Harvard Kennedy School, RWJF and Zencity are Joining Forces to Help 19 Leading US Cities and Counties Get Residents On Board with Vaccinations

Assaf Frances

Assaf Frances

Director of Urban Policy

As the US Covid-19 vaccination challenge shifts from scarcity to scaling, understanding what’s keeping some Americans from getting inoculated is proving pivotal for overcoming the pandemic and enabling local government leaders to make more informed and data-based policy decisions.

That’s why Zencity partnered with the Harvard Kennedy School, with the support of The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) and Bennett Midland, to launch a program across 19 US cities and counties, including Los Angeles, Philadelphia, New Orleans, Newark, Arlington County (VA) and more, to help them understand how their residents feel about Covid-19 vaccines. This first-of-its-kind program leverages Zencity’s cross-channel, broad-reaching capabilities of collecting and analyzing both organic feedback and proactive resident input from representative community surveys.

Our partnership provides mayors, city and county managers, public health officials, and their teams with tools to understand and minimize resident hesitancy around the vaccine, promote an informed conversation on the topic, and enhance satisfaction with their cities and counties as they roll out the vaccine to their communities.

What local government leaders want to know!

One of the most impactful elements of the program is that for each participating city and county, research will be conducted on the same 6 key metrics:

  1. Residents’ level of interest in the vaccine
  2. Resident sentiment and main themes in the organic discourse
  3. Residents’ intentions about getting the vaccine
  4. Residents’ experience of getting the vaccine
  5. Prominent vaccine-related groups in the community
  6. Role of the City/County in the overall discourse

By evaluating particatiping communities across the same metrics, Zencity will then benchmark the resident feedback so that local government leaders can understand how they measure up compared to others. For example, a city can learn if a higher or lower percentage of its residents intend to get vaccinated compared to residents in other communities, or which figures they trust the most when it comes to information about the vaccine. They can then learn from communities with higher performance and adapt their strategy and communications accordingly.

What kind of community input will the local governments be gathering?

At Zencity, our bread and butter is gathering and analyzing resident feedback – and this means collecting all types of resident feedback – so that you hear from all corners of your community. This new partnership will therefore leverage Zencity’s organic resident discourse analysis – drawing on resident feedback from online channels, local news sources and more – and combine it with analysis of representative surveys from each of the participating communities. 

Why is that so valuable you ask? Because local government leaders want to make sure they’re hearing as widely and diversely as possible. This means gathering community input both from residents willing to actively engage with their local leaders by participating in an online survey, but also ensuring input is being gathered from those who would rather voice their opinions online (be it on social media, news media, or other forums) through channels local governments are not necessarily monitoring or analyzing. The combination of both types of feedback is invaluable in “the sum is greater than its parts” kind of way – giving participants a unique insight into resident discourse – both what is emerging organically and their specific positions on specific questions.

What can cities and counties expect to learn from resident engagement and community input in the context of vaccines?

Organic discourse and sentiment analysis can help cities and counties understand their residents’ level of interest in the vaccine (how much are they talking about it and what key themes emerge?), sentiment towards it (is the conversation positive or negative?), what and who is driving the conversation, and more. So, for example, city leaders might learn from the data that their residents show higher interest in the vaccine (relative to the cohort), and that a big part of that discourse is negative. A further breakdown could reveal that this relatively negative interest is mostly driven by local news reports about equity and access to the vaccine distribution – an issue that is driving contentious debate and negative sentiment across the country. 

RWJ Blog Post - Graph 01@2x

Complimentary to that, a representative sample analysis of survey questions can provide local leaders insight into topics like the leading contributors to vaccine hesitancy: concerns about potential side effects? concerns about the vaccine’s effectiveness? distrust in the healthcare system? misinformation? other factors? On top of that, Zencity’s surveys will help local governments understand how concerns differentiate across different communities – is the Latinx community more hesitant to get vaccinated because of the belief that the risk posed by Covid19 is low? Is the black community’s trust in the healthcare system higher or lower compared to other populations?

RWJ Blog Post - Graph 02@2x
[Survey question: When the vaccine is available to you, when do you think you would be most likely to take it?]

The bottom line – this kind of comprehensive resident feedback analysis will give the participating local governments actionable insights into how to get residents on board with vaccinations so we can all move closer to the end of the pandemic. 

What’s next and how can you get involved?

Over the next few weeks, all of the collected data will be analyzed and summed up into visual reports that will be presented to each member of the cohort of local governments, allowing them to use the insights driven by the analyses to inform their decisions moving forward. 

Following that, around the beginning of May, Zencity, the Harvard Kennedy School, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and Bennett Midland will put out a public report and hold a virtual event to share key findings, alongside best practices of participating members around vaccine distribution and communications. The event will include a panel discussion with some members from the cohort and a Q&A session to enable further conversation.

Sign up below for more details about the public report and event as they become available.

5 ways cities, small businesses, and residents have helped keep the local economy afloat during COVID-19

Assaf Frances

Assaf Frances

Director of Urban Policy

Local economies all across the country were hit hard by the effects of COVID-19 and many are still struggling over a year later. The city and state measures that were implemented in an attempt to contain the virus forced many businesses to reduce their operations to a minimum, close their doors for long stretches at a time, or even permanently. Research by JP Morgan indicated that six months into the pandemic, nearly 50% of small businesses had a cash buffer of 15 days or less, and a year-over-year restaurant visits tracker by OpenTable showed an alarming decrease compared to 2019. As the US enters another phase of the pandemic and with no end-date in sight, this situation bears devastating news to many local businesses.

So what can be done?

The newly approved Federal Stimulus Package and SBA programs are a good start, but money from these initiatives will take precious time to reach those who need it the most. Therefore, in order to keep businesses afloat, local government authorities, alongside residents and businesses themselves, have stepped up over the past year to fill the “time is money and money is time gap” in both traditional and innovative ways.

Here’s a summary of examples for what cities and their partners across the country have been doing to help out:

For information on how our local government partners are using Zencity to manage the effects of COVID-19 and improve crisis management, you can read more here.

