Conducting Community Outreach During a Period of Social Distancing


While important for limiting the spread of COVID-19, social distancing and restrictions on gatherings of people will impact public outreach activities on the calendar for April, May and potentially June and beyond. Transportation agencies who need community input to keep their projects moving forward are faced with the decision to postpone these meetings (thus stalling the project) or take them online. This article provides specific tools and case studies for leaving the traditional brick-and-mortar open house, meeting public involvement requirements, and expanding your audience and participation during the COVID-19 pandemic through online platforms.

While we recommend assessing community outreach activities on a project-by-project basis, the good news is that online tools can be very effective for getting the feedback you’re looking for, and the unique situation we find ourselves in might even offer some outreach benefits.

For years, Kittelson has helped clients host community workshops online and typically seen exponentially better results than in-person events.

One of many examples is the Rogue Valley Transit District‘s 2040 Transit Master Plan. In the first round of community outreach, while 12 community members signed in to the in-person workshop – which was well-publicized and centrally located near a transit center – 184 provided input through our online open house tool.

“Getting ten times more participation via an online tool is not unusual – it is par for the course,” says Susie Wright, Principal Engineer in Kittelson’s Portland office.

In addition, while the majority of your community is staying at home, attention spans and free time are more abundant than usual. Rather than postponing your public meetings, consider how you can take advantage of this unique time to obtain valuable input on your project.

Rather than postponing your public meetings, consider how you can take advantage of this unique time to obtain valuable input on your project.

Types of Public Meetings and How They Go Virtual

There are many videoconferencing platforms that can be utilized for project meetings and advisory meetings. We use Microsoft Teams and have found great success holding meetings with both internal and external stakeholders on this platform. This is just one of many tools that can bring together people from many jurisdictions into one online space.

When it comes to virtual open houses, at Kittelson, we use a proprietary tool for building interactive websites. Our online public workshop tool gives participants the chance to walk through virtual rooms and gather information about a project. In each “room,” you can learn about important aspects of the project, such as project goals and funding, and interact with maps outlining proposed improvements. On these maps, community members can drop a pin and leave a comment. Survey forms are also embedded throughout the site asking for feedback.

For a recent example, check out our website for the Terrebonne Refinement Plan.

Public involvement firms can also work with you to select a tool and develop an online presence based on your project needs. The point is – options exist, and the show can go on!

Using GIS Tools in Public Outreach

Digital public outreach can be enhanced and amplified by the power of tools like Enterprise GIS that manage, collect, analyze and display data. Using ArcGIS for Server, at Kittelson, we can host a variety of web apps and tools that puts the project data in a visual format in front of the community.

Successful public engagement starts with a compelling story, and every project has a unique story. Our web apps contain interactive maps, data dashboards, infographics, 3D visualization, and more importantly, public feedback tools. Public feedback is crucial to most projects and through these tools we can give the community a voice. Depending on the project needs, our web apps allow users to freely comment, fill out a survey, or pinpoint on a map their concerns or project ideas. All the data is stored real-time which gives us the tools to make informed project decisions based on community feedback. Here are a few examples of maps we’ve created:

Keeping Equity in Mind With Online Community Engagement

It’s important to consider barriers to participation when using online methods, as internet service and/or a mobile data plan are prerequisites to digital participation. Making sure the website you’re using is mobile-friendly is important, as it is common for lower-income community residents to own a smartphone but not a computer. Older adults and non-English speaking populations may be less likely to engage, and this should be taken into account when making a decision about your community outreach strategies.

However, when approached thoughtfully, online outreach can boost equitable outreach in a number of ways. By opening up an online workshop for several days or weeks, people can participate on their own schedule, and do not have to worry about transportation challenges getting to an open house. Digital tools, such as geofencing in social media advertising, also offer targeting options that can help you reach under-represented communities.

In summer of 2019, the Hillsborough MPO in Florida ran a community outreach campaign with the goal of increasing representation from Communities of Concern in their 2045 Long Range Transportation Plan. Communities of Concern were defined by at least one standard deviation above the median in two or more of the following characteristics: minority population, elderly population, Limited English Proficiency population, disability, zero vehicle households, low income, or youth.

Online surveys gathering input on the plan were taken by nearly 10,000 people over the course of five months (setting a national record for participation in a MetroQuest online survey). 40% of survey takers found the survey through social media outreach, and nearly half of that social media budget was spent in Communities of Concern. The MPO used zip codes to track where survey participants were from and adjusted the social media spend in real time to reach underrepresented areas. As a result, the MPO increased representation from minority populations by up to 70%.

You Can Keep Your Projects Moving

Ultimately, understanding that digital tools bring more opportunities than limitations when it comes to gathering community input and achieving equity outcomes is an important mindset to have in this unique period of social distancing. With any questions or to talk specifically about your project, reach out to Marc Butorac or Susie Wright!