NSF Grant Will Support Creation of Chatbots to Gauge Pandemic’s Impact in Small Towns

An interdisciplinary research team has received a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to design and test a new generation of AI-driven conversational agents, or chatbots, for public data collection, with the goal of understanding the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic – and ultimately other large-scale crises – on small-town communities.

NEWS Narges Mahyar
Narges Mahyar

Lead investigator Narges Mahyar, assistant professor in the Manning College of Information and Computer Science, will collaborate with co-principal investigators Pari Riahi, assistant professor of architecture, and Ali Sarvghad, research assistant professor of information and computer science, using the $147,000 grant under the NSF’s Smart and Connected Communities program.

“The ultimate goal of this project is to gather rich and multifaceted information from the community and then communicate the results with policymakers so they can come up with better strategies and policies to address any other crisis in the future,” Mahyar says.

NEWS Pari Riahi
Pari Riahi

With people suffering from online survey fatigue, the UMass team’s challenge is to design an effective, multi-agent chatbot platform that’s able to compile rich data that tells the story of the pandemic’s impact on residents of Amherst, Holyoke and Pittsfield. These three small-town communities, while geographically close, have different demographic features, economic prosperity and access to public services, the research team notes.

“We’re looking into diverse aspects of people’s lives in a small town – including dwelling, commute, delivery, transportation, work, education and health,” Mahyar says.

One goal is to identify vulnerable, under-served and under-represented groups for better allocation and prioritization of town resources. This research may also serve as proof of concept for addressing similar issues in other small towns across the U.S.

NEWS Ali Sarvghad
Ali Sarvghad

The project will reveal how different demographic groups interact with conversation agents. And in providing broad-based information about the pandemic’s impact, the research will inform the architecture field about how social, economic and cultural forces affect the built environment and how architectural analysis can be made more responsive to those forces.

This work builds on their pilot project, funded by a UMass ADVANCE Collaborative Research Seed grant, which studied the effects of the pandemic on the built environment.