1. Provide Business Stabilization Packages

resilience toolkit coronavirus
Image Source

Local authorities have been dipping into their “rainy day” funds and creating benefit packages for businesses hurt by COVID-19. The key here is that these measures are usually effective immediately providing businesses the oxygen they need until federal funding is made available. These packages may include several of the following:

Local governments would also be wise to share with their local businesses information about opportunities offered by other organizations. Online tech giants like Facebook and Google have been proposing free ad campaigns and cash grants to small and medium businesses. The Opportunity Finance Network has also been offering financing opportunities for small businesses by regions so be sure to check out what’s available in your area (a tip we got from our friends at ELGL).

Forbes magazine has created a continually updated list of these more formal packages for businesses to be aware of and other cities to draw inspiration from.

Notably, as these programs grow in number, making their availability and application process known and accessible to local businesses is key but could be challenging. Cities have been working hard at promoting these packages through online local community and business groups (see great examples from Estacada, ORPerry, GA, and Beaverton, OR) and offering guidance and assistance in filling out the forms. This is particularly important for businesses run by the less tech-savvy or bureaucracy-proficient so that they are able to take advantage of these benefits as well.

2. Ease Curbside Regulation

coronavirus curbside pickup
Image Source

Once again, as restaurants may be restricted to pickup and delivery only, making these services easy and quick can help them increase sales volume. A simple measure local authorities have taken in order to promote food pickup from local restaurants is waving on-street parking fees like the Town of Chapel Hill, NC has done. In some places, such as Albany, NY and Detroit, MI, the city created a Restaurant Carryout Zone Program that provides restaurants with a free on-street carryout area for their customers. The restaurants are expected to deliver the food to the car in order to observe social distancing with and between their clients.

3. Encourage and Incentivize Residents to Shop Local

Image Source

In order to provide businesses with some immediate cash flow, many cities and businesses alike are encouraging residents to purchase prepaid gift cards for local shops, restaurants and cultural venues (see examples from Erie, PAPhiladelphia, PAOttawa, CanadaLos Altos, CA). In other places like in the cities of Burleson, TX and Edmond, OK local organizations offered matching funds to residents who purchased a gift card to incentivize them even further.

4. Use Your City’s Social Media for Promotion

Image Source

In cities of all sizes, we’ve seen local authorities using their important online presence at this time to promote local businesses. Simply advertising a detailed list or map of restaurants and businesses as the City of Chandler, AZ and the City of Springboro, OH did, can go a long way, as can shining a spotlight on a different venue each time as did Doral, FL. In other places, as in this example from the Quad Cities Region in Iowa, the organization involved increased awareness of the issue by raffling online a free takeout meal from a different restaurant each day. Encouraging residents to engage with the posts directly improves their visibility and organic reach, exposing many more to the initiative and the restaurants that it promotes.

For tips on how to make sure your online crisis communications gain better traction/visibility on social media, check out our data-driven guidelines here.

5. Help Your Businesses Get Creative (or don’t get in the way too much)

Image Source

Despite the state of the outbreak, the creativity and camaraderie that local businesses are showing at this time is certainly uplifting. Local gyms and private trainers are now experts at offering diverse online classes and even allowing members to rent out their equipment for the time being. Restaurants and bars are providing online cooking classes, mixology workshops and alcohol deliveries, while bookshops are hosting online reading sessions for children and adults. Some of these businesses charge a fee for these services, while others enact a pay-as-you-wish policy; nonetheless, keeping their name and brand in the consciousness of their clients is vital.

Some other places have repurposed their facilities to fit the needs of the current situation and make some income along the way. At the start of the pandemic, distilleries were helping out with crisis mitigation efforts by producing hand sanitizers mainly for the use of first-responders and vulnerable populations, as these examples from Spokane, WA and Lewisville, TX show. Another great example, that is still at play today, is restaurants that have converted their dining space into food and produce markets, like in Long Beach CA, in order to reduce the pressure on supermarkets and grocery stores. Newer initiatives, made possible by the COVID vaccine are businesses offering incentives to those getting vaccinated. In Cleveland, OH, for example, a local theater is giving out free popcorn through the end of April to moviegoers with a vaccination card and Market Garden Brewery is offering 10-cent beers to the first 2021 adults who bring their completed card. While these are all business initiatives, the county and city’s role in such cases is to consider easing (or ignoring) regulations when needed in order to encourage these and other innovative and adaptive solutions during these tough times.

The examples we share in this post go to show that in order for the places that make our cities so great to be able to bounce back from this pandemic, we need government, businesses, and residents to continually collaborate and provide each other with mutual support. We will continue to follow and share with you the great work of local authorities across the country as they adapt and respond to this new normal in resilient ways.

For tips on how to make sure your online crisis communications gain better traction/visibility on social media, check out our data-driven guidelines here

As you plan your stimulus fund allocation, make the biggest impact in your community with a robust community engagement strategy. Download our latest guide to learn more! 

Top Local Government Conferences to Attend (In-person or Virtually) in 2021

Assaf Frances

Assaf Frances

Director of Urban Policy

2020 required a new approach to conferences, events and summits, with many moving to the virtual realm thanks to COVID-19. With 2021 just ahead, we’re here to help with your conference planning! We’ve done the legwork for you by compiling a list of the top Local Gov conferences from across the country to attend in the new year, beyond your annual State conference. These conferences bring together some of the most renowned authorities, and the sessions are filled with practitioners who offer up their insight and experience across all aspects of local government, providing the ultimate environments for promoting knowledge exchange. While some may take place in person, expect to see a variation of hybrid conferences in 2021, with many providing both a virtual and in-person experience. For those digital events, check out our tips for how you can make the most of your virtual experience.

Extra bonus! Zencity will be attending some of these events, and we hope to catch you there.

