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Spring 2020– Workshop #3: Hosting a Digital Town Hall

We opened City Open Workshop Spring 2020 with the idea of exploring various formats for meeting and engagement- in my mind, I jumped to visiting different meetups and tours of various neighborhoods. At no point this winter did I imagine COVID-19 and shelter-in-place requirements would mean that everyone in the community engagement space would be exploring different models live as we adjust to the digital space.

City Open Workshop took a month off from meet-ups to rethink our work, and then we just missed the community and the ideas it generated to begin a series of online meetings starting with one of the bigger questions out there- how to Host a Digital Town Hall. As someone initiating the digital City Open process, I was already nervous about a) if ZOOM would work and b) if anyone would want to join a nightly online City Open session.

My fears going in imagining having a warm community meet-up and staying interesting via ZOOM

I had invited my friends Sara Disney Haufe and Isabel Velez Diaz to speak how they are experiencing digital community engagement in their work. Sara Disney Haufe works for Sam Schwartz Engineering as a transportation planner and engages stakeholders in the community planning process. Isabel Velez Diaz works for Accion Chicago in small business advocacy and lending, and her digital engagement has encompassed communication with their entrepreneurs as they navigate this uncertain process. Both of these women shared many of their findings, and stressed that this was purely anecdotal, as many of the methods are being tried.

Photos Top to Bottom: Sara Disney Haufe, Sam Schwartz Engineering and Isabel Velez Diaz from Accion Chicago

I was very pleased that around 25 City Open members joined, and many expressed they could easily join with no geographic constraints, and there were also many neighborhood organizations who had joined. These included individuals from the Garfield Park Community Council, Landmarks Illinois, the Aldermanic Office in Edgewater/Andersonville, the Evanston Development Corporation and several others.Overall, as the group listened to the presenters and shared the wins/pains they were seeing in the collaborative feedback and design space, a couple of shared findings rose up:

Providing Diverse Channels for Feedback:

Isabel spoke of the difficulty in streamlining questions from the small businesses serves at Accion Chicago through email, online forums, and online help desks. The call volume became so great that Accion had to switch caseloads from phones, and online programs help to keep documents tracked. Before a digital meeting, there was consensus that it was critical to have accessible ways to review materials beforehand, offer questions before and during the session, and provide ways for community stakeholders to have follow-up.

Offering Various Technology Options:

Ally Brisbin from the 48th Ward recounted a time where she had provided an online ZOOM aldermanic meeting in her ward, but because of security reasons, also offered a Facebook Live streaming. Their first try held some difficulties in constituents being confused about access, and they have had to make tweaks.With different levels of tech ability and access, having web chats, livestreams but also dial-ins are becoming increasingly important.

Different or Diverse Attendees:

Sara noted that in the work with Sam Schwartz in Des Moines around a transportation plan had allowed her to create a virtual feedback session for five days in a row from her home in Chicago, an option that would have been expensive and difficult with regional travel. Because there were flexible dates, she was able to capture more feedback.The opposite was also discussed- populations unfamiliar with technology or lacking tech resources cannot as easily access tools such as ZOOM. Our group also discussed issues with captioning or navigating the tools with disabilities.

Obstacles in Collaborative Design:

Many of the designers on the call shared that typical formats of collaborative work- whether that is markers and tracing paper, whiteboards or tear sheets, and smaller workgroups have disappeared in this time, providing challenges when the typical ZOOM presentation is a flat viewing screen with limited options for design and creativity. They pointed to tools such as Miro or using smaller ZOOM breakouts to facilitate these more intimate conversations and providing for drawing or image-sharing tools.

Overall, it was a great conversation, and let me reflect that the ZOOM felt more relaxed due to the fact that City Open Workshop has been a recognized format with repeat attendees, where less of the experience had to do with content, and more about the community involved. Resources for Community Collaboration

Mentioned at City Open April 29th:

Miro: Collaborative online whiteboard platform good for design and charrette activities

Smartsheet: More advanced spreadsheet that allows document attachment and path tracing for ensuring community outreach is reaching individual groups

Youtube and Facebook Live: Allows meeting organizers to stream meetings as parallel to a ZOOM or other interactive meeting

ZOOM, Open and Expanded Features: Common platform used for group meetingsBreakout session functionalityIdea brought up in the meeting was to leave an open ZOOM for a longer time as “office hours” for planners or community advocates


Elle Ramel is the Co-Founder of City Open Workshop and the Chicago Director of GET Cities

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