Watkinsville Uses Technology to Better Engage Citizens

Watkinsville: This Time it’s Personal 

This is the first part of a three-part series. You can find the second part, focused on Snellville, here and the third part about Macon, here.

Drawing of a smart city
Watkinsville Mayor Bob Smith deals daily with approximately 80 percent hearing loss in both ears, so he’s well aware of the challenges this disability puts on a person’s day-to-day life. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 15 percent of Georgians experience some form of hearing loss, making it difficult for constituents to participate in or run for local government. After all, if a person can’t hear what’s going on in a council meeting, it’s difficult to chime in.

To that end, the city of Watkinsville has recently implemented a hearing loop system in the public meeting room of Watkinsville City Hall, which acts as a wireless network for people with cochlear implants or hearing aids. The technology takes signals from the microphone or public address systems and feeds them into an amplifier. Then, the amplifier sends a current through wires embedded in the floor, which creates a magnetic signal. This signal can be picked up by the telecoils, which are part of most hearing aids. Just like that, people who would normally have extreme difficulty hearing the meeting are now a part of the process.

The only catch is that once the button is pressed to employ the technology the user will only be able to hear the meeting proceedings, not the person sitting next to them. Many hearing aids come equipped with the ability to activate the system, however the council does make hearing loop receivers available to those who need them.

Clearly, this is an incredibly personal mission for Smith. “When I ran for mayor one of my platforms was transparency in government,” he explained. “If you can’t hear, you’re not going to go to these council meetings. If we’re truly for an open and transparent government then we’re open and transparent for all.”

As mayor of the first city in Georgia to implement this technology, Smith issues a good-natured challenge to other cities to get on board with including hearing-impaired constituents in local government.
“We’re proud that Watkinsville has taken leadership to help those who can’t hear and challenge them to run for office and participate more,” he said.

There’s always room for improvement, and the cities of Watkinsville, Macon and Snellville are three examples of how Georgia’s forward-thinking cities are using technology to better engage citizens.

This is one part of a longer article called “Georgia’s Cities Use Technology to Better Engage Citizens” that appears in the March/April 2020 edition of Georgia’s Cities Magazine.

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