In-person public meetings and gatherings became rare occurrences in early 2020 as industries across the globe shifted online in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. Nonetheless, public engagement remained a critical part of Assedo’s services. Meetings and plans for feedback collection from community members and stakeholders abruptly adapted to public health and safety guidelines. How would Assedo continue to educate the public about community plans and projects that affect their lives in an increasingly virtual environment?

On one such project, Assedo used various interactive digital tools including Slido and Mural to support the community engagement effort for the West Hyattsville-Queens Chapel Sector Plan. This plan is part of a larger comprehensive effort, Plan 2035, to envision the future of Prince George’s County, Maryland in the year 2035. Online engagement tools contributed to successful dialogue between community members, stakeholders, and project teams in late 2020 through several open houses and focus groups with West Hyattsville Transit Center community members. Malcolm Mossman, a Planner and Assistant Project Manager at Assedo, spearheaded these efforts.

Envisioning the future of the West Hyattsville Transit Center requires County and consultant teams to work collaboratively with community members. To build an inclusive vision, the public is asked to provide feedback on community strengths they would like to preserve and imagine how they’d like the community to grow in the future. These pieces will create a complete sector plan with a clear vision and further policy recommendations.

Several tools are used to facilitate virtual interactions between people who may be located in different areas and experience various living circumstances. For example, online tools may be used for simple internal polls or surveys between employees, or they may also be used to collect feedback from stakeholders during a large virtual meeting. Both tools are adaptable, which was a necessary feature for useable tools amidst the uncertain early timeline of COVID-19.

While Slido was originally used at Assedo internally for meeting icebreakers, it soon morphed into a tool to collect feedback at virtual workshops. It is both mobile and desktop-friendly, promoting users to participate no matter what device they choose to engage from. Word clouds allow members of the public to view others’ opinions displayed on-screen and polls can be used for simple or more complex questions. WH-QC Sector Plan meeting participants used Slido word clouds and polls to inform consultant team members of significant areas in the region. Other questions asked let participants share their positive comments about the area, as well as how they would describe WH-QC to someone who had never been there before. The use of Mural is a bit more in-depth in terms of the visualization of participant feedback. The application is both user and guest-friendly, and extensive detail and brainstorming go into the creation of a completed Mural that is prepared for public interaction. Facilitators have vast control over how participants can interact with the tool—they can limit or increase front-end capabilities for Mural users to streamline participation. For example, one Mural activity for the WH-QC Sector Plan public meeting displayed several possible vision statements for the area and asked residents if they felt represented by them. If the vision statements missed the mark, what parts of it could be altered for improvement? Virtual “sticky notes” were placed in answer buckets on Mural to visualize how many attendees felt represented or misrepresented by each proposed statement. Various other survey-style questions were asked, too. Mural is flexible in its granularity—questions can be left open-ended or stricter answer parameters can be provided.

Slido and Mural are not the only digital tools in existence to assist with public outreach and engagement. Online engagement applications have shifted the way people share their thoughts, opinions, and feelings about the future of their communities. The way public outreach is conducted looks quite different than it did several years ago. It is our responsibility at Assedo to acknowledge the changing landscape and learn about new online tools to preserve the importance of engaging with different communities.

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