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Political Ergonomics and the Launch of an Open Source Photo Essay

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When Americans vote on November 7th, what will it look like?

Among my own baked-in images I find: Lines outside polling places, stretching. Politicians just after they vote, smiling. File footage of voting machines. (Boring.) Interviews with random voters, exit poll style. (Semi-interesting.) And a lot of nightmare images left over from Florida in 2000. (Disturbing.)

And that's the picture, if I have any picture of what it looks like when Americans go to vote.

But what if we wanted to improve that picture and add accuracy, nuance, poetry, meaning? Could we do it ourselves, without waiting for the news media to transcend its election day cliches? These are the starting points for an open source photo essay that I'm involved in. It launches today. We call it exactly what it is: Polling Place Photo Project. Your assignment: "Photograph your polling place. Document democracy." (Here's a description.)

Anyone can play. Without violating the law, you take pictures when you go to vote and upload them at the site, along with some other information. (Including suggestions for improving the act of voting.) There's a Creative Commons license (type by-nd) meaning others can use them but cannot monkey with the images or claim ownership. What you are supposed to take pictures of is Americans exercising their sovereignty: the facts on the ground when you go to vote.

The project's goal, according to its designer and prime mover William Drenttel, is "an archive of photographs that captures the richness and complexity of voting in America." A second aim is to "encourage research into how voting happens and how voting can be made easier, clearer, less confusing, more reliable."

Call it political ergonomics. The art and science of lowering barriers to democratic participation.

That's what drew the interest of AIGA, the professional association for graphic designers. They built the Polling Place Photo Project site and they're hosting it on their servers as part of AIGA's Design for Democracy initiative. NewAssignment.Net, my pilot project in open source journalism, is a co-sponsor and consultant to PPPP. (Open source journalism, if you're wondering, is where people collaborate over the Net in the peer-to-peer in the production of editorial goods.)

The idea for an open source photo essay that would attempt to capture what it looks like when Americans go to vote in 2006 emerged from a conversation I had with Bill Drenttel in September. Three years ago he designed PressThink, my blog. Later he started a successful blog of his own, Design Observer. We both like to do things that aren't being done. When he read about my experiment with NewAssignment.Net, Drenttel wondered: could the design community do "social network" journalism? Was there a demo project for Design Observer?

That's how it started-- with Bill and I discussing something simple that "anyone" in the Design community could do. I told him about a suggestion posted at Mark Glaser's Media Shift by Russ Walker, an editor at Washingtonpost.com. "Let's build a database to identify what voting machines are in use in every precinct in the nation," Walker wrote. "That will be our baseline data set, from which we can attempt specific reporting projects after the 2006 midterm elections." (I am still pursuing that.)

What if we start this year, just with pictures? Bill said. I said we would need partners for something like that, preferably people who are already organized and connected peer-to-peer because they share certain interests. He immediately thought of AIGA (he's a past president). Through his efforts AIGA agreed to take it on and that's how PPPP was born.

AIGA was founded in 1914. NewAssignment.Net is three months old and in its "test" or knowledge-gathering phase. (Launch is the first quarter of 2007.) This is a good test project for two reasons:

1.) The Ergonomics. A lot will be learned from the attempt to set-up a user-friendly system whereby anyone with access to the Web can do the assignment (photograph the places where Americans exercise of their sovereignty) and upload the results. Open means anyone can play. But the statement--anyone can play--becomes a lie unless the forms we invent are easy to use, the instructions clear, the design good. If this goes well, we'll learn about the ergonomics of open source data collection.

2.) The Network. One the ideas NewAssignment.Net is testing is that to do social network reporting that relies on volunteers it's wise to find existing social networks with willing and able people who might indeed volunteer. By means of such partnerships pro-am projects can be organized at relatively low cost over the Net. The Polling Place Photo Project is testing that method. The existing social network, AIGA membership, is connected peer-to-peer already. It already has a participatory wing. Therefore the costs to connect it for this action are low. AIGA members become the core group (and most know how to handle a camera). It's pro-am because the designers can be joined by anyone else we reach with word of this project. Lots of people know how to handle a camera and it isn't that hard to take pictures of your polling place.

Is it legal? Well, um, ah. There actually is no good answer to what's by law allowed. We have to urge participants to obey all laws but we cannot tell them with reasonable certainty what the law says about the taking and sharing of photographs. They have to check with election officials but that is not much help. Here's a list of election officials by state.

This is not a NewAssignment.Net project per se because we're not executing it; AIGA and Drenttel are. We're consulting on it, and it's testing a part of our model. NewAssignment will help explain the project, and follow up by getting a journalist--a writer or critic--to assess the results.

Here are the sponsors:

AIGA, the professional association for design, is the leading member organization for people engaged in the discipline, practice and culture of designing. Its mission is to advance designing as a professional craft, strategic tool and global cultural force. The Polling Place Photo Project lives at the AIGA site.

Design for Democracy is a strategic program of AIGA, its consulting and teaching wing. It tries to increase civic participation by making the experience clearer, more understandable, easier to accomplish and more trustworthy. As a non-profit, Design for Democracy consults with federal, state and local government agencies about better design in public settings.

Design Observer. The Polling Place Photo Project was conceived as a national initiative in citizen journalism by William Drenttel and Design Observer. Design Observer is the largest webblog about design and visual culture and is edited and authored by Michael Bierut, William Drenttel and Jessica Helfand.

NewAssignment.Net is my project. It tries to spark innovation in journalism by showing that open collaboration over the Internet among reporters, editors and large groups of users can produce high-quality work that serves the public interest, holds up under scrutiny, and builds trust. Still in an early stage of development, New Assignment.Net has support from the MacArthur Foundation, Reuters, Sunlight Foundation and Craig Newmark. (An introduction is here.)

Thirdwave. Thirdwave is AIGA's development partner and responsible for supporting the technology of the Polling Place Photo Project, as well as countless other AIGA online intitiatves.

William Drenttel and Winterhouse Institute. William Drenttel is president emeritus of AIGA, a trustee of the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum and a fellow of the New York Institute of the Humanities at New York University. Drenttel is a partner with Jessica Helfand in Winterhouse Institute, which supports writing and publishing projects that further an understanding of design and visual culture.

Go visit the Polling Place Photo Project. Hit the comment button and let us know what you think.

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