by Malcolm Mossman
The country is beginning to take precautionary measures to stem the spread of COVID-19. This includes “social distancing,” or the practice of isolating one’s self from social activities like work, school and large events. The practice has proven to be incredibly effective in countries like South Korea, where the transmission of COVID-19 has been slowed down to a rate that does not overwhelm the health system. Socially distancing ourselves is an easy step some of us can take to help protect the vulnerable portions of our population. But for those in the planning and government realm, this means the cancellation of important public meetings and committees. Big decisions still need to be made and stakeholders shouldn’t have to be left out because they’re in isolation. Right now is as good a time as any to run a tech audit to determine your office’s readiness to conduct outreach remotely.
As I’m writing this, I am currently in self-quarantine at my home. I am still able to conduct the everyday functions of my job because Assedo has invested in a variety of digital tools that allow our teams to continue working collaboratively when we’re not in the office together. Many offices already have these tools, like a shared drive, an instant messaging service, and a virtual meeting client. The Assedo office uses the Microsoft Office suite of tools, namely Microsoft Teams. Teams allows us to interact seamlessly outside of official emails and host meetings where we can share screens and make real-time decisions.
Maintaining the efficacy of external communications with partner organizations, stakeholders, and the general public is trickier but just as important. The systems outside of your office will be different so you must opt for software solutions that are compatible across the board.
First, consider how your project and stakeholder meetings can be conducted remotely. For most work, a simple conference call won’t do. Groups need the opportunity to review documents, present, and edit collaboratively. Microsoft Teams allows videoconferencing, even for those who do not have an account with Microsoft. Assedo will be using this videoconferencing tool with emergency services personnel for an upcoming briefing on traffic interruptions for an electric reliability project. What was originally an in-person meeting has been seamlessly transitioned to a video conference. Alternative tools your office could consider are Zoom and GoToMeeting, among several others.
Consider your office’s ability to provide live access to public meetings. Even though social distancing means in-person public gatherings should be postponed, your office should nonetheless be prepared to provide access to future in-person public meetings for those unable to attend. The live stream is your friend! The easiest and most accessible way to live stream is to leverage existing social platforms, such as Facebook Live, Periscope (Twitter), and YouTube Live. If your organization or department doesn’t already have an account with any of those social media platforms, creating an account is free and easy. The best part of using these platforms is that your public audience is already familiar with the site’s features and can easily access your video from anywhere. This helps non-attendees to feel informed and, by using the built-in comment feature, engaged in the planning process. All three platforms are compatible with external cameras connected to your computer via USB-C, USB or HDMI ports.
We’re in a situation which demands public meetings become virtual meetings. The next month is a good time to consider your office’s compatibility with the tele-town hall concept. Originally, the tele-town hall was basically what the name implies: a town hall forum conducted over the phone. The concept was limited and somehow made town halls even more boring. Now, it’s much more than that. If you have a paid account with Zoom or GoToMeeting, you can present videos, PowerPoints, or your screen to an unlimited number of viewers. Viewers, in return, can use the chat function to submit questions real-time. This strategy obviously has its limitations; if you require input in a workshop format or want to encourage small group conversation, an online presentation will not achieve that. But it may be a tactic employed in the future for public meetings that are informational and require limited in-person involvement.
Information Sharing and Gathering
Finally, site-specific planning projects should have web pages where information can be shared, and detailed input can be gathered. Assedo helps create a web page for most projects, big or small. Websites provide a go-to forum for the public to access when they have initial questions or concerns. Websites also can be a helpful tool when meetings must be cancelled or postponed. Assedo uploaded digital versions of meeting boards that were to be on display at a cancelled open house last week to the project’s web page. Signs were then posted at the location with the web address.
A web page is a great place to embed an online, interactive map as well. As projects progress and change, an online map can be updated accordingly to reflect the changing conditions. Printable PDF maps can be available for download, but they are a static tool and should remain general. Constantly updating printable maps in the age of online mapping can be a waste of time and money. Assedo creates and maintains online maps for a variety of projects, from transmission line replacement projects to transportation plans. Online maps keep everyone informed, pandemic or not.
What about workshops? Workshops are good opportunities to gather detailed and site-specific input from the public. As mentioned previously, a tele-town hall or video conference does not provide the necessary capabilities to replace an in-person workshop. If your team is interested in gathering public input, consider crafting an online survey. As with the other tools mentioned, your team should be doing this for all projects anyway – simply put, this is best practice. An online survey provides those unable to attend workshops with the opportunity to be heard. Survey Monkey is a phenomenal tool when it comes to gathering input and analyzing data. Assedo has been using Survey Monkey to gather public input on the bike network in Baltimore amongst many other projects. The survey can be administered in-person at various meetings but can also be shared with a broader swath of customers online.
The spread of COVID-19, and the subsequent social isolation, will put a lot of our systems to the test. Life does not have to stop but it must be altered, temporarily. Thankfully, we live in a world that’s more digitally connected than ever. We at Assedo are uniquely prepared for this moment. If there’s a silver lining to any of this, maybe it’s the realization that technology can often build community. We can be more accessible to our communities using a variety of digital services – in-person meetings are only one tool in the metaphorical outreach toolbox.