$6 Million In Series A Funding Will Help Bring Artificial Intelligence To Smart Cities

Eyal Feder-Levy

Eyal Feder-Levy

CEO & Co-Founder

I’m thrilled to announce that we have finalized our Series A investment of $6 million, led by Vertex Ventures with participation by M12, Microsoft’s venture fund, and our existing investor, Canaan Partners Israel (CPI). This round comes exactly one year after our seed round, and brings our total investment to $7.7 million. I’m super excited to welcome our amazing new partners, Vertex and M12, to join us on our journey in improving life in cities.

I’m also incredibly proud of our extraordinary team, whose hard work and dedication paved the way to this great milestone, and grateful to our city partners across the world, who, more than anyone, have shaped our product.

Our Mission To Create Change in Smart Cities

Raising a Series A is a significant milestone, but for us – this is just the beginning.

We are on a journey to revolutionize the way cities are managed, and the relationship between cities and citizens. The potential impact that Zencity can have is huge and there’s a lot of good work to be done.

This is a mission that we should all care about – today, while cities spend hundreds of millions of dollars in public funding annually providing services and executing projects, they struggle to connect with residents and to assess the impact and quality of the services they provide.

Traditional tools available for gathering resident feedback, such as surveys and town hall meetings, don’t provide cities with wide-scale, granular, real-time data. This stops cities from being data driven, and makes it harder for them to improve and be more efficient.

And that is what we are here to change. Zencity’s solution helps close the gap between the city and its citizens, enabling local governments to collect and incorporate real, citizen-backed data into decision making. Zencity does this by continuously aggregating and analyzing resident-generated data points from sources such as social media and city hotlines. We then use advanced AI algorithms to transform this mass of unstructured data into real-time and ongoing insights through sentiment analysis, automated topic categorization, geolocation, and more.

We Have Come so Far

In doing so, we help local governments better understand wide-scale community feedback, and making data-smart decisions. We also ensure that cities can really hear the multitude of their residents’ voices.

I’m proud to say that our inspiring local government partners have already reaped exciting benefits using the platform, including fiscal savings, better communication with city residents, and more data-driven planning. If you want to learn more, hop on to the use-cases section of our website.

One of our biggest achievements over the last year has been our rapid growth in the US. In less than a year, we’ve added 15 cities to our platform – from towns of 10K residents to a city of 1.5M. I see this as a testament to how dedicated cities areto connecting with and understanding their citizens’ needs, and to the commitment that the incredible public servants in local government have to being more data-driven.

Artificial Intelligence Solutions Tailored for Cities 

As I said, while this has been an exciting year, this is all just the start. As more and more cities get on board with our solution, the exciting potential of AI in local government becomes even more evident. With our new funding, we will be spending the months ahead building out exciting new capabilities that will allow us to collect more accurate and in depth feedback, analyze more types of data, and most exciting – share information back out to the communities living in cities.

I’m sure these capabilities will set a new standard for the way cities are managed, and for what relationship between cities and their residents could look like.

If you’re excited by what we’re doing – we are looking for great partners in this journey. If you’re a city, request your demo today: 

Looking for a job? Check out our career page

Cheers,
Eyal

3 Main Takeaways From The US Conference Of Mayors

Eyal Feder-Levy

Eyal Feder-Levy

CEO & Co-Founder

The Zencity team and I recently had the honor and privilege of participating in the 86th US Conference of Mayors in Washington DC. Alongside over 200 mayors, we were able to discuss the challenges American cities are facing today, and highlight the role data analytics can play in city-making.

Meeting Representatives of 1,408 Cities in America

The United States Conference of Mayors itself is the official non-partisan organization of US cities above 30,000. Twice a year, they hold an in-person meeting, and throughout the year, they work together on initiatives, policy papers and more, shaping local and national urban policy. We were inspired by dozens and dozens of Mayors that we met and learned from all over the country – Flint, Oakland, Miami, Tacoma, Baton Rouge – the list goes on.

The conference was a unique opportunity for us to be part of the discussion about the challenges cities in the country are facing.

Struggles Lie Not Just on the City Level

Here are our main takeaways:

  1. It’s really about the local. Throughout our conversations, the overarching truth that stood out to us was that local is what matters most. When we built Zencity as a group of urban enthusiasts, we focused on the city because this is where our personal and professional passions lie, but the Conference reaffirmed to us that this is also where the future lies. Today, at a time of growing challenges on the national and international level, the buck stops at the local government,and regardless of partisan affiliation, cities must deal with (and are dealing with) the real and metaphorical “potholes” thrown their way. 
  2. The struggle is real. The challenges US Mayors and their city managers face are present and growing. Mayors are dealing with the classic pains of urban governance like providing services and maintaining infrastructure, confounded by broader, national challenges like immigration. But, the Conference also affirmed that these challenges can and are being overcome. 
  3. Now is the time for good data. At Zencity, we strongly believe the first step to dealing with the challenges cities are facing is to understand them. Cities need good data, and they need to know how to analyze, work with and extrapolate meaningful information from good data. It’s from this lens that we see great initiatives, like What Works Cities, which announced it’s first certified cohort at the conference, and of course our own technology — helping cities understand citizen needs.