  1. TLG Govapalooza

    • When? March 1-5, 2021
    • Where? Online 
    • Dedicated to helping local government movers and shakers achieve their goals, TLG Govapalooza celebrates the very best in local government across North America. An essential destination for local government professionals, the event features inspirational sessions, idea-generating showcases, interactive seminars, practical workshops, and a variety of networking opportunities. We’re looking forward to this years’ themes which include climate and environment, public safety, equity and inclusion, and economic revitalization.
  2. ICMA Regional Conferences 2021

    • When? March-April 2021
    • Where? Online
    • ICMA offers a wide array of regional conferences (Southeast, Northeast, Midwest, Mountain Plains, West Coast) to share lessons learned and explore strategies and best practices for advancing the local government profession. Beyond attending annual conferences, these events are an opportunity for a more intimate experience to be inspired, build skills, network with colleagues, and develop meaningful relationships with your local government practitioners from across the nation.
  3. Smart Cities Connect Virtual Conference and Expo

    • When? April 13-14, 2021
    • Where? Online
    • Smart Cities Connect Virtual Conference and Expo provides meaningful content, bringing together high powered decision makers from each part of the smart city ecosystem to empower cities at all stages of growth. This conference works to accelerate the adoption of smart technology solutions, aid in problem solving, and amplify city resources for the betterment of cities, communities, and their citizens. For anyone involved in the smart city movement, this conference is a can’t miss!
  4. IACP Technology Conference 2021

    • When: May 17-19, 2021
    • Where: Milwaukee, Wisconsin (subject to change)
    • Explore the latest technology issues confronting law enforcement each year at IACP’s Technology Conference. Attended by law enforcement executives, IT managers, crime analysts, investigators, patrol officers, and state and local CIOs and CTOs seeking to obtain training, professional development, and a forum to share best practices and lessons learned on a broad array of current and emerging technologies. We’re looking forward to hearing about the latest technological developments for the law enforcement community.
  5. The Smart City Event

    • When? June 22-25, 2021
    • Where? Miami Beach, Florida
    • Attend IoT Evolution’s Smart City Event to hear how IoT is driving smart city innovations that are changing the face of today’s modern cities and counties. Discover the latest innovations in IoT solutions, from effectively managing municipal water supplies, to discussing the value of big data in smart city development, municipal Wi-Fi, and new IoT insurance business models that efficiently report and monitor risk factors.
  6. NACo Annual Conference and Exposition

    • When? July 16-19, 2021
    • Where? Austin, Texas
    • With the goal of strengthening America’s counties, NACo’s (the National Association of Counties) Annual Conference and Exposition is the largest meeting of county elected and appointed officials from across the United States. Thousands of county leaders will convene to adopt positions on pressing federal policies affecting counties, and to exchange innovative solutions to challenges facing American communities.
  7. IACP 2021

    • When? September 11-14
    • Where? New Orleans, Louisiana
    • The IACP (International Association of Chiefs of Police) Annual Conference & Expo is the largest and most important law enforcement event of the year. With more than 14,000 public safety professionals in attendance annually coming together to learn new techniques, advance their knowledge and careers and equip their department for ongoing success. Join thousands of dedicated professionals from federal, state, county, local and tribal agencies providing the intelligence, strategies and solutions they’ll need to sharpen their edge and better serve and protect.
  8. ELGL21

    • When? September 23-24, 2021
    • Where? Virtual and In-person
    • ELGL (Engaging Local Government Leaders) network’s annual conference covers a wide variety of local government topics, designed to widen attendees’ world views about local public service, and introduce new and important information to directly benefit their towns, cities, counties, and districts. We hope to see you there!
  9. 2021 ICMA Annual Conference

    • When? Oct 3 – 6, 2021
    • Where? Portland, Oregon
    • As the largest annual gathering in the world of local government managers and staff, this conference offers an abundance of educational, information-sharing, and networking tools to help local govs manage their community in today’s complex environment. Their educational exhibits also add an unparalleled opportunity for companies to reach an influential group of local government decision makers and positively affect the way that local governments operate and conduct business.

We hope to see you at the conferences listed above! Can’t wait until the events to meet with Zencity’s team of experts? Contact us now!

Election 2020 and Counties: A Guide to Overcoming Communication Challenges

Assaf Frances

Assaf Frances

Director of Urban Policy

In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, the role that counties play in facilitating the electoral process is both more critical and more challenging than ever before. County Election Boards must be able to quickly adjust operations and effectively communicate to citizens in a clear and timely manner, while ensuring access to a safe and accurate vote. Guaranteeing residents have the right information while avoiding the spread of misinformation and disinformation is key to a successful election in November. Here’s how Zencity can help:

5 Ways Zencity can Help You Stay on Top of the 2020 Elections

1. Build a One-stop Elections Discourse Shop

As a county, you need to know and follow, in real-time, the multitude of channels and sources (social media, news, etc.) where elections are being discussed by your citizens, so that you can stay on top of your community’s concerns and respond accordingly. Processing vast amounts of discourse in today’s online world is no easy feat, but, with Zencity, you can instantaneously monitor the dozens of public channels on which election-related conversations are taking place, including non-county-owned channels such as news channels and community pages, so you can be sure that nothing flies under your radar.

As the example below indicates, setting up an ‘Election 2020’ Project on your Zencity’s dashboard enables you to stay on top of all of the relevant discourse in one place. It also enables you to follow and analyze changes in conversations over time according to different parameters, including volume, sentiment, geo-location, and more.


2. Receive Tailor-Made Election 2020 Insights

Seeing all of the data in one place is great, but understanding what is driving the conversation is even better. In addition to the data collected and aggregated by the Zencity platform, our team of analysts will also provide you with insights that break down the discourse in your county and quantify the main arguments and concerns that your residents are raising.


3. Track the Effectiveness of Your Messaging and Make Changes in Real-Time

In a constantly changing reality, you need to be able to effectively communicate all of the operational aspects of elections in your county and ensure residents’ questions and concerns are being addressed. These concerns may include changing polling locations, health and safety requirements, security and accessibility, and understanding options and procedures for early voting, mail-in voting, and, and drive-through voting.

