Zencity Goes Live in Houston: An Interview with Houston CIO Jesse Bounds

Inbal Naveh Safir

Inbal Naveh Safir

Director of Strategy & Communications

 Exactly one year ago, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner announced his vision to not just become a smart city, but to become the smart city. “We must leap, not stroll into the future. We must sprint, not jog. It will be this city that will be the Smart City of the world,” he said.

Mayor Tuner’s plan to transform the US’s 4th largest city – perhaps better known for its energy, health care and aerospace industries – into a global leader in innovation came on the heels of Hurricane Harvey and a visit to Israel, where he learned about the country’s start-up boom. Both occasions inspired the Mayor to partner with tech-giant and smart city leader Microsoft to understand just how to do this – an announcement which made major news in May 2018. Now, one year in, the Mayor’s initiative is fully underway and Zencity is honored to be part of the program. The City of Houston will use Zencity to benchmark the community effect of all of its different new smart city initiatives, and measure resident sentiment about them.

We invited Jesse Bounds, the Chief Innovation Officer for the City of Houston who is helping to roll out the city’s expansive smart-efforts, to help us understand the Mayor’s vision, how Zencity plays a role, and how the City is engaging with residents about its major tech overhaul.

So how exactly did Hurricane Harvey and a visit to Israel influence the Mayor’s strategic efforts for the City of Houston?

Jesse: These two things created urgency for the Mayor. First, when he visited Israel, part of his exposure to the tech and startup-ecosystems there involved being shown a map of tech hubs around the world. Houston, he noticed, wasn’t on the map. Houston might be the 4th largest city in the US, but we were the 31st in terms of venture capital investment. We were also ranked outside of the top 20 in terms of tech startups. The Mayor saw this as a wake-up call that something needed to change. He named a task force, launched “Houston Exponential” to support innovation in the City, and much more.

 The other was certainly Hurricane Harvey. The mantra after Harvey was “build forward, not back” and so part of this is building not just a smart city, but a resilient city with model solutions. Today we’ve succeeded in doing that.

What did this urgency lead to? We’re building an innovation district now, launching a host of cool initiatives, and of course – our partnership with Microsoft.

What was the final push to bring in a big player like Microsoft?

Jesse: A few things. First, the Mayor knew he wanted to lead by example. This meant not just transforming the city into an innovation hub, but that City Hall itself should adopt technology and model the kind of growth we’re looking for – so the city itself could lead by example. Additionally, the Mayor recognized that a lot of city departments were already doing really great things, but there wasn’t a central inventory of our smart city initiatives or a thread to tie them together. The Mayor brought in Microsoft who helped us do a tremendous job of surveying the city and understanding what solutions are needed, and then developing a comprehensive approach to growing our smart city program. And of course, Zencity has been an essential component of that program.

What role does Zencity play in your broader smart city vision?

Jesse: Our first initiatives are all very high-profile. We’ve intentionally selected projects that are very visible – like free Wi-Fi on Houston Metro buses and trains. We want to engage the public and we want them to see the benefit of our initiatives. The goal with Zencity is to benchmark how community members think about all of the different smart city projects we are rolling out. The purpose is two-fold. It’s a way for us to potentially identify additional expenditures, but also to let us know the impact on the community of all of our different smart city initiatives.

In addition, Zencity will play a critical role in city programs. For example, Complete Communities, the mayor’s initiative for providing equitable services to all  neighborhoods.

 As part of Complete Communities, the Mayor has identified for improvement five underserved neighborhoods in Houston – including the neighborhood where he was born and raised, and still lives today. The program leverages government, non-profit and private industry resources to improve the neighborhoods for those who want to continue to live there and to attract even more resources to those areas. It started with engaging residents about improvements they consider crucial.

 A key factor of success is not just engaging with residents and listening to the community, but being able to measure whether we’re actually having an impact and knowing that we’re listening to the entire community. That’s where we’re really excited about Zencity, which will help us to quantify and measure impact, as well as help indicate what community sentiment is around the different interventions.

So what is the City of Houston doing to communicate its efforts to the public and engage with residents about its new tech initiatives?

