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Williamstown's CARES Study on Track for June 30 Report
By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff
04:35PM / Saturday, February 18, 2023
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — A group of volunteers working on an assessment of how safe residents feel in their community told the Select Board on Monday that they hope to have a report finalized by June 30.
Social workers Abigail Reifsnyder and Kerri Nicoll appeared before the board to give it an update on the Community Assessment and Research, or CARES, project that launched in 2021 with the hope of an 18-month turnaround.
That timetable was thrown off when the director hired by the town to conduct the study left midway through the project, Reifsnyder said.
The good news is that the work of the project continued, largely through the efforts of volunteers like Nicoll and Reifsnyder, who have conducted interviews with 163 town residents about their feelings of safety, Nicoll said.
The researchers decided at the outset to conduct the study through in-depth, anonymous interviews with residents in order to find out how they really feel about life in the town.
The qualitative approach was chosen over a quantitative study where the town might simply ask respondents to check yes or no to the question, "Do you feel safe in Williamstown?" because such a study might produce statistics quickly but would not get at the question of what safety meant to the individual respondent, the social workers said.
The more labor intensive approach involved conducting interviews that lasted from a half hour to 2 1/2 hours per resident, Nicoll said.
"We were dealing with complicated topics like safety that are pretty abstract," Nicoll said. "It isn't always clear what people meant when they talk about safety."
Asking in-depth questions and recording the answers was only one phase of the project. The next step involved analyzing the answers received in those interviews and synthesizing that data into a report that can help inform public policy in town.
"The problem has been we went from having a full-time person and a part-time person and [volunteers] trying to fit things in while doing our full-time jobs to having [volunteers] take on this whole project while still trying to do those full-time jobs," Reifsnyder said.
The town benefited from having as a resident and volunteer Nicoll, an associate professor at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts with a doctorate in social work and political science.
"Clinical social workers are qualified to do the interviews, not to do the analysis," Reifsnyder said. But Nicoll was qualified to analyze the data.
And that is what she has been doing since last summer, Nicoll told the Select Board.
"Over the summer of 2022, I put in 250 hours on the first round of analysis – going over every interview, making sure the [computer generated] transcript matched what the person said and recognizing themes so I can start putting stuff into the analysis software," Nicoll said. 
"Qualitative software analysis relies more on the human being. I have to put in, 'These are the things we're coding for.' To do it based on the way I know to be valid takes some time. Once I get through all the transcripts, the next step is to look at all the themes coded and look across transcripts: Where are the similarities, differences, things like that."
Nicoll Monday indicated one issue in the project's data set: underrepresentation of some groups of residents.
"For example, lower-income residents, younger residents and residents are underrepresented according to the census data," she said.
CARES project volunteers did what they could to appeal to a broad cross section of residents for the study, including appeals to logical allies like the town's Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Equity Committee to publicize the call for respondents.
In the end, the way to deal with the under-representation issue will be to note it transparently in the final report, Nicoll said.
And that one potential shortcoming alone is not enough to be pessimistic about the exercise, she said.
Select Board member Randy Fippinger, who probed deeper into the issue of under-representation during the followup questions to the social workers, asked whether Nicoll thought, at the end of the day, it was "a worthwhile effort by the town."
"Absolutely," she said. "In terms of qualitative studies, 163 samples is enormous. Qualitative studies are published all the time in journals with 10 interview subjects."
In other business on Monday, the Select Board began a conversation about drafting a bylaw that could regulate public displays, like flags, on town property and solicited input from residents. It was announced that Andi Bryant had resigned from the DIRE Committee for personal reasons unrelated to the committee's work and Fippinger announced that the DIRE Committee would meet Monday at Williams College's '62 Center and dig deep into the work of creating a strategic plan that the Select Board requested in the fall.
Town Manager Robert Menicocci told the board that work is continuing on the town's fiscal 2024 budget, which earlier in the meeting received an infusion of American Rescue Plan Act funds. He indicated that his first budget season in the town is a tricky one.
"We know we have a hole in the budget," Menicocci said. "Without the issue of the bike path, we'd have a tough time getting it balanced. This creates another issue."
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