Undergraduates learn to design public-friendly technology

Not since the New England colonists developed the Town Meeting has a phenomenon emerged with the potential to bring citizens and government into such direct contact as the Internet.

Last year, a little more than half of all Americans visited a government web site, according to the polling agency Hart-Teeter. And 52 percent said they are more likely to use online government services than to go to an office.

Kent Portney, left, and Anselm Blumer © Mark Morelli

And, since 9/11, more than 70 percent of Americans believe online resources can improve the government's emergency preparedness, according to the same survey.

Yet, there are several substantial shortcomings that need to be addressed before e-government can live up to the promise it holds, says a Tufts political science professor.

Digital technology "can improve democracy and interpersonal communication," says Kent Portney, professor of political science. Yet, too often, citizens are not involved in the process, and the resulting resources don't meet their needs, he says.

With that in mind, Portney and Anselm Blumer, associate professor of computer science, have teamed up this semester to teach a course in e-government that tackles the issue from both the technical and public policy perspectives.

"E-government," a new course that is cross-listed for both the political science and computer science departments, focuses on municipal web sites as a way to examine the strengths and weakness of online government resources.

"Implicit in the course is an argument that technology is not used very well in government and politics, and the promise of improved government efficiency and responsiveness have not materialized," Portney writes in the course materials.

"The challenge for us this semester is to understand the ways in which technology has been used, to discern how and in what ways it could be used better, and to improve upon these existing sites."

Product of collaboration
As a marriage of government and technology, e-government is a subject that's not easily captured by any one discipline, Portney and Blumer both stress. The class meets twice a week for a lecture and discussion led by Portney and once a week for a computer lab led by Blumer.

The students' main project during the semester has been to choose a web site from a U.S. city with a population of more than 70,000; analyze that web site; and, finally, build their own, improved version of the site.

"This course would undoubtedly be very different if it were not a product of collaboration," Portney said. The strength of the political science/computer science partnership is the "integration of the conceptual with the practical."

"One advantage is that we get to use the server from [engineering]," he said. "There is no counterpart to that in Arts & Sciences. For security considerations, we could not build [the web sites] on the A&S server.

"When it comes to actually doing web site development, the computer science department represents an invaluable resource. It isn't just about having access to the server; the collaboration with Anselm allows an A&S course to benefit from a whole range of resources that computer science has to offer," Portney said.

Another advantage, Blumer said, is that the students bring varied backgrounds to the class. Some of the engineering students, for example, are already so well-versed in web design that they've started their own businesses. The students are grouped into integrated teams that include both political science and engineering students, and Blumer leads all the students through the process of preparing a detailed design document and programming the revised web site using Macromedia's Dreamweaver.

"There are lots of challenges, but it's been very enjoyable," Blumer said. "I certainly would not have known all the political science issues that Kent does with his background, such as how to look at a political system."

The class also helps further the public service mission of the University College of Citizenship and Public Service, Portney said. "Here we are taking students who probably would have no particular reason to get involved with public service and providing a way for them to channel their skills and knowledge to benefit the public sector."

A young field
The students are focusing on five cities: Somerville and Quincy, Mass.; Flint, Mich.; New Rochelle, N.Y.; and Hartford, Conn. These places vary considerably in their demographics. During one class session, for example, the students were asked to consider how factors like a city's median income level, racial and ethnic makeup and percentage of residents who speak a language other than English would affect the features needed on a web site.

Statistics alone, however, don't tell the whole story, Blumer said. "The demographics of cities don't necessarily reflect the quality of a web site. Some of the more affluent cities have poor web sites," he said.

The problems with most municipal web sites lie in both the content and design ends, said Portney, who began to examine municipal web sites while doing research for his forthcoming book, Taking Sustainable Cities Seriously (MIT Press).

"On most sites, people who need the information can certainly find it, but it's buried in the design, or the site is not properly maintained," he said.

"Web site design is a young field; there is a lot of technology out there," Blumer said. "For municipalities, it can be very difficult. Some municipalities have excellent web sites, but most have not had the time or resources to design really excellent sites. Until now, experienced web site designers were going to the dot-coms. There was no real economic incentive [to work on municipal sites], because there was so much money to be made [designing] commercial sites."

On the content side, the most successful use of online government services so far is e-commerce-style activities, such as paying parking tickets or property taxes, Portney said.

But, the interactive nature of the Internet—such as hosting online forums, bulletin boards or chat rooms that would connect residents with their elected or appointed officials—have been slower in coming.

"All too often, individual cities bring a mindset that is pretty narrow. They need to broaden the perspective," Portney said. The information "should not just be coming from the top down."