Jesse: Communicating with the public about technology is tough and it’s a hurdle we’re still trying to overcome. Smart City Technology isn’t something that they’re particularly interested in, and the best technologies are usually blind to the eye anyway – they’re keeping us safe or getting us to where we need to go faster. In addition to launching very appealing and visible projects, we’ve launched a website to showcase all the projects and made marketing our smart city efforts a real key area that we want to focus on.

Zencity also plays a role here. It can help us understand what’s effective in terms of messaging – how are we getting the message about technology across to our residents? How are they understanding the city’s efforts in addition to experiencing them? In what communities are the city’s messages resonating differently? Zencity will play an important role in measuring community impact, and how inclusive our engagement around our new initiatives is.

The Top 5 City Tech Trends To Watch Out For In 2019

Inbal Naveh Safir

Inbal Naveh Safir

Director of Strategy & Communications

Smart City development isn’t just about boosting technology for technology’s sake.

The bottom line for every Smart City tech solution should be solving real problems and improving the lives of residents. Cities are embracing the digital revolution of citizen engagement and leveraging the interconnectivity that plays a relevant role in residents’ lives – through GovTech, Civic Tech, and Smart City Tech. Local government agencies around the globe are recognizing that the key to effective Smart City technology involves so much more than just great technology (although that’s certainly important too!). Rather, it’s about identifying and implementing the right technology solution to improve operational efficiency and enhance the satisfaction and quality of life for residents.

So what are the top 5 Smart City trends to keep an eye on as 2019 kicks off to a start? Here’s what we’re placing our bets on.

Trend 1 – Making Our Cities Safe(r)

Improving public safety is a top issue in Smart City pilot programs currently in place across the U.S. And after the school shootings and wildfires of 2018, we’re especially grateful for all those who are on the front lines, making our cities safer for all of us. So we’re excited about anything that helps the police officers, firefighters, and others who dedicate their lives to our safety.

In its 2018 Strategic Directions report, Black & Veatch pointed out that there are an estimated 20 Safe City pilot programs in the U.S., in addition to similar programs in cities around the world. The benefits of these kinds of programs include improved crime fighting and, in particular, safer conditions for first responders. For example, a public safety system can alert a police officer responding to a call that a specific address is the site of drug activity or the home of a previously convicted criminal.

But the trend we’re identifying in safety technology is that it’s being used on all levels of community life, not just in emergency situations. For example, check out the RFID (radio frequency identification tags) technology developed at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In the smart, interconnected cities of the future, RFID tags have the potential to save lives, as the tags could be inserted in children’s or cyclist’s clothing so that if, for example, a child wandered on to a road or a cyclist entered a busy intersection, it would trigger signals and help keep people safe.

In a very different application of cutting-edge technology to improve public safety, AI tech in cities is often used to mitigate traffic density, but, according to Smartcity.press, the focus should be on leveraging this technology for accident prevention. For example, sensors installed in parking lots, on traffic signals, and at intersections could integrate AI in collecting useful information that can help governments plan city initiatives more efficiently. Examples include analyzing huge amounts of raw data to track the number of vehicles, pedestrians, or other kinds of movement at a particular intersection and keeping track of their speeds, carrying out face recognition, reading license plates, and processing any satellite data to establish patterns that can be used to inform city planning.

Trend 2 – Looking Out for the Elderly

As baby boomers are aging, the elderly are becoming the largest segment of the population, meaning cities need to find new ways to meet their needs. Innovative applications and cutting-edge technological solutions can provide both the elderly and the disabled with unprecedented independence – and a better quality of life. We believe 2019 will bring increased city efforts to find specific tech solutions for their aging residents.

For example, autonomous cars have tremendous potential in helping folks get around, giving them greater independence and mobility. The Conversation describes the extent of the potential change: the majority of people with a physical mobility impairment are currently reliant on others to help them travel; self-driving cars – and the more economic option of self-driving shuttles, would enable these individuals to travel independently, even far from home.

