Deb Roy, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor and co-founder of Cortico, shows off the digital "hearth" that will record groups of people having conversations about their community this spring.

During the 2019 Madison mayoral race, city residents will be able to have conversations with trained facilitators around “digital hearths” as part of an experiment to foster healthy local discourse and create deeper understandings between the public, journalists and elected officials.

University of Wisconsin-Madison political science professor Kathy Cramer, author of "The Politics of Resentment," and a media analytics team from Cortico, a nonprofit organization that uses artificial intelligence to assist journalists tell stories, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Laboratory for Social Machines will be testing the new platform, called the Local Voices Network, in Madison between Jan. 2 and April 2.

Cramer and Deb Roy, the director of the Laboratory for Social Machines, pitched the idea to members of the public in a presentation at the Madison Public Library’s downtown branch Monday night.

“We envision a citizenry connected through more civil and empathic public conversation,” Roy told a crowd of about 50 city residents.

The idea, explained the LVN organizers, will be to have groups of four to six people who already know each other convene in a neighborhood center, library or around a kitchen table to talk about their community.

“We’re specifically looking for stories. We want to hear about what people like about or what they’re concerned about in their city,” said Cramer.

A specialized recording device called a digital hearth — a squat, sleek cylinder with a wooden exterior — records the conversation, while a facilitator guides the talk with a script of prompts and questions. The facilitator will also occasionally play relevant clips from previously recorded conversations to “cross-pollinate” ideas across different groups.

“By engaging in these conversations, (participants) can listen in on people who aren’t like themselves,” said Cramer.

Cortico’s backbone technology will automatically transcribe the conversations and upload both the transcript and audio recording to an online searchable public database. That platform algorithmically highlights keywords that pop up across the different conversations, identifying patterns in discourse. The platform will also pull in tweets and clips from local talk radio.

One goal of the project, said Roy, is to hopefully create a new way of facilitating meaningful dialogue.

“Our hope is these conversations, in and of themselves, have value for all participants in the conversation,” he said.

Roy said the project also aims to give resource-strapped journalists access to more nuanced viewpoints from the public and to help politicians “listen to what’s on the mind of people in the city.” Several candidates running for mayor have committed to listening to the perspectives from the project and incorporate them into their campaigns, according to a jointly written piece in Trust, Media and Democracy.

Cramer is working with Cortico’s co-founders on the project, which include Roy, Russell Stevens and Eugene Yi. The team believes that technology still has the ability to bring communities together rather than divide, unlike the discourse that often appears on social media platforms, talk radio and cable television.

“A lot of the ideological warfare at a national scale is not relevant to most people in their day-to-day lives,” said Roy.

LVN organizers said that they’re in the process of signing people up for the “conversation corps” that would lead conversations, recruit groups to participate and curate transcripts on the digital platform. They stressed that they’re interested in getting a diverse range of voices.

“We would like to listen to as many people as we possibly can,” said Cramer. “People who can’t vote, people who aren’t mobile, people who you don’t always hear from in Madison.”

Cramer and the team have already tried out the platform in Mott Haven, a small community in the Bronx. They are also implementing the Local Voices Network in Alabama in the spring, with hopes to expand to many states leading into the 2020 election.

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