The University of Massachusetts Amherst

Grant Funds Civic-engagement Project

Exterior of Amherst Town Hall

School of Public Policy Professors Jane E. Fountain and Ethan Zuckerman, with colleagues Narges Mahyar and Ali Sarvghad of the College of Information and Computer Sciences, have received a seed grant from the UMass Amherst Institute of Diversity Sciences for a project investigating whether digital technologies can help increase public participation in municipal government and civic life.

“Community engagement is imperative for participatory democracy, yet difficult to achieve,” the researchers say in a description of the project. “Participating in town halls and public meetings can be difficult for all citizens — and poses particular challenges for diverse and marginalized populations. Some of these challenges include participants’ apprehension towards confrontation, lack of confidence in articulating viewpoints, shyness, discussions hijacked by outspoken individuals, and lack of time.”

Mahyar has developed several community-centered tools to address those problems. For this project, the researchers plan to use Mahyar’s “CommunityClick” tool, which allows community members to silently and anonymously participate in public discussions in real-time, and a social network that allows community engagement during and after public meetings.

The research team will implement the tools and collect data in the city of Holyoke and the town of Amherst. Using the data, they will analyze whether the digital tools led to more equitable participation in local government, looking closely at the relationships between civic participation and gender, race, education, and ethnicity. The results will be used to inform the development of new technologies to support equitable participation. The team also plans to expand the project to other communities.

Graduate students will be involved in the project, gaining hands-on training in diversity research and the ways design can be used to foster equal representation. SPP alumna Brianna Sunryd (MPPA ’20), communications manager for the Town of Amherst, will work closely with the team to deploy the tools in that community. “Her involvement is critical for the success of this project," Mahyar said.

The SPP/CICS group is one of three teams awarded grants by the Institute of Diversity Sciences, which supports research in the areas of learning and work, health, and climate change as they relate to STEM and equity.

“We are excited to see such high-impact and wide-ranging multidisciplinary research projects to advance equity,” IDS Director Nilanjana (Buju) Dasgupta said in announcing this year’s grant winners.

From the UMass Amherst News Office.

Photo: Narges Mahyar, Jane E. Fountain, Ali Sarvghad, and Ethan Zuckerman

About the School of Public Policy: Established in 2016, the UMass Amherst School of Public Policy prepares students for leadership in public service. The program’s focuses include social change and public policy related to science and technology.

Contact: Maureen Turner, associate director for marketing and communications, School of Public Policy

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