On a different track, a creative initiative by Nesterly combats the loneliness of elderly individuals living alone with a win-win proposition: using an intuitive, easy-to-use online platform for the “matchmaking,” it makes it simple for households to share an extra room with a young person, and to exchange basic help with grocery shopping, dog walking, or tech support for lower rent. We love this example which fuses technology with the sharing economy to potentially make a huge difference in the quality of life of the elderly, while tackling affordable housing at the same time.

Trend 3 – Making Us Food

The UN estimates that the world population will increase by 47 percent to 8.9 billion by 2050. The production in agriculture must double in the next 30 years to be able to sustain this population growth but at the same time, the amount of arable lands is decreasing.

This means that cities – where an increasing percentage of the world population resides – need to step up their game and find the best technological solutions to solve their problems. As part of Smart City planning, we think that in 2019 cities will begin identifying alternatives to conventional farming methods – alternatives that will give cities more control and the ability to grow their crops. The logic here is simple: cities are the ones who will need to deal with potential food shortages, and therefore it’s City Halls that needs to be talking about this issue.

One approach involves thinking more broadly about farming options, i.e., supplementing the food supplies obtained through conventional farming methods with community farming and using innovative methods that put the emphasis on local sourcing. There are many ways to do this. We love Farm from a Box, which is a comprehensive product that enables sustained food production without the need for an existing grid, containing all the core components needed for a 2-acre farm powered by renewable energy. Farm from a Box is interesting because it represents a way of providing communities both in the U.S. and globally with tools to grow their own food locally by means of sustainable farming methods, using regenerative agriculture techniques with precision farming technology that provide a highly efficient and easy mechanism for starting and maintaining planted farms and growing seasonal, regionally appropriate foods.

Another approach to handling a future food shortage uses cellular agriculture, or what’s known as “meatless alternatives,” an approach to replacing animal-based foods with lab-driven cell cultures. As pointed out by L’Atelier BNP Paribas, cellular agriculture facilitates the production of animal protein without the need to raise and manage livestock – an answer to the need for more food that avoids intensive industrial livestock farming, which is highly polluting. Why is this a city food trend? We’re slowly seeing these meatless meat sources and restaurants serving these alternatives popping up around the country – so a meatless burger joint could be heading your way this year!

Trend 4 – Digital Inclusion: Of the People, By the People, For the People

Digital inclusion is a term that refers to doing what’s necessary to make sure all individuals and communities, even the most disadvantaged, have access to information and communication technologies. The NDIA, which works to promote digital inclusion, defines it as involving the following elements: 1. Affordable, robust broadband Internet service; 2. Internet-enabled devices that meet the needs of the user; 3. Access to digital literacy training; 4. Quality technical support; and 5. Application and online content designed to enable and encourage self-sufficiency, participation and collaboration. 2019 should be the year where cities en masse finally start embracing and prioritizing digital inclusion.

Local governments throughout the U.S. are working harder towards greater digital inclusion. Pittsburgh, for example, has been named by the recent Brookings report as one of America’s most digitally inclusive tech cities, which explained, “To the region’s credit, it has tried to be proactive about fostering inclusion in tech starting with an earnest ‘Roadmap for Inclusive Innovation’ initiative launched in 2015.” New Orleans is also proactively working toward digital equality, bridging the digital divide – and addressing the lower rates of technology and Internet use among residents of historically underrepresented demographic groups.

Radio talk show personality and GovTech influencer Karen Hunter used an app to tackle African-American and Hispanic under representation in a massive voter registration campaign in 2018. She created an app to engage and empower these historically disadvantaged communities. “We kept hearing ‘our vote doesn’t matter’ from listeners who felt disenfranchised or disrespected,” Hunter explained. “The Party of Lincoln app is non-partisan. It has history lessons (why do we have an electoral collect, etc.), resources (the constitution and how to file a FOIA), and calls to action (run for office and contact your congressman). You can even register to vote through the app. It’s a one-stop shop for civic engagement…” This is a great example of digital inclusion, and a way of proactively working to ensure that all sectors of the urban population have easy access to the digital tools provided by the city.

Trend 5 – Rise of AI in Local Government

Many cities have invested resources in developing new technology systems for collecting large quantities of information. And now, they are looking for ways to make that information actionable.

