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Audience Response Technology Helps Chicago Area Planning

By using wireless keypads connected to a presentation program, people who attend meetings of Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning anonymously provide demographic information, vote on issues and provide feedback.

It may not be as dramatic as the voting on American Idol, but audience response technology is helping the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) be more accurate in assessing the priorities of citizens and elected officials.

Using wireless keypads connected to a presentation program such as Microsoft PowerPoint, users anonymously provide demographic information, vote on issues and provide feedback during meetings. The collected data enables CMAP officials to get a pulse on what priorities are of importance to a particular community.

While not a new technology — CMAP has been using TurningPoint by Turning Technologies for years — it has been a valuable tool to ensure that the agency is reaching a true representation of each community it works with.

CMAP is the planning organization for the entire northeast Illinois region, including seven counties, 284 municipalities and more than 1,200 local government entities. While CMAP’s primary focus is on transportation and land use planning, it also does housing, environment and watershed planning.

With a large number of regularly scheduled community and stakeholder meetings throughout the area, Erin Aleman, senior regional planner at CMAP, said the ability to quickly compile and use the data from meetings is a key benefit of using audience response technology. Responders view a presentation on a screen and vote for one of up to 10 choices, simply by hitting one of the buttons on the keypad.

“Everyone can talk at small tables, come up with a few top issues they think should be addressed through their local planning efforts; we’ll build a list in TurningPoint and the whole room can vote on everybody’s ideas,” Aleman said. “It really helps make the meetings more engaging.”

When the system isn’t used, staff members have to manually record votes or opinions, which isn’t nearly as accurate. Aleman explained that when that happens, information is written on flip charts that need to be sorted afterward.

“You get a sense of what people talked about, but you don’t get a sense of where people’s priorities are,” she said about meetings where audience response technology isn’t used. “So it’s a little more complicated to make sense of community issues.”

According to Aleman, the technology also allows people who may be hesitant to speak publicly in a meeting to share their thoughts. If you get a turnout of 50 or more people, she said, there are usually only a few who are comfortable speaking out about their concerns.

Because the response system allows everyone to share their thoughts to questions, issues can rise to the top of the pile that otherwise wouldn’t if a select few dominated a discussion. “We can figure out what everybody’s voice in the room is, as opposed to those people who tend to be a little more vocal,” Aleman said.

TurningPoint is keeping up with the times as well. While the keypads are the standard way votes and information is tallied by the technology, a new application allows users to use their smartphones.

Aleman said CMAP doesn’t have a need for the smartphone functionality yet, having purchased 100 of TurningPoint’s ResponseCard keypads and two of the receivers — little antennas about the size of a flash drive that plug into a computer’s USB port that the keypads transmit the data to. The tool in its original form, she said, “does way more than we ever use it for.”

“It’s not a super-scientific survey, but you can draw some broad generalizations about what people’s priorities are based on age, race, or what part of the region they are from,” Aleman said.


Miriam Jones is a former chief copy editor of Government Technology, Governing, Public CIO and Emergency Management magazines.
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