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TEDGlobal: Transforming voting, and education

David Bismark has a very clever idea for making elections more transparent and verifiable. He explains that elections are incredibly hard to carry out – “running a country wide election is messy and bad things happen.” To make sure as few things as possible go wrong, we have all sorts of procedures in place, and generally, our trust that our vote is counted is a trust in the voting systems.

That trust may be unwarranted. Voters should be able to check that their vote was counted correctly without breaking the secrecy of a ballot. Bismark’s solution is one that uses computers, but doesn’t depend on them. Each ballot is different – the candidate list is different on each one, and it’s got a unique bar code. Remove the ballot from the form and no one knows who you’ve voted for. But the cryptography let you check online and verify your vote. I’m looking forward to reading his paper and I admire his dedication to transparent, verifiable elections.

Emily Piloton has a big idea for a small community. She and her design firm, Project H Design (which is basically her and her partner Matt) are focused on transforming education in Bertie County, North Carolina. The community is extremely rural, has only 20,000 people sparsely distributed in a community in northeastern NC, about two hours from Raleigh. She sees the community as an example of the “demise of rural America”, the hollowing out of small towns and the transformation of downtowns to ghost towns. Bertie County has a heavy dependency on farm subsidies, underperforming schools and rural poverty. The biggest industry is farming, the biggest employer the Purdue chicken plant. There are five restaurants in the county, and few other public spaces – no coffee shop, book store, internet cafe, WalMart.

These communities, Piloton warns us, don’t get enough philanthropic attention. 6.8% of philanthropic dollars in the US focus on rural communities, which have 20% of the population. And they’ve got serious problems in their educational systems. While the county is 60% African American, students in the schools are 86% African American, because the wealthier students leave and go to private schools. There are no qualified teachers to pull from – 8% of the local population has a college degree. And 27% of 8th graders were reading and doing math at grade level.

So why Bertie County? “Dr. Z” – the new superintendant of the broken school system, is the legendary founder of some of the first charter schools in the 1980s. She came to work with him, bringing a design perspective to the school reform project.

Her firm focuses on six principles:
Design through action
Design with, not for
Design systems, not stuff.
Document, share and measure.
Start locally and scale globally.

In the spirit of the fifth principle – and because she fell in love with the community – she and Matt now live there. And they’re working on three projects designed to transform the local education system through design.

The first rebuilds the computer labs from a place designed for “kill and drill”, getting students to take tests. Now it’s a creative, open space for exploration and interaction.

An educational playground system, the second project, invites students to learn kinetically. We see an example of kids learning to multiply by hearing a problem and running to sit on the appropriately numbered tire in a landscape. Peloton tells us there are reports of higher test scores and more comfort with the materials – especially with the boys. And teachers are able to use these games as assesment tools for understanding the comprehension levels of students.

Second, there’s a public branding campaign – Connect Bertie – which raises a fund to put a computer and broadband connection in every home with a child in school. In effect, it’s asking the school system to become a catalyst for the community.

Finally, they’re designing a project to teach design within the public schools. Shop class, originally designed as a form of trade school for kids not going to college, has now mostly disappeared from the curiculum in funding cuts. She and her partner are reintroducing shop class as a year-long junior year design class, moving from brainstorming, visualizing and prototyping to building community projects – an open air farmers market, bus shelters, improvement for the elderly. They’re turning abandoned spaces into public spaces and turning youth into a community asset.

While this is a small story – one course, 13 students, one year – it’s a model for how design could lead education in the future and how small communities might use education to transform themselves.