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The town of Amherst has developed a new prong in its online engagement strategy with the launch of a new interactive platform, Engage Amherst.
The March launch comes a year after the COVID-19 pandemic forced cities and towns across the state to pivot from in-person meetings and hearings to remote, online engagement with residents.
The new platform provides an opportunity for the community to learn about and offer feedback on projects and initiatives taking place in town, an alternative to attending traditional public, in-person meetings.
“This is something we have had on our roadmap for a while,” said Amherst Communications Manager Brianna Sunryd. “With COVID-19, people were more willing to engage in new ways, and we had a CARES Act funding opportunity.”
Each town project gets its own page on the Engage Amherst platform, where the community can learn more, ask questions and weigh in. The individual project pages include various staff members involved as project administrators — not just Sunryd or a member of the IT team, who respond to questions and feedback.
In developing the platform, Sunryd stressed the importance of getting buy-in from staff members who might not be familiar with navigating this type of digital space, as well as having an “internal champion” to help guide and teach other departments.
“We are trying to make it everyone’s job to be thinking about engagement and community connection,” Sunryd said. “And this tool allows that in a user-friendly way, to get closer to that goal. It’s not a high-tech solution.”
The platform currently features a couple projects for active engagement, including intersection improvements at Pomeroy Village, renovations at the North Amherst Library building, and potential future capital building finance projects. Sunryd said a few more pages will launch shortly, and the town is planning a budget page that will deliver digestible information and accept questions.
Once the public consultation period for a project ends, the town will provide full reports to various town boards and stakeholders, and the community, creating a full-circle feedback loop. The project page will be archived and will still be available on the platform.
“We did our first reporting out to a committee of the council, and we were able to provide them with various reports,” Sunryd said. “They found it very helpful when it was nested in with the more traditional forms of communication we have.”
Amherst Planner Ben Breger said Engage Amherst “has been an incredibly powerful digital tool to engage community members in the planning processes,” particularly during the pandemic.
“The ability to share information with the public, receive survey data and insights, and provide a forum for residents to communicate with each other has helped empower residents and inform our decision-makers,” he said.
Sunyrd highlighted the town’s multifaceted approach to foster two-way communication with the community. The town also used CARES Act funding to install solar-powered signs downtown.
“They are mostly one directional, but we can poll community members from the signs,” she said. “It is another way to access people who may not be engaged with us but who spend time in our downtown.”
The Engage Amherst platform, powered by Bang the Table, includes an administrative analytics dashboard that shows how many people are interacting with the individual pages and what they are doing while on the page. Users can choose to register for an account, which provides the town with additional demographic information, but registration is not required to use the platform.
“So far the feedback has been positive, from the Town Council and the public,” Sunryd said. “Amherst is a very involved community and vocal about things that are going on in town.”