AI is already part of our everyday lives, from Netflix recommendation engines to Alexa and Siri. But if AI was mainstream in 2018, than 2019 is going to be the year that artificial intelligence is truly everywhere including at City Hall. And that’s why converting large pools of data into action items using AI is a hot topic on the agenda for local governments.

At Zencity, we leverage data to understand wide-scale resident sentiment, and in this, we believe that we’re right on target with the trend of bringing AI into the realm of data-driven policy making. But the applications of AI in local government are diverse as well as numerous, ranging from predicting future car crashes to fighting crime. For example, Waycare’s unique transportation management platform allows cities to take control of their roads by leveraging in-vehicle data and AI for predictive insights that prevent car crashes and enable safer, smarter traffic operations.

The rise of AI innovation enables local governments tomaximize efficiency and proactively identify problems. It‘s also transforming the interactions of residents with City Halls, putting them on a par with the apps they use on a daily basis, keeping them safer and more engaged.

The Future of City Management in 2019

There are so many ways technology is changing our lives and our local governments. Trends that we look forward to seeing at City Halls across the country this year include a focus on improving public safety, assisting the elderly and the disabled, building local food economies, improving digital inclusion, and the full scale adoption of AI solutions.

And this is just the beginning. There are so many potential applications of cutting-edge technologies. But of course, our goal isn’t just to use GovTech, Civic Tech, and Smart City tech because it’s innovative. City Halls need to keep an “eye on the prize”: implementing technology always with the aim of improving the lives of city residents, thereby enhancing the level of service provided by municipalities around the world.

Recognize Any of These? 4 Challenges City PIOs Experience in Managing Social Media

Inbal Naveh Safir

Inbal Naveh Safir

Director of Strategy & Communications

So, you’re a PIO? We know, you’ve got a really tough job.

As the mouthpiece of the city administration, you’re the one who needs to relay information in a crisis and provide updates about new projects and initiatives. And in today’s non-stop, 24-hour news cycle, your role is even more stressful as you have to make quick decisions about what to say, when, and how. Connecting with residents is important, and given the nature of your job, you face many challenges in doing this successfully.

For starters, there are endless media sources, but not enough time to stay on top of them. And while you need to develop campaign strategies based on KPIs, it’s not always easy to track them. Another problem is one of reach: you want to be in touch with all residents in the city, but it’s typically the same small group that responds to your attempts to reach out. And then there are the challenges you face with your own colleagues; people working in other municipal departments who tend to make your job harder by working independently rather than collaboratively.

How’s any single person meant to keep up? You’re not alone. Here is a look at some of the main issues we’ve watched PIOs face as the chief communicator for City Hall.

1. Limited Resources But Tons of Media Sources

That budget cut everyone was talking about last month? It also hit your department, of course. As pointed out by this Brookings report, the one thing about city budgets you can always be certain of is that they are uncertain. But you’re not alone. It’s not just in your city, it’s happening everywhere.

Admittedly, you have no choice, and you’re going to have to “make do” and manage the job with super limited resources and an understaffed team. Making this tougher is the fact that there’s tons of information out there and the online world is non-stop, and it’s near impossible to process and understand it all. And obviously, you can’t forget about traditional media sources, like the papers and local morning news show.

We’re knee-deep in data – living in an age where there’s information (and often misinformation) coming at residents 24/7. So how do you get a grip of all this with almost no budget? Even if you had a team of 20, it would still be impossible to manage all the activity out there, and we feel for you. There’s too much to do and not enough time to do it. And this brings us to the second challenge: Figuring out which social media channels and publicity campaigns actually work by measuring KPIs.

2. Staying on Top of the Your KPIs

KPIs are crucial in evaluating the success of campaigns and helping you figure out which communication strategies are most effective. They give you insight into the impact of your work by helping you determine whether you are getting the mayor’s messaging across to the public. It’s difficult to make time for measurement but you’ve got to, as metrics are what give you the edge in putting together effective communications strategies.

In the City of Garden Grove, CA, for example, the local government invested in developing a clear and comprehensive communications strategy that includes measurement. Their process includes checking the reach of particular messages through individual communication channels, and comparing different communications methods to see which one has the highest participation levels.

