Dr. Ron Metoyer lends expertise and insight to CCI

Author: Jose Chiquito Galvan

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Ronald Metoyer​’s involvement with the Center for Civic Innovation started in 2015, when Metoyer was a recent arrival at the University and was eager to make a connection beyond academics.

In Metoyer’s search for opportunities to engage with the community through research, he came across CCI Director, ​Jay Brockman​. Over the years Metoyer engaged in the earlier years of the CCI Internship Program and in the summer of 2020 he agreed to lead two summer intern project teams.

Metoyer had been working with ​Ann-Marie Conrado​, CCI Faculty Affiliate and Associate Professor of Industrial Design, and ​Nitesh Chawla​, Faculty Affiliate and Frank M. Freimann Professor of Computer and Science Engineering, who had established relationships with a network of local organizations in South Bend that offer services to the community.

This emerging ecosystem of partnerships led all parties to realize that there was a disconnect in how social service organizations in South Bend were able to reach those who most needed their services. Part of the issue in outreach was the lack of updated information on these agencies’ websites or social media platforms.

Metoyer’s background in information visualization and human-computer interaction is key in addressing this disconnect. These are fields of computer science and engineering that, in the case of information visualization, created Google Maps and in the case of computer-human interaction can include anything where a tech-user interacts with software, like an app.

Metoyer’s expertise in these fields is especially important in helping connect social service organizations to help them reach more people and connect the people who need services but are not aware of their options. As a research faculty of color who deeply believes in the University’s mission to use knowledge for service, Metoyer strongly believes that his work, and that of his colleagues’ is about “getting the right information to the right people at the right time.”

Now more than ever, according to Metoyer, Notre Dame’s success depends on the success of South Bend and the broader region. As he said, “one won’t flourish without the other.”

That richness in collaboration between faculty and community led Metoyer to lead two projects in the summer of 2020, the Community, Advocacy, Restoration, and Education
(CARE) Network for Reintegration and the Food Information Network Systems.

The CARE Network for Reintegration was created in 2019 as an effort to create a mobile app that connects people to services and resources in the community, which range from education to food assistance. The 2020 intern project team, composed of Dashara Brown, Kate Burnett,

Caitlyn Cano, Benjamin Tomas Morgan, and Taylor Rex, focused on figuring out what the barriers were for accessing information about needed services.

With the guidance of Metoyer and Internship Program Manager ​Lauren Lounsbury​, interns began a careful study to find out why resources and services are not accessible to vulnerable populations. Coached with the interviewing expertise of Ann-Marie Conrado, interns conducted hour-long interviews with 22 organizations that serve vulnerable South Bend communities.

One barrier that interns unearthed was the assumption that people who often are in need of additional resources or services, do not have access to the internet. In addition to that misconception, is the reality of organizations who serve this population, which are often understaffed. A person is often hired for their skills in a small nonprofit organization and not for their technical web development background and it is rare to find both. Often, the employee managing the website is not the person who has first-hand knowledge of the updates that would be useful for the population the organization serves.

Many other barriers were identified by interns which will ultimately help improve the design of the mobile app and its launch.

The Food Information Network System (FINS) project team that Metoyer also mentored in 2020 focused on creating software that would be capable of recommending healthy food options available in area food pantries and how to prepare food pantry items into meals.

One of the objectives of this project was to reduce the food information gap often associated with food insecure populations. Often, the food items that are available in food pantries are underutilized simply because people do not know how to use them. This project team created a complex information network that integrated local food pantry items into healthy food recipes that could later be adjusted by a user, which would eventually be a food pantry customer.

Currently the FINS project needs to be further developed before being a tool that can be useful to South Bend community members who use local food pantries.

The CARE Network for Reintegration and the FINS projects are well underway to having long-lasting impacts in the community. Metoyer remains hopeful for at least another year where these projects can be trialed and improved.