Zencity’s platform enables you to identify the volume of discourse about any given topic at any given time, and to detect where residents are asking for clarification or more information. As you respond, share information, and initiate new messaging campaigns, you can track the performance and effectiveness of your outreach initiatives and adapt them as needed.

4. Identify the Spread of Rumors, Misinformation, and Disinformation

Tracking discourse in an Elections 2020 Project for the spread of incorrect information within local discourse, both on official and unofficial channels will help you put the kibosh on misinformation as well as be sure that rumors are stopped before they spread. More importantly, this will allow you to have better control of the overall narrative around elections in your county. For example, topics like mail-in voting can be at the center of disinformation around voting fraud that you should be aware of.


5. Focus on Specific Areas

Zencity’s geolocation tools can help you understand exactly where within your county election discourse is being discussed. You can match conversations taking place in these locations with external demographic and historical voting data in order to tailor your communication strategy and initiatives accordingly.

With the primary elections well underway and the national elections just around the corner, counties are working hard to create, adapt, and distribute COVID-19 prevention plans for the polling sites within their jurisdictions. The ability to effectively listen and communicate with residents will undoubtedly continue to play a vital role in ensuring a smooth and safe election process within your county.

Learn how Zencity can help your county ensure safe, secure, and accessible elections.

It’s All About the Money? How Local Governments are Listening to their Residents to Solidify their FY21 Budget

Assaf Frances

Assaf Frances

Director of Urban Policy

What is the Zencity data telling us?

As budget shortfalls impact cities and counties across the country, residents of many local authorities are voicing their opinions and concerns on the matter online. Zencity data indicates residents’ tend to prioritize education and youth programs while citing a need for a more transparent and accessible budget.

Curious to learn where your residents’ priorities lie? Get in touch.

Nearly 9 in 10 US cities are experiencing a budget shortfall due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on their economies. With a projected $360 billion revenue loss over the next three years, unexpected expenditures and little federal support,  local governments need to strategize the use of their budgets effectively in order to continue to provide their communities with services that address their needs. Additionally local governments are facing unavoidable tax hikes to help make up for lost income, leading many residents to further voice their concerns and discontent online. 

On top of all that, unlike ever before, recent protests across the nation have sparked resident interest in their city budgets, particularly regarding police and public safety. This budding interest has resulted in local authorities considering a more transparent and accessible approach to their budget proposals. 

While there is no clear cut solution for city and county leaders to ensure their residents are satisfied with their budget planning, the ability to hear your residents’ voices and address them in an understanding and transparent manner is of the utmost importance in times like these.  

Citizen Engagement and Drivers of Discourse

July 1 signified the start of the fiscal year for the majority of local governments, and many local government leaders have already made unavoidable cuts and adjustments in anticipation of their expected losses over the next few years. With revenue for municipalities generally made up from federal and state governments, municipal fees, and property, sales and income taxes, it is crucial for local authorities to consider their residents’ preferences and standpoints. 

Working with over 150+ local governments across the US, Zencity was able to identify where budget-related discourse was on the rise, or took an interesting turn. Following that, we provided those cities and counties with analysis and insights that highlight  the relevant online public discussions and residents’ reactions to their local government’s proposed budget cuts.

A Zencity Insight for a City in CT​

The finance board in one Connecticut city promised to not raise taxes as a result of the pandemic, requiring the city to decide which city services and departments will need to undergo significant cuts. After analyzing related residents’ online discussions, the city found that there was greater dissatisfaction with some areas of proposed cuts over others. 

  • In response to the proposal of funding cuts to schools, online protests erupted with negative sentiment towards the motion paramount. Similarly, when the local leadership discussed cutting funds to the Youth Services Bureau, this proposition received the highest share of negative sentiment, with residents expressing how huge of a loss it would be to the community. 
  • However, budgetary cuts to the local ice rink received the least amount of objection from residents, indicating that recreational and seasonal services are a good place to start cutting costs. 

A Zencity Insight for a City in FL


Mostly driven by media reports about the budget shortfall and expected property tax raise, residents of a major Florida city voiced their opposition online. Notably, high negative sentiment was approximately 10X times higher than that of positive

  • Many of the critical comments expressed anger that taxes were raised while residents are struggling financially or that residents have to pay higher taxes while receiving fewer services from the city (schools, in particular, were mentioned). In addition, residents demanded that city employees and politicians take a pay cut and that the city be opened back up.

A Zencity Insight for Cities in CA & MA


In light of the current climate in the U.S. towards public safety, specifically as it relates to police departments, many local governments are using police departments as their starting point to make cuts to their FY21 budgets. Despite being on opposite ends of the country, Zencity insights from two cities in California and Massachusetts show similar data trends.

  • Both cities saw an increase in engagement around the topic of defunding their police departments. Many offered an alternative to shift funds from the police departments to areas in education, housing, employment and general city services. 
  • Calls for more transparency and community engagement, as well as questions about how the city budget works were prevalent in both MA and CA. 
  • In both instances, calls for transparency, public engagement, and interest in line items suggest that the heightened concern about the police budget drove further demands for these cities to ensure their budgets align with resident preferences and are made available to them to review and engage on.

Transparency and Engagement Can Lead to Trust

As the examples above indicate, a recurring theme in resident discourse around budget, are requests to make it more transparent, accessible and legible. Across the country, cities which have taken that approach, such as Philadelphia, Oakland, New York City and others, are more likely to gain their residents’ trust and understanding towards what are sure to be difficult  budget years ahead. An even more advanced approach most commonly known in Paris is that of participatory budgeting under which residents of all ages get to engage and vote on how a certain portion of their city’s budget will be spent.

A Data-Driven Approach to Budgeting

Understanding your residents top needs and priorities is critical when outlining the coming years budget. Receiving real-time, ongoing resident discourse data can help to not only back decisions regarding budgeting but also track how these adjustments directly affect the community using sentiment analysis. This allows city and county leaders to respond more proactively to issues that arise and ensure their residents understand the unavoidable hardships of balancing cuts with the continuous provision of quality services.

