A1: Search the web to explore a problem space

To make progress on any civic challenge, one must first build up a broad base of socio-technical knowledge. The internet provides access to a wealth of information that can help you identify key sub-issues within a problem area, as well as important stakeholders and existing data that will inform your take on a civic problem. In this assignment, you will use an Internet search engine to learn about a civic topic that motivates you. You will take notes during the search session and then write a short Problem Summary that concisely identifies a particular sub-issue, stakeholders, factors, data, and alternate solutions. You will share the summary in a public Slack forum and also comment on your peers' summaries. Your goal here is to become a relative expert on a particular issue.

Learning goals

  • Leveraging search to form an understanding of a problem space
  • Identifying sub-issues, stakeholders, articles, data sets, existing solutions, and local contacts
  • Summarizing insights for collective understanding

What to do

First pick a topic from the D4SD challenge page that you find engaging and promising. This course will focus mostly on Mobility— and we will bring in local experts to inform our collective understanding of mobility challenges — although you are welcome to choose one of the other topics to explore. This could be the topic you focus on all quarter, although you will have the opportunity to shift over to different areas as we form into pairs for A3 and A4, and into larger teams starting with A5.

  1. Pick one of the following Mobility topics:
    • Last mile: How might we improve the last-mile experience where traffic is congested, parking is scarce, and public transportation is limited?
    • Safe Roadways: Given the city’s aim to reduce roadway fatalities, how might we protect pedestrians, reduce distractions for drivers, and improve emergency response?
    • Equitable Access: How might we provide mobility resources that are accessible to the many diverse needs of people in San Diego?
    • Autonomous Vehicles: With the potential of self-driving cars on the horizon, how might we prepare our city for major changes to transportation infrastructure?
    • Or choose any other issue related to Mobility or the other topics listed on the D4SD challenge page.
  2. Before Thursday's class, spend at least a 30-minute period searching the internet about your topic while taking notes. Please use your personal notebook (Google document) that will be emailed to you by your TA (contact Srishti Palani srpalani@ucsd.edu if you do not get that email). Use that Google document to take notes on:
    • Sub-issues of the particular problem you chose (e.g., for Safe Roadways you could enumerate safety issues for driver, bikers, pedestrians, etc.)
    • Factors —including political, economic, social, and technical — contributing to the problem (e.g., more bike commuters, lack of bike lanes, etc.)
    • Stakeholders that could be involved (e.g., Bike safety must take into account the perspectives of bikers, drivers, etc.)
    • Data that could be related (e.g., City data on bike accidents by location)
    • Existing solutions and their potential limitations (e.g., biker visibility decals)
    • Contacts in the San Diego region that could help you later in the process (e.g., list of bike-related orgs, leaders of key biking organizations)
    • Make sure to include all sources of information, including web URLs, contacts (names and emails), and other resources
  3. By Friday at 5pm, synthesize your notes and write a short post (~200-300 words) on the Slack forum that describes a particular angle/question that could be interesting to explore. Make sure to post your comment in the Slack channel that corresponds to your problem area; we will review the Slack environment in class on Thursday. Your "Problem Summary" should include:
    • A statement or question that motivates this particular angle (i.e., what's your hook to get other people interested?)
    • A summary of the key issue, and a list of potential stakeholders, data, and contacts (i.e., a summary of your notes)
    • Reflect on the political, economic, social, and technical (PEST) factors that could affect this problem space
  4. Finally, before class on Tuesday Jan 14th, read the other students' posts and comment on at least two posts. To reply to another student's comment, click on "Start a thread" or add your comment to an existing thread. Your two comments could touch on:
    • Additional factors, stakeholders, data, and contacts that the original post may have missed
    • Other questions or considerations that could help shape the problem investigation
    • Your opinion on whether the issues identified are important and worth investigating


  • Web search details and note taking on key sub-issues, factors, stakeholders, and local information about the topic (due by Thursday's class in designated Google document)
  • Slack forum post that summarizes your initial thinking about potential problems to explore (due by Friday Jan 10 at 5pm)
  • Response to at least two other students' posts (due before Tuesday's class on Jan 14th in Week 2)

Grading rubric

Grades will be on a 5-pt scale (5% of total class grade) based on the following:

  • How extensively does the student identify different factors, stakeholders, data, and local contacts around a particular problem angle?
  • How clear and concise is the summary posted to Slack?
  • How strong is the evidence for a particular sub-issue? Is it an important and valuable area for further investigation?
  • How deeply did the student engage with other student posts?

Extra credit

Would you like to boost your class grade by 1%? Do you want to support research in Professor Dow's lab to understand how search engine use affects how people think about a problem space? We are offering 1% extra credit anyone willing to do this assignment as a "think-aloud" protocol. The assignment will work exactly the same, you'll just have perform the searching and note taking in front of a member of our research team. To sign up, click the link below to select a 45-minute time slot. You can either meet the team in-person at our lab (SSRB 100) or you can do the think-aloud session over Google hangouts. For remote participation, you will need to setup a browser plug-in before the time slot. For any questions related to this study, contact Srishti Palani (srpalani@ucsd.edu).