SEIGMA Holds First Annual Public Research Day Webinar

Do Online Formats Make Gambling Research More Accessible?

Amherst -- October 26, 2020 -- This year’s annual public research day was the first time that the Social and Economic Impacts of Gambling in Massachusetts (SEIGMA) team presented our findings as a webinar, in an online format. A consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic on our research work, we were concerned about this, and other additional, unanticipated effects from this global malady. The goal was simple - to inform members of the community, interested and affected parties, and local and state government officials about the impact of the opening and operation of the MGM casino on Springfield and the surrounding communities.

          As the newest member in the SEIGMA team, I was partly responsible for working the logistics of the webinar, in conjunction with our team of experienced statisticians (and polymaths), Martha Zorn, and Valerie Evans. There were the technological and logistical aspects, of course, but additionally, the event required outreach and communication, to ensure we were contacting the people most affected and who could most benefit from our research. All of this had to be done remotely, with our team communicating with each other from different states, different countries, and even different continents.

When we tell people about our research, they often think of numbers, and statistical analyses, and this is largely accurate. In order to understand the economic impacts of the MGM casino on Springfield, the economic team headed by researchers from the UMass Donahue Institute had to pore over data and numbers to make sense of it all. One member of our team, Andrew Hall, had to decipher and interpret this data so that participants at the webinar could see how many jobs were created, who was being employed, and even what they aspired to get out of these jobs. Another Donahue member, Thomas Peake, looked at the big picture, to see how much money was going into the local and statewide economy, how it was distributed, and what could be expected in the future.

          All the way to the top, the researchers on our team have never been locked up in an ivory tower, and as late as the night before the event, the principal investigator Rachel Volberg, and other top team members were communicating with staff of local organizations who were worried about sharing their opinions and with important stakeholders concerned about government participation and specific data that was being shared. But, more importantly, for well over a year, Rachel Volberg had been interviewing members of the greater Springfield community to appraise how their organizations had been affected by the construction and opening of the MGM casino. In this way, our team could combine the numerical research with the real, felt effects by people living near the casino.

         Additionally, we wanted to see who was going into the casino, as these may be some of the people most affected. Laurie Salame led the Springfield Patron Survey, which carefully and methodically assessed the characteristics of patrons, looking for instance, at whether poorer or wealthier residents were more likely to gamble. This was combined with research surveying local residents on their attitudes and participation in gambling activities, to determine the public health risks, particularly insofar as problem gambling is concerned. Once again, Rachel Volberg would synthesize all of this data, combine it with her direct communications with members of the community and share it with the public.

        And so, years of work, analysis, and outreach culminated in an online webinar, which we had never held before. But thanks to extensive preparation and teamwork, it was a resounding success, with more participants than ever before, lively question and answer sessions which included conversations on how COVID-19 might impact the casino’s activities into the future, and a recognition that all of this work was built thanks to communities of people working together, including our own SEIGMA community.

         As for me, during the webinar, I was always in the background, letting people in, occasionally muting people who left their microphones on, and making sure we stayed on time. A simple role, perhaps, but one that allowed me to witness and recognize the dozens of people who made this research possible: researchers and analysts, government officials and regulators, community organizers and public health specialists, gambling officials, and problem gambling prevention workers, and most importantly, the public. Public research requires trust and participation, and this webinar was another building block sustaining our work and ensuring it remains relevant to the people in these communities.