Find out how this Zencity assessed resident sentiment regarding COVID-19 restrictions, enabling them to strategize effectively, confident in their alignment with residents’ needs.

Positive Rollback – 3 Quick Lessons from California to Promote your Local Businesses and Increase Resident Support

Assaf Frances

Assaf Frances

Director of Urban Policy

Following Governor Newsom’s mandate to shut down indoor business activity, cities that authorized and encouraged outdoor business activity generated 2X positive sentiment amongst residents. 

The recent announcement by California Governor Gavin Newsom about the rollback and closure of indoor operations put many cities under pressure to find quick and innovative ways to balance their residents’ health and safety with that of their local economy; particularly in regards to their restaurants and dining sector.

As you plan and execute initiatives to help keep your local businesses afloat, it’s important to know in real-time what your residents are saying about them and what suggestions and concerns they might have. Zencity can help with that, here’s how. 

Following the announcement, Zencity’s analysis of resident discourse on the issue across 24 California cities revealed that positive sentiment of residents in cities where outdoor business activity was allowed was twice as high compared to sentiment in cities that didn’t take quick action. 

The most popular initiatives launched by California cities we reviewed include:

  1. Offering outdoor spaces for the use of businesses: many cities are offering a temporary permit and/or blocking off vehicular traffic on certain roads, to allow businesses to expand their operations to outdoor spaces. Examples include Pasadena’s On-Street Dining initiative and Chula Vista.
  2. Creating a shared outdoor dining space: some cities are creating a shared space with dining tables for residents to dine outdoors after picking up their meals from nearby restaurants. Examples include Lancaster’s Hot Summer Nights initiative and San Rafael’s Dining Under the Lights program.
  3. Promoting businesses that have outdoor dining: some cities, such as Fairfield, are utilizing their online reach to support local businesses and promote their outdoor dining and curbside pickup.

As we shared back in March, there is ample opportunity for cities to adapt to the constantly changing realities towards their local economies and their needs. Cities creating agile policies and initiatives that address these needs while ensuring COVID safety measures are in place will garner the support of their resident and business communities alike.

Curious to learn what your residents have to say about business initiatives and programs you’re promoting while navigating reopening? Learn more here.

Already a Zencity? Access your Discourse Page to see all the discourse on your local economy. 

Is the Count Half-Full or Half-Empty? How to Adapt Your Census Messaging During Coronavirus

Assaf Frances

Assaf Frances

Director of Urban Policy

Every ten years, the US Census Bureau counts every person in the United States thus enabling government agencies to allocate resources effectively. The last time the census was conducted the nation wasn’t facing an unprecedented global virus; how has this affected this year’s count? On April 18th, the country reached an important Census milestone when half of all households in the U.S. self-responded to the Census. Whether you are a glass-half-full or a glass-half-empty type of person, doesn’t really matter here – for the money to be distributed correctly we still need to reach an accurate count, and that means counting everyone.

The COVID-19 crisis intensified its grip on the U.S just as Census 2020 was about to begin. Months (and even years) of communication and field-ops preparations by the federal, state, county and local governments had to be adjusted as residents’ attention moved almost entirely to the pandemic and social-distancing measures began to prevent in-person events and tallying from taking place. 

If generating engagement with online census content seemed difficult before, during the COVID-19 crisis it became even harder. On the one hand, people are constantly online, tuning in to official sources more than ever. But on the other, residents are currently experiencing an overload of information which means that for non-COVID related content to be seen, it needs to really stand out. This requires Census messaging to be more creative and attention-grabbing as well as be relevant to the context of this new reality. 

Up until last month the bureau had suspended all in-person census surveys until further notice. Currently, a handful of local census offices began to reopen, based on public health guidance and the availability of protective equipment. However, the process is still slow moving and the bureau is continuously updating the operations’ timeline as new guidelines take effect. These changes have and will undoubtedly negatively impact those who are the usual undercounted populations, including the homeless, immigrants, those without a stable address and many more. Therefore, until all field operations commence, and real innovation will be needed to support it, a stronger emphasis than ever needs to be given to the self-response options. 

For census content to cut through the online noise, it needs to be relevant, digestible, engaging, and even a bit humorous. Following are a few tips, resources, and ideas for how to increase awareness to your census content and increase response rate during this time.

Make your coronavirus message relevant and use the right messenger

The large scale impact of COVID-19 actually emphasizes the importance of having an accurate count. For example, Public health experts are currently having to use aggregated Census data to respond to the pandemic. Moreover, Census data impacts funding for hospitals, health services, and facilities as well as various school and after-school programs.

Using these strong arguments in your posts, alongside specific examples of health and educational facilities and programs that would have benefited from an accurate count, could, in turn, increase the understanding of the Census impact.

By analyzing census related interactions and discourse across the Zencity Network of 130+ cities and counties, data indicates that official city sources, and particularly those of Mayors, are leading in generating the most engagement with census content. Government and health officials who are currently at the forefront of communicating with the public about the pandemic should use their channels to disseminate COVID-related census messages. Since most official communications about the crisis are already being translated to other languages, the reach of these messages to different populations would naturally increase.

Additionally, many residents are seeking opportunities to volunteer during the crisis and aid the first responders in their efforts to battle the virus. Cities can acknowledge this need and drive census completion by communicating to residents that filling the census is an easy, essential way to help first responders. Incorporating images of first responders at work with a direct call-to-action should increase engagement even further.

Image Source

Example texts for a post could be:

Messaging at this time needs to also take full advantage of the fact that most people aren’t leaving their homes. Many local authorities are encouraging people to self-respond to the census from home, online or by phone, using infographics and hashtags such as #netflixandfill and #netflixandfillyourcensus

Image Source
Image Source
Image Source
Image Source

Relaying to your community simplified census processes in the context of COVID-19 could help them understand the power of their participation.

Use creative and engaging content to stand out

Census memes and gifs are also a quick and easy way to stand out from heavier and more serious COVID-19 content. Following a contest for Census memes and gifs creation initiated by the bureau, there are plenty of options for you to choose from. Being witty and funny rather than simply informative and formal  will help get people’s attention. These can be used by the city’s official channels and also shared by community partners who are able to use a more relaxed and humorous tone. Be sure to also check out the creatives for the count website, with over 500 census-related pieces.


