All-encompassing: Using airplanes, prototypes and blimps to change the world

May 18 2015

In the last hour of the first day of my summer internship with Reese News Lab, everyone was asked to describe the week in one word. Recalling my answer earlier that day to the question, “What makes your favorite photograph good?” I answered the question: “it’s all-encompassing.”

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Li Zhang flies her group’s paper airplane on the first day at Reese News Lab. The lab challenged new interns to think out of the box – build a paper airplane from 9-foot by 9-foot paper that goes farther than everyone else’s. John Clark, director of the lab, watches from afar with excitement. Photo credit: Justina Vasquez

It’s crazy to think since that day, 11 interns could brainstorm ideas for three new and original products, develop business plans, tour downtown Raleigh, meet the lawyers from a premiere North Carolina law firm, sit in the conference room of an altruistic foundation and brainstorm a few hundred more ideas. The first week was a lot. But it couldn’t have gone any other way and been nearly as satisfying.

The Sprint 

We started brainstorming ideas for products on the first day. We broke off into groups of three or four hoping to think up a desirable (there’s a need for it), feasible (it can be built) and viable (it can make money) way to get youth more involved in municipal elections. I had never entered a hackathon before, so a challenge as difficult as this one wasn’t quite the christening I had in mind.

Nevertheless, my group grabbed a small room lined with dry-erase boards and kicked off our shoes to let our ideas flow. We asked each other why youth don’t vote already. What engages youth? What benefit would come of them using anything we create?

If you think about it, there may not be much use in getting young people to vote. All it does is get them to vote, and their political efforts end there. On the Run Chapel Hill team, our mission was to instill a responsibility in high school and college students to participate in local election campaigns, to get involved in interest groups that seem cool to them, and to care about what goes on in local, state and national governments. That way, young people not only vote more, but they also understand government and politics and have a desire to make change in the world.

So we made a video game. Run Chapel Hill was to be a smartphone game application incorporated into a classroom curriculum where students could role play a local election from the perspective of a mayoral candidate, a town council candidate, an interest group member, a campaign advisor or a general citizen. Students would build teams and gather a following in any way they could to win the election or help their favorite candidate win.

Our team considered that among students, schools, non-profit organizations, alumni and interest groups, interest groups are typically the stakeholders with the greatest means to fund our game. We also learned that some interest groups have a high demand for data on what youth think about their policy areas. So we built our revenue model around a game that would collect and organize the data from our in-game public opinion polls for real-world interest groups to buy.

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North Carolina’s Capitol building in Raleigh stands directly across from the steps of the Legislative building. The Reese group traveled to Raleigh to consult with Stevens Martin Vaughn & Tadych, PLLC and the A.J. Fletcher foundation about two of the summer’s challenges. Photo credit: Justina Vasquez

I’ve been through Reese before – my first semester was last fall working on an interactive location-based app for museum tours, and last semester I had the privilege of helping the award-winning Capitol Hound grow. But it still surprises me that my team and I accomplished so much in just a few days.

That made it all the more heart-wrenching when we had to drop the ideas after pitching them Wednesday to begin tackling the summer’s real challenges Thursday in Raleigh.

But really, we’re going to change the world

Going into the summer, the challenge of improving websites’ comments sections stood out to me. It seemed more complicated than the other two challenges. Even John Clark, the director of the lab, said the hardest thing to do is change your consumers’ habits. He suggested we come up with a product that exists in a space where users already go to help them do things they already do–just in a better way. If people like to leave snarky comments under news articles online, then I guess that’s just what they like to do. Perhaps I long for a way to make something work despite the odds.

So on Friday, I was glad to hear I’d be on the team that gets to tackle this problem for the summer. My new team and I – proudly the sole team completely fueled by the power of girls – headed outdoors and, again, kicked off our shoes to brainstorm not how to make comment sections better, but how to build a more democratic frame for public discourse to take place so that small and large, online and in-person communities can make educated decisions about their lives.

We’re thinking about buying a few blimps and dropping things from the sky.

Stay tuned to see what happens with that. Any direction we go, the four of us seem to have an understanding that we all want to change the world.

If you think about it, changing the world may be hard, but it doesn’t have to be as complicated as everyone assumes. You just have to do the opposite of what John suggested: change your consumers’ habits. Whether those consumers are students at a nearby high school, readers of the local online newspaper or Internet users from around the world, if a large enough amount of them could take time to consider their communities’ problems and brainstorm ways to fix them, that would be effective and democratized public discourse. That could lead to a better world.

On the last day of the first week of my summer adventure at Reese, when John asked us to describe the week in a single word, I replied the same way I did four days prior. I tried hard to make other words fit as well or better: disruptive (a buzz word from Day 1), innovative, new, crazy. But nothing came very close.

“All-encompassing” is how I described my first week. We entered the basement in search of Reese News Lab only to fly airplanes through the hallways. We conducted a mock version of the whole Reese process. And we left Raleigh laden with ideas to change how people everywhere use information.


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