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CICS Researchers Create Tools for More Inclusive, Effective Town Halls

Mahmood Jasim, Pooya Khaloo

A team of researchers led by UMass Amherst College of Information and Computer Sciences (CICS) doctoral students Mahmood Jasim and Pooya Khaloo, and master’s student Somin Wadhwa received a best paper award at the ACM Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing for “CommunityClick: Capturing and Reporting Community Feedback from Town Halls to Improve Inclusivity.” 

Together with CICS Assistant Professor Narges Mahyar, Research Assistant Professor Ali Sarvghad, and Amy Zhang of the University of Washington, the researchers introduced CommunityClick, a field-tested community-sourcing system that aims to improve inclusivity for in-person town halls by providing enhanced real-time feedback and an interactive visual analytics and reporting tool.

While government officials and decision makers rely on face-to-face meetings like town halls to foster discourse and create opportunities for follow-up conversations with constituents, traditional methods of receiving feedback at these events face significant challenges. “People want to share their opinions, but they can’t always express themselves with current town hall systems,” explains Mahyar. “Social and gender dynamics, personality traits, or not speaking English as a first language can hinder opinion sharing, leading to disengagement and a sense of unfairness.” 

In addition, many town halls lack designated note takers due to resource constraints, forcing event organizers to multitask between organizing and taking notes during the meetings—increasing the risk of losing critical information. 

CommunityClick provides a toolset to mitigate these problems that includes customized iClicker remote feedback devices, software that combines automatically generated transcripts with tags and feedback, and an interface to help meeting organizers author meeting reports out of the resulting dataset. CommunityClick’s interface enables multifaceted exploration and analysis of the augmented meeting transcript segments. The interface provides an interactive timeline, main discussion topic filters, and an interactive feedback-weighted summary. Organizers can also author reports using a rich text editor integrated with the interface.

The team based the design of their toolset on the results of a formative study of several town halls over a period of three months, where they explored the needs of event organizers and attendees. “With our tool’s augmented transcripts, event organizers can see which ideas had real traction in a meeting, how the silent attendees got involved in the discussion, and which topics were confusing to attendees,” states Jasim. “Our goal is to enable organizers to make faster, more inclusive, and more comprehensive town hall reports in the service of fair and impartial civic decision making.”

Jasim and Wadhwa are graduate students advised by Mahyar in the HCI-VIS (human-computer interaction and visualization) lab at UMass Amherst. Khaloo is an alumnus of the lab, and currently works at NVIDIA.