Finally, now is the time to be more engaging and try to drive organic reach around your content. Sharing with your residents the current local response rate on a city or area/neighborhood level will expose them to the progress and might encourage some to complete it or convince their friends. Some cities are using a ‘challenge’ methodology to get people to pledge they’ve filled out the census and tag their neighbors and friends. Again, going for a light and casual tone rather than a serious one can make the posts much more relatable at this time.

Example texts for a post could be:

Ensuring a complete count is perhaps more critical and challenging than ever before – yet it also presents powerful new opportunities to reach your community. In addition, The Zencity platform allows cities to follow all the Census-related feedback from residents in real-time. By assessing this discourse, you can accurately adjust your content and messaging to address their needs and questions associated with the count. When trying out new and adapted messaging, you can also use Zecnicty to monitor community perception and adapt as necessary. 

Are you a Zencity? Directly access your Census Project here.

Not a Zen-city/county? Learn how we can help you navigate this ‘New Normal’ with our unique Action Plan for cities and counties. Read more. 

Green space, safe space? How cities are managing park usage in this new normal

Assaf Frances

Assaf Frances

Director of Urban Policy

While our economy was mostly shut down for the past couple of months, many of our parks and green spaces remained open to allow people to maintain some sort or normalcy as well as their physical and mental health. In the months to come, it is evident that the “new normal” will take its toll on how we spend our time outdoors and enjoy our green spaces. Accordingly, this will require our local authorities to better regulate parks usage and invest in their quality and accessibility. 

A Zencity analysis of nearly 2M resident discourse data-points from 80 cities across the US indicates that conversations about ‘parks’ are becoming more significant as the COVID-19 pandemic is progressing. As shown in the chart below, the average share of discourse¹ about parks doubled from February to March and then doubled again from March to April – an overall surge of about 400%.


The nature of these conversations (no pun intended, but maybe a little bit) can be segmented into the following subtopics:

  • Those who are pushing their local government to shut down or closely monitor parks in order to avoid potential mass-infections 
  • Those who are confused and frustrated about unclear park policies and regulations (Why can I use the park but not the playground? Am I allowed to walk my dog in the park? Do I need to wear a mask while exercising outdoors? etc.)  
  • Those who advocate to keep parks open in order to maintain a certain quality of life

The sentiment distribution of these conversations over time points to a decrease in positive park-related discourse, with the most significant decrease (of 9 percentage points) evident between March and April. Nonetheless, both these data sets point to the fact that citizens across the nation are occupied with the issue of parks and open spaces and are expecting their cities to find the right balance between protecting them and enabling them to enjoy the outdoors. 

There is no doubt by now that our parks and open spaces are going to play a critical role in the global recovery process from the coronavirus pandemic (see NRPA’s path to recovery guidelines as an example). Parks, and even simply the abundance of tree canopy, have long been praised for their physical and mental health benefits. In fact, many of the more well-known urban parks were originally planned for health purposes, providing refuge and fresh(er) air to city dwellers as ‘urbanscapes’ went through heavy industrialization. A more recent cost-benefit analysis of investment in parks and open trails found that every dollar spent on creating and maintaining park trails saves about $3 in healthcare expenses; a ratio that is now potentially growing.

As current research is drawing more and more correlation between air pollution and the severity of the disease outbreak, the importance of providing residents with better-quality green and open spaces is resurfacing. In a response to that, cities need to act fast and lead adaptive park management initiatives and policies. They also need to be sure to allocate part of their recovery funding to support better parks and green spaces as vital urban infrastructure in the years to come.

Regulate and Monitor Use of Parkland

Releasing clear guidelines and highlighting regulations as for how to use parks and green spaces during this time is of utmost importance. This messaging  should be available and visible as part of a city’s communication plan as well as directly in its parks. Cities can get creative with how they deliver their messaging to help increase visibility and engagement. For example, the city of Pittsburgh created a visually appealing infographic for its residents. NRPA and the World Urban Parks Program have also collected other great examples for cities to draw inspiration from. Providing hand washing and sanitation stations in and around parks, as did the city of Asheville and city of Victoria, may also contribute to maintaining people’s hygiene while outdoors as long as they can be carefully maintained, so that they don’t become a hygienic hazard instead.  

In cities such as Los Angeles, overcrowding of open spaces and non-compliance with such guidelines unfortunately forced the city to shut down most of them. This led many Angelinos to flock to nearby cities and brought up the need for unified regional and even mega regional policies in order to protect residents and reduce infections. This notion of regulating and monitoring the movement of people within and between states should take into account people’s inevitable need to enjoy the outdoors and green space available to them.  


Smart Management of Supply and Demand

However, it is important to consider the potential that shutting down green spaces to stop the spread could be harmful in the medium to long run. “People are realizing what we’ve been saying all along which is that parks are not nice to have; parks are must-haves. Parks are essential services” said Phil Ginburg, GM at San Francisco Recreation and Parks in a recent webinar. This growth in demand is leading local authorities who decided not to shut down their parks, to act fast and provide residents with a supply of more open space to use, starting within and around their green spaces. 

Cities such as Portland, Vancouver, Denver and Cleavland have all closed off some of their parks to car traffic allowing for more walking, jogging and cycling space, desperately needed to avoid overcrowding. Other cities, for the time being, have reclaimed entire roads from cars  as part of the effort to enable better physical distancing. In Paris, Mayor Hidalgo intends to make this type of “new normal” – the long term normal, as is the city of Milan.

Image Source

To support current needs, several cities have also repurposed some of their parks facilities. In Los Angeles, 42 park centers are accommodating 6,000 shelter beds for the homeless and are functioning as temporary quarantine areas. In San Francisco, recreation centers were turned into childcare facilities for low-income families and healthcare workers during the pandemic.

