Faculty Recruiting Support CICS

Mahyar, Sarvghad Awarded UMass ADVANCE Grant to Explore Pandemic’s Effect on Civic Life

Narges Mahyar, Ali Sarvghad
Narges Mahyar, Ali Sarvghad

UMass Amherst College of Information and Computer Sciences (CICS) Assistant Professor Narges Mahyar and Research Assistant Professor Ali Sarvghad have been selected to receive a 2020 ADVANCE seed grant for their project, “Mapping Instability: The Effects of the Pandemic on the Civic Life of a Small Town.” Assistant Professor Pari Riahi from the UMass Amherst Department of Architecture will also collaborate on this project. 

The UMass ADVANCE program was created to foster the development of innovative and equitable collaborative research projects among UMass Amherst faculty, and is led by a team of faculty from four colleges at UMass Amherst, including CICS. Funded seed grants further the National Science Foundation ADVANCE program’s mission of advancing equity for women faculty in STEM fields, in particular women of color. 

Their project will investigate the impacts of the COVD-19 pandemic on Amherst residents' civic lives, focusing on mobility, access to collective resources, sense of community, and social connectedness. 

The team is focusing their data collection efforts on information taken directly from the public in an effort to explore the daily-life impact of the pandemic. However, because in-person public data collection methods—like interviews and focus groups—are not feasible due to social distancing requirements, the team instead will look to online platforms to conduct their research. 

“While online forums can broaden access and boost public engagement, they struggle to maintain the same kind of sustained, in-depth dialogue that real conversations have,” says Mahyar. “And that’s exactly the kind of data we need for this work.” 

To solve these issues, the team plans to design an innovative conversational chatbot that can approximate a live conversation. Ultimately, the researchers intend to use the chatbot to offer a new model for synergistic and synchronized data gathering. Following the development of the chatbot, they plan to design and build a web-based platform that utilizes visual storytelling techniques to inform the community and experts of the pandemic's impact on the city's architectural and urban environment.

In order to qualify for a seed grant, teams must include investigators with a commitment to supporting faculty gender equity, with encouragement for cross-college and cross-department collaborations. Selected teams receive a one-year grant of up to $15,000 and logistics support from the ADVANCE team to apply for external funding opportunities based on the seed funded project.