One traditional method of getting information to people is through an open house or town hall meeting, where the public is invited to a location to view posters, hear a presentation, or witness a discussion. To add an interactive aspect, some meetings allow the public to ask questions, meet with officials, and talk about policies or projects. Here are some ways to use technology to improve interaction as well as some suggested low-tech approaches.
1. For starters, have a handout that attendees can take with them. Anticipate questions people are likely to ask, and give meaningful answers. For those likely questions that aren’t on point or involve broader policy, include the appropriate contact information.
3. For greater outreach, encourage tweeting by attendees. Establish an event #hashtag and post it at the door. Consider having a monitor that displays event tweets (instant feedback loop). Have a staffer available to respond to the tweets — there may be easily answered questions or immediately actionable suggestions. Use tweet retention services like Tweetarchivist or print out the stream after the event to preserve them as part of the record.
4. If the open house or town hall topic has a geographical aspect, don’t just provide printouts and PDFs. Instead of or in addition to static displays, make the experience interactive using a touch screen with Google Earth. Take the relevant map and overlay it on Google Earth, saving to .kml or .kmz (a zipped .kml file). Using Google Earth or a similar product in a live hearing makes it more interesting and flexible for the consumer.
5. Invite people to interact with the maps by marking or pointing out useful items: unidentified properties, unmarked sensitive receptors or cemeteries, even their homes (keeping in mind privacy and sensitivity issues). Use this action to trigger environmental impact or other necessary conversations. Later, if participants have digitally “thumbtacked” their own home, see at a glance where meeting participants came from in proximity to the hearing location or project and use that information to identify gaps and areas needing more outreach.
6. Put the Google Earth file on the Internet. This action makes the file more user friendly online as opposed to the effort involved with zooming in, shrinking, scrolling, and manipulating PDF files. Do it before the event so attendees can interact on their own electronic devices in case there is a line.
7. Broadcast/livestream the event. In addition to having access to the printed information, the public can now hear the answers to questions they probably have but haven’t articulated. Investment required is minimal — a laptop, a small camera if the laptop doesn’t have one, a microphone, Internet or telephone data service. In areas without accessible Internet, phone data service is usually available and adequate. In this scenario, the camera is stationary and pointed at the podium or speakers. Free web services like Ustream will provide the platform where the public can access the video/audio stream. Another free option is Google Plus Hangouts, which can also be syndicated live to Facebook as an additional outlet.
8. In the scenario described so far, the live stream is static and two-dimensional because the camera is stationary. Take the camera mobile to add the third dimension. A Logitech or similar camera designed as an external computer accessory (webcam) can be connected by cable to a mobile laptop or can have more roaming freedom by using a Bluetooth or wifi link. Many smartphones also can be used with apps like Justin.tv to capture and livestream audio and video. Google Glass out of the box is capable of livestreaming when teamed with a smartphone with wifi or cell data service and using Google Plus Hangouts.
9. Whether or not you broadcast the meeting, you should (separate from the broadcast effort) record it for purposes of posterity, retention, and documentation. Take into consideration storage capacity, any need for closed captioning to comply with accessibility laws, and how the public will access the archives. If you don’t already have a web repository for videos, it’s easy to create a YouTube channel. If you are recording the event, don’t surprise the public with that fact. Give notice with a sign at the door and make the camera person obvious. One way to do this is to brand the activity with “YourAgency On the Air” logos on the door sign, the camera, and the camera holder’s clothing.
10. About the hearing location: there is a logic to holding hearings in schools but there are drawbacks. There will probably be additional cost to the taxpayer, either through the school district or the sponsoring agency, especially if the event is held during the summer or at times school is not in session. A debate is currently happening about security implications of using schools for non-school purposes. how such events might affect security at the school. Certain people are prohibited from entering schools and therefore will not have access to the information, which probably has minimal relation to the chosen location. Some states prohibit holders of concealed weapon licenses from carrying otherwise legal weapons onto school property; this provision could cause some interested consumers to avoid the open house.