Creative Accessibility

As mentioned before, accessibility to green spaces is key in this equation. According to the Trust for Public Land, across the U.S, 100 million people do not have access to a park within a 10-minute walk from their home – a number the organization and its partners are strongly advocating to reduce, especially now. In NYC, the Parks Without Borders program, set off back in the pandemic-free world of 2015, now becomes even more needed than before. The program’s aim is to increase accessibility to green spaces by extending the beauty of parks into surrounding communities and transforming underused spaces in their vicinity. 

Cities such as Philadelphia and whole regions such as Ontario, Canada have deemed community gardens and urban farms as essential services during COVID-19 as part of the understanding that not everyone has immediate access to a big park. These declarations are of course coupled with regulations to keep physical distancing in place.

Image Source

To further enhance accessibility, this is also the time to promote and invest in more creative and unusual green spaces. Green roofs, public-private spaces between buildings, plazas and intersections, parking lots and parking spaces can all be repurposed, whether temporarily or permanently, to accommodate the lack of adequate green space. These initiatives aren’t novel, they are simply more critical now than before, when our neighbourhoods need to provide us with the majority of our needs. Cities and their community partners need to be sure to invest in promoting these ideas as part of their recovery plans.

Image Source

Design for Health

Finally, our ultimate goal should be to look at the design and planning of our cities and parks as a whole through a public health lens. In London, a masterplan for healthy streets was devised long before the pandemic hit and will now be promoted at a faster pace.  Its emphasis is on quality public spaces and streets that prioritize pedestrians and cyclists while incorporating natural and green infrastructure. Our urban parks and greenways have always played a part in the support system for our physical and mental health and wellbeing. They will continue to do so after this pandemic if we invest in their availability and accessibility and design them to be usable and adaptable to scenarios such as this.

As local government leaders continue to discuss the reopening of services, businesses and public spaces in the wake of COVID-19, residents continue to express confusion and a need for clear and concise communication. Recently, Zencity analyzed resident discourse on the topic of reopening. For actionable insights on the matter, read the full report

If you would like to learn more about how Zencity’s 130+ city/county network is leveraging our technology to handle their COVID-19 response management and using its insights to make informed decisions as new virus regulations emerge, visit our Coronavirus Action Plan Page.

¹The variable “average share of discourse” is used to describe volume of discourse in a way that is not affected by the varied levels of discourse in cities of different size.

How are Zencities Getting Ready for Census 2020?

Assaf Frances

Assaf Frances

Director of Urban Policy

Census 2020 is right around the corner and local authorities are gearing up for the biggest count of the decade!

To help your city evaluate and refine its approach to the 2020 Census, Zencity’s Urban Policy team spoke with some of its partners in 10 cities across the country (in combination with additional research). Below you will find a breakdown of Census 2020 innovative strategies and best practices, plus expected challenges and ways to resolve them.

Who is leading the Census 2020 efforts?

leading census 2020

Mayors and City Managers are of course highly invested in the success of the census in their city. Yet in practice, in most of the cities that we spoke with, including Sanford FL, Pearland TX, and San Marcos CA, the communications department plays the main execution role. Typically, this department is in charge of the Census outreach efforts and usually leads the city’s Complete Count Committee (CCC). In other cities such as Houston, TX and Palmdale, CA the Planning Department is leading the way. 

Nonetheless, the census is a municipal effort involving many other city departments, particularly those which are formally resident-facing. These city units are crucial, as they can rely on their well-established relationships with different communities, particularly with the hard to count populations (HTCP), to mobilize hyper-local advocacy for the census. Examples of this effort delegation in the cities that we spoke with, can be seen in the Community Development Department in Pearland, TX and the Public Engagement Division at the Mayor’s Office in Beaverton, OR.

Many cities are also adding census content and activities to various city events, and providing departments such as Parks and Rec, Public Works and more with census materials for their establishments (recreation and senior centers etc.) and resident-facing operations. As an example, the Public Works Department in Beaverton OR, will have the census campaign covering their vehicles. Palmdale, CA will also implement a campaign where the garbage trucks will be labeled with a large Census 2020 message. Libraries are also dominant census advocates and in many cities act as a leading facilitator by providing residents with internet access and assistance in filling out the questionnaire.

Who are cities partnering with outside of city hall, and how?

census 2020 partners


Census 2020 is all about collaboration and sharing. If you want to maximize participation, we recommend looking beyond internal capabilities. Particularly, the cities we spoke to noted a reinforced relationship between them and their respective counties. Cities such as Sanford FL, Fontana CA, and Beaverton OR, are relying in part on their county and other cities within it, for messaging, outreach materials, and funds so that resources can be pooled together and better spent. The city of Houston, TX shared that, “in 2010 we treated the census as an election campaign – we walked blocks, we shook hands, we kissed babies – and we realized there was no coordination with the county, they were coming to the same events… we knew we had to work in synchrony this time, and it’s working”. This is emphasized in the fact that  the Complete Count Committee for Harris County and Houston is headed by both the Mayor and the County Judge. 

Census Bureau

Another great strategic partner for your city is the Census Bureau itself. In our research, multiple cities had openly commended the bureau for improving tremendously from 2010. To ensure greater impact on this year’s census efforts, the Bureau’s online archive of materials is rich with relevant and easy-to-use content.

Community Groups and Organizations

Equally significant, many cities recognize that they must partner and support local, grassroots, faith and/or community-based organizations that have a closer relationship with the HTCP and are considered to be trusted voices in these communities. Examples of successful partnerships and support programs can be seen in cities such as Phoenix AZ, Philadelphia PA, and New York City, which award and fund such organizations for their help with direct Census outreach. More Ad-hoc relationships are also an excellent option. A great example of an impactful approach to ad-hoc partnerships can be seen  between the city of Beaverton, OR and APANO (the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon). The city invited an APANO representative to work directly from their offices and help with outreach efforts on a regular basis. This way, the city is able to consult with APANO regularly and the organization’s representative becomes a part of the larger strategic scheme for the Census.