Corona, CA‘s local government is on the same page, placing the emphasis on measuring KPIs and conducting real-time performance measurement of its communications campaigns. And their use of KPIs has served them well. In one instance, using Zencity’s platform, they were alerted to a rise in negative sentiment about the local government on social media, which resulted from a tragic story – the discovery of an abandoned, deceased infant’s body by the Police Department.

Social media discussions surrounding the incident spiked and included a lot of misunderstanding about Safe Surrender, a California policy that lets someone safely and legally surrender a newborn infant, no-questions-asked. With the information gained from Zencity, Corona successfully implemented a new communications strategy in real-time to correct the misinformation about Safe Surrender and respond to the growing crisis. Ultimately they succeeded in accomplishing every PIOs dream – transforming a ton of negative discourse in the city and a negative event into an opportunity for positive communication with residents.

3. Overcoming the STP – “Same Ten People”

What do you do about the fact that it’s the “Same Ten People” who show up to City Hall or complain about that pothole on the city’s Facebook page?

As pointed out in our earlier post, the STP often have the loudest voices in the city. And clearly they’re not the only audience you need to be communicating with. When push comes to shove, you might even be more interested in the needs and wants of the “silent majority.” So you do your best to gain insight into the sentiment of the “silent majority” using social media. Because social media is data at your fingertips, the key is to understanding it. As GovTech influencer Stephen Goldsmith puts it, “With these digital tools, citizens and their officials can revolutionize local government, making it more responsive, transparent, and cost-effective than it has ever been” (see The Responsive City: Engaging Communities Through Data-Smart Governance).

But this also adds to the complexity of your job. Most feedback – in fact, a full 86 percent of social media responses to municipal issues happens on non-official social media pages that are not managed by City Hall. And your social media monitoring needs to take this into account by sifting through the noise and figuring out how to reach all your residents to rise above the vocal minority. This represents a major challenge.

By finding ways to move beyond STP, cities can gain a more insightful understanding of where residents stand and how they feel. It’s not easy, but it’s an important part of making municipal decisions that are on target with residents’ needs.

4. Streamlining Across City Departments

Anybody can make a Facebook page… And that might be exactly what’s happening in your city.

The Police Department, Parks and Rec, the Public Library – the list goes on. How do you get all of the city’s different departments on board in sharing their great work with residents through social media collaboratively, rather than separately? When there are so many different pages and accounts for different departments, it takes a ton of effort to manage and oversee all of the activity. If things can be streamlined, it saves time and more work can get done.

A good example of this is in Philadelphia, where the city recently implemented several new procedures to streamline internal procedures and save time – and it’s made a huge difference at City Hall. By taking the time to work collaboratively, you avoid wasting and duplicating efforts and can keep track of social media efforts more successfully.

Making It All Work – The Challenges of Being a PIO in the Digital Age

PIOs have a tough job that’s high pressure, as you’re sandwiched between the city or town you represent on the one hand, and the residents you care about on the other. And while social media can be a great tool to help you achieve your goals, sometimes, it can also throw a wrench right into all of the amazing work you strive to do.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. Keeping an “eye on the prize” by investing time in important communications processes can make a big difference to your success. Despite the obvious challenges, by making sure to invest in monitoring social media sources, setting and staying on top of KPIs, reaching beyond the “STP,” and streamlining social media efforts across city departments, you can stay in touch with residents and provide the information and responses that they need.

At Zencity, we strive to help you overcome these four challenges (and a few others as well). If you want to learn more about how we can help your communications team work more efficiently and tackle some of the issues we outlined above, reach out and we’re happy to help out!

How We’re Working with Different-Sized Cities Across the U.S.

Inbal Naveh Safir

Inbal Naveh Safir

Director of Strategy & Communications

2018 was an exciting year for Zencity. We started off with one pioneering US-partner city, West Sacramento, California, and rounded out the year with well over two dozen. Our cities range from small towns, like Hooksett, New Hampshire, to some of the largest US cities, like San Antonio, Texas. As we kick off 2019 and plