Think Locally, Act Online? The Role of Digital Technologies in Public Participation

Research team photos

From left: Narges Mahyar (Computer Science), Jane E. Fountain (Public Policy and Political Science), Ali Sarvghad (Computer Science), Ethan Zuckerman (Public Policy and Communication)

If all politics is indeed local, it is imperative that local politics are drivers of equity and participation. Piloting two novel digital technologies, this research team aims to determine the potential of STEM innovations to improve community engagement at the town level.

Community engagement is imperative for democracy, yet difficult to achieve.

If you have ever attended a town hall or public meeting, you may have seen it: bright community members going unheard because they struggle to speak up or articulate – or, conversely, discussions hijacked by a handful of your most outspoken neighbors.

How can towns create spaces that drive participation, rather than stifle it? This IDS-funded research team has an idea – technological innovations aimed to overcome the challenges of community engagement.

The team has developed two technological solutions: CommunityClick, a real-time community-sourcing tool that allows reticent members to share opinions silently during meetings; and a special-purpose social network that enables communities to discuss town-specific agendas before, during, and after meetings.

Piloting these innovations in Amherst and Holyoke, Massachusetts, the team will collect and analyze data to assess the impact of these interventions on equitable participation, with a focus on factors such as gender, race, education, and ethnicity. The outcomes will inform the design of future community-centered tools and contribute to a broader project proposal for extending the research to other towns in Massachusetts and beyond.

Additionally, the project aims to provide hands-on research training for graduate students, fostering their awareness of the socially transformative power of STEM work and research.