In another case, the City of San Marcos is partnering with the National Latino Research Center to enlist their help with understanding how to best enable their Latino residents to share their information. In Houston, the city’s main partner is ‘Houston in Action’, a long-established local organization committed to increasing civic engagement and public participation. The organization released a census tool-kit that has plenty of relevant and usable materials for cities everywhere.

School Districts

School districts and schools themselves are also strategic partners when it comes to increasing census participation. In Beaverton OR, the city is planning to get the school districts’ help in reaching foreign-born and immigrant families through their children. In Houston TX, a peer-to-peer program enables high-school kids specifically to design the ‘right’ messages themselves and then serve as messengers back at home and in their community. Similarly, In Palmdale, CA, the city is working closely with the school districts on the state curriculum – a lesson plan for 5th, 8th, 11th and 12th grade so that kids can be better informed about the facts.

What is the message and who is the ‘best’ messenger for Census 2020?

census 2020 messaging

Not surprisingly, “Count” is the most dominant word in all Census 2020 campaigns. Its variations and translations will soon dominate websites, social media posts, billboards, newspapers, radio, TV and Movie infomercials as well as hot air balloons (visit Houston, TX if you want to see it). Many cities, including San Marcos, CA and Sanford, FL, have also created comprehensive organic and paid digital marketing campaigns. This type of messaging aims to connect people to the bigger picture, their civic duty, representation and the impact being counted or not counted will have on their city and their daily life. Civis Analytics ran a very interesting experiment that tested 4 types of these messages and assessed their expected impact on response rate. The report revealed that the ‘Civic Duty’ message was the most impactful in getting people to respond to Census 2020. 

Tailored Messaging with the Help of Focus Groups

Most cities realize that a good Census 2020 campaign needs to be multifaceted, multi-lingual and tailored to the countless variations of communities that it is trying to reach and influence. Houston and Harris County’s consultant ran several focus groups in different communities to understand which message resonates best and who would be the best messengers to convey them. “We needed to identify the considerations that would move someone to fill or not fill out the census, what are the motivations, fears, and how are the trusted voices make a difference in the community”. They realized that in many Asian communities, representatives of community centers and religious institutions are considered more convincing than formal governmental entities. They also learned that immigrant and non-citizen groups often associate fear with the Census, thus necessitating a tailoring in messaging.

Message Distribution

You can craft the “best message” for increasing Census participation, yet if you do not follow through with effective delivery, distribution, and messengers then the message will quickly get lost. Word of mouth and the trusted voices in each community will play a big role in getting the hard to count, counted. To understand who those people might be, thorough groundwork is required; walking the neighbourhoods, talking to people and connecting with key figures. In many cities, educational figures are known to be trusted the most to convey messages to children and their parents. In other places, they are specific shopkeepers, hairdressers and others who have long-lasting, daily and non-conventional encounters with residents. Bringing those messengers on-board is crucial for your campaign’s success. If your city didn’t have the time/resources to conduct this research far in advance, try utilizing the bureau-organized design-based workshop. It can provide great insights and practical solutions in a short time.

Cities’ concerns and solutions surrounding Census 2020

census 2020 questions and concerns

The Hard to Count Populations

Unmistakably, the main concern of cities is not having a correct 2020 count- in particular an undercount of the HTCP. There are several contributing issues to this concern, the primary two being: misinformation and disinformation. Specifically, cities have noticed significant misinformation and disinformation around privacy, cybersecurity and things like the ‘citizenship question saga’. Although these topics have never made it into the questionnaire, they are still causing harm to census count success. Other issues include:

  • Misplaced communities (such as those in Houston’s post-hurricane Harvey) which will be harder to reach.
  • The inherent digital divide that naturally excludes the hardest of the HTCP from answering online and the coinciding campaigns.
  • Debates leading up to the presidential elections which can cause a “messaging mess” around issues of immigration, citizenship and more.

First Online Count

The fact that this census will also take place online presents new opportunities for cities that were not available before. This will allow cities to follow and respond in realtime to where the count is progressing slower than it should. In Houston, the city is planning to monitor the data each morning and revise their strategy and actions accordingly to get the numbers up on a tract basis. Many cities, including San Marcos, Palmdale, and Phoenix are planning to have stationary and mobile Census kiosks. In the first phase (January and February) the kiosks will continue with education efforts, while during the census itself the kiosks will assist people in filling out the questionnaire correctly. 

Mis and Dis Information

When it comes to ‘mis&dis’ information the best strategy is simply constant census education. “Flooding” the channels with the right information should help drown out any potential rumors. Furthermore, arming your residents with this information in advance will turn them into natural advocates. That being said, information regarding the census might be considered dull by many. Some cities are taking a more playful approach, trying to make it fun and exciting. In Palmdale CA, bingo games in libraries and community centres are planned to engage the community and educate them regarding census facts.

Facebook and other social media channels such as Twitter and Youtube are also going to be helpful in the monitoring online rumors and discouragements to answer the census. Following events from the previous presidential elections, Facebook had pledged to ban ads that portray taking part in the census as useless or meaningless, including any misleading information. The question of how will organic posts, as well as comments, be monitored and removed, remains to be answered.

Census 2020 and Zencity

Bear in mind that strategically selecting and refining your Census 2020 initiatives are just the beginning. A city could create the most “innovative” Census 2020 project, yet release it without any ability to assess its full impact. Tracking your Census 2020 efforts and understanding which are “working” better for your community should be a priority within any city’s census playbook. As a Zencity partner city, you can obtain real-time insights from the Zencity platform on what your residents actually think about your Census 2020 campaign. As interactions regarding the census start accumulating on the dashboard, you will have a better understanding of how discourse and sentiment around the census change over time. 

Moreover, by building specific projects in the dashboard, you can track the performance and effectiveness of your specific outreach campaigns and adjust messaging on the fly.  Zencity’s insights and special curated reports will also allow cities to learn from best practice and resources elsewhere and tailor them to their situation. For the full list of how Zencity can help with census efforts, check out our guide.

Not one of our partner cities but want to learn more about how our technology can help your city? Book a personalized demo with one of our local government specialists.