everyone is expected to have their camera on at least during the interactive parts of the class.
  • Work load. You should expect to spend 10-12 hours a week on this course, including class time, readings, research, coding, etc. If we do it right, this work is going to be fun. Remember that the students are in charge of scoping and structuring the work. If things get seriously stressful or overwhelming, it is up to the student team to revise the plan.
  • Team contract. Within the first couple of weeks of the course, the students will collaboratively write and commit to a shared team contract. To help you get started, we have curated a set of questions many teams choose to address in their contracts. This is just a starting point for you to consider. 

Diversity and inclusion

Academics. In this class, we will build on knowledge from many academic disciplines. We acknowledge that much of the world's academic knowledge reflects the interests and preferences of a non-representative sample of the world's population, and is historically built on a small subset of privileged voices. In this class, we will make an effort to learn from a diverse set of disciplines and a diverse group of scholars, but limits still exist on this diversity. We acknowledge that it is possible that there may be both overt and covert biases in the material due to the lens with which it was written or because of the choice of research methods. Uncovering and analyzing the consequences of these biases will be part of our discussions. And we welcome pointers to other academic material that can provide other perspectives.

Climate. We would like to create a learning environment in our class that supports a diversity of thoughts, perspectives and experiences, and honors your identities (including race, gender, class, sexuality, ability, socioeconomic status, politics, religion, etc.). We (like many people) are still in the process of learning about diverse perspectives and identities. If something is said in class (by anyone) that made you feel uncomfortable, please talk to us about it.

Life events. If you feel like your performance in the class is being impacted by your experiences outside of class, please don’t hesitate to come and talk with us.

Accommodations for students with disabilities

If you have a health condition that affects your learning or classroom experience, please let the instructors know as soon as possible. We will, of course, provide all the accommodations listed in your AEO letter (if you have one), but we find that sometimes we can do even better if a student helps us understand what really matters to them.

Mental health

If you experience significant stress or worry, changes in mood, or problems eating or sleeping this semester, please do not hesitate to reach out to the instructors to discuss. There are also several free and confidential resources available to you:

  • Counseling and Mental Health at UHS , 617-495-2042 (during business hours), 617-495-5711 (at all other times)
  • Room 13 (more resources under the Virtual Counseling menu), 617-495-4969

If you have an ongoing mental health condition, please consider talking with the instructors. We recognize that mental health challenges can be intermittent, that a person who is doing great in many aspects of their life may have difficulties with others. We recognize that mental health challenges can be invisible to oursiders making it hard to get the support and understanding you need. We encourage you to talk to us even when everything is going well so that if your condition changes, we have a plan in place for how best to support you.