Looking forward to this summer at the next Mayor’s Conference in Boston!

Welcome To The Urban Revolution

Eyal Feder-Levy

Eyal Feder-Levy

CEO & Co-Founder

Last week I gave a short talk about current and future trends in Smart Cities in the Forbes under 30 Summit in Jerusalem. Here is what I had to say:

The reason I became so interested in Smart Cities in the past few years is simple — basically, we, as a society are going through two great revolutions. The first, which most of the speakers today will mention, is the information revolution. I’m guessing you’re all pretty much aware of that, and if not — google it and experience it first hand. But the second, less known one — is the urban revolution.

Today, more than 50% of the people live in cities. This is an interesting fact for two reasons — first, it’s a relatively new one. It happened for the first time in history around four years ago. Second, it’s part of an exponential trend — meaning that by 2030 more than 70% of the people will live in cities. Combine it with projected population growth and you’ve got more than 6 billion city dwellers in less than 20 years.

This means that cities are fast becoming the human habitat of the 21st century. It also means that almost every human challenge (and opportunity) can essentially be reduced down to an urban one — cities are the source for most of the pollution, wealth gaps, economic value and political turmoil. In order to understand society and address its challenges — we need to look at cities.

Are Smart Cities “Smart” Enough

This also means that cities are becoming larger and more and more complex, and that’s where smart cities have come in in the last few years. Smart cities are basically cities that use the amazing tools of digital technology, data collection and connectivity, to address their challenges and create value. The abstract model is fairly simple — let’s collect a lot of real time data about our city, analyze it, and run it “better” using the insights we get. This approach has created some cool innovations over the past few years, mostly in the city’s infrastructure. Some great examples include smart trash bins, that tell the trucks what bins are full and use advances routing algorithms to create an optimized route, smart traffic control systems that change the lights according to traffic and so on.

But this first generation of “smart” technologies suffers from a few major problems. Apart from the fact that these hardware based solutions are very expensive, and therefore are out of reach for most cities around the world, most of these technologies only create incremental changes in different areas of city management, but they do not disrupt the core urban issuesThe reason, in my opinion, is that they are not touching on the most complex element of the city — the people themselves.

Smart Cities Put Citizens First

My Master’s thesis advisor, Prof. Juval Portugali, used to always say that when you take the people out of a city, you turn it from a complex system to a simple one. and that is exactly what smart city technologies today are lacking. With all of the smart data collection capabilities, cities and people remain disconnected. The citizens are out of the Smart City loop — they do not have access to the the incredible amounts of data collected and lack the real ability to contribute data and voice their opinions. Cities, on the other hand, while collecting data on almost everything else, remain blind about their citizens actual and desired use of the city.

There is a reason why this has not been addressed by the first wave of Smart City technology — no doubt that tackling these challenges is difficult. But for a city to truly become “Smart”, the citizens have to be a part — whether we look at people and their smartphones as the largest network of sensors in any city, consider the amazing contextual data we can collect from people who are willing to share it, or see the amazing opportunity in people getting the data and services they need where and wen they need them to make cities much more livable.

That is exactly what we are doing at Zencity — we create digital platforms that provide people with real-time contextual data and services about their city. For example, one of our add-ons sends you a push notification with real time bus data when you reach the station along with some personalized information and services while you wait.

Data That Humanizes the City

But that’s no enough — we use people’s interaction with the data to provide local governments with meaningful insights about the human aspects of their city — allowing it to be planned and managed by considering human factors.

This is a great win-win situation:

  • People get personalized, contextual data and services that revolutionize their urban experience
  • Cities get meaningful insights about people’s actual and desired use of the city
  • And a new form of interaction, channel of communication is opened between all different agents to create a more open and collaborative city

So far we’ve done two pilot programs with Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv, and next month we intend to roll out our main beta in a few cities around Israel.

Digital technology is an amazing and powerful tool, and we need to decide — do we want to use it to make cities more centralized and big brother-y or more open and citizen-oriented.

We have the choice, and this is the time to steer the ship in the right direction. We believe our platform can play a part in this important change.

Why Nobody’s Using Your City App, And Why This Should Matter

Eyal Feder-Levy

Eyal Feder-Levy

CEO & Co-Founder

Recently I had the pleasure of lecturing about data, technology and cities to top tier executives of a major municipality in Israel. Towards the end of the talk, I showed a few examples of Israeli city apps, and argued that they are very poorly designed, and therefore underused. This sparked a very interesting conversation with this municipality’s CIO, who invited me to provide a critical view of their app. I decided to get right on it – after all, how often do you get a public official’s open invitation for criticism?

Rather than getting back to her in writing or conversation, I decided I’m going to publish all my findings and thoughts in a blog post. After all, we in Zencity love cities and data, and we think our findings and thoughts might be useful to other cities as well.  

First, some interesting data: 

About 50 of Israel’s 247 municipalities offer a city app on the iTunes Appstore and/or Google Play. An impressive number, considering the fact that municipalities can usually spend IT budgets only on necessities. I find this figure encouraging: it seems that local government officials do want to engage their citizens, and seek solutions to enable their municipalities to be better connected to citizens. 

However, if you ask around your friends if they’re aware of their municipal app, they’d probably say no, and even if they’ve downloaded it and used it, it was probably only once. 

To corroborate this, here are some statistics of apps of a few Israeli municipalities, and their estimated downloads (mind you, these are not actual uses):

The above figures serve as an indication that something’s clearly not working. Even in the case of outliers such as Tel Aviv, and, arguably, Ra’anana and Givatayim, you’d think that more than a fraction of the population actually cares about what’s going on in their neighborhood or would want to fix something that’s not right. If that wasn’t the case, municipalities would not deploy public services or the city hotline (“moked 106” in Israel – 311 in the States).

Why are there such low download / usage rates of city apps?

Here is my analysis: 

A) Cramming:

Take a look at the average Israeli municipal app. It has everything, and I do mean everything put into it, and for to best intentions. So, we have the Mayor’s blessing and the city’s YouTube channel, next to the bill pay service and the 106 city hotline. If we assign priorities to every screen from a citizen’s perspective, we could easily leave in only important ones. 

B) In-cohesiveness:

The Israeli apps do contain many interfaces to the municipality. Some, as mentioned before, are more critical. Therefore, it’s beyond my comprehension why for some of these, like payments, users are then shoved back to the non-mobile-friendly website of the municipality, where they have to struggle with very small fonts that don’t fit their 10-20 cm screens. If you want people using your website, why build an app, and if you want them to keep using your app, why throw them back to the website? 

C) Cloning (city-side):

Take a look at the 4 different screenshots around the post. Notice they all look the same? Now, as software professionals, we do believe in copying and reusing what’s working. But why copy models that clearly don’t work? We, the citizens, are not clones. Cities are not clones – they each have different priorities and different goals for the app (some may want to have it to reduce the calls to their city hotline, others may want to promote events and offer easy payments). Cities are different, so should be their apps. 

D) Cloning (citizens-side):

Now, assuming all your users or citizens, are clones, is even worse. True, they might all have some functions that are common, but as a city government, you do realize that bachelors living in your city, young families, the elderly and even local businesses, all have different needs. An ideal app should reflect at least some change according to the user’s group.  

What to do in order to increase your City App’s usage and realize your municipality’s goals?

The advice is simple, and may actually be applicable also to non-municipal apps: 

  • Know your goals: Why are you deploying a municipal app? What do you consider a success? What functionality gets the top priority in your view?
  • Design by your goals: Only the main functionality should be on the main screen
  • Keep it cohesive: What starts in the app, should stay in the app, including payments and information search
  • Keep it simple: The main user scenarios (“report something to the hotline / search for a department’s phone number / get updated on the news”) should not be more than a few taps/swipes and one screen away, at all times.
  • Update users with relevant information: Use user notification sparingly, and if possible, in relevance to the user, and get rewarded by people actually coming back to use the app.
  • Always leave room for user feedback: Review your app’s Google Play / iTunes page, and leave a “contact us” form in the app, to know what your users care about. More advanced users should monitor analytics to see what got tapped on most often.
  • Consider about the user’s point of view: What should be her main association thinking about using the app? Try and have your app do mostly that. If different users have different associations (one is thinking about hotline reporting and another about bill payments or kindergarten registration) consider having different layouts or even different apps altogether for different services.

 We honestly believe in scaling things that work – why scale things that clearly don’t? We hope to start seeing awesome city apps out there. In fact, we just might have one in the works. If your city is interested in building a better city app –  contact us

Lastly – a thank you to my friends and colleagues – Yogev Sharvit and Dr. Tehilla-Schwartz Altschuer, who helped with opinions and data, and Eyal Feder, my cofounder who incentivized my writing and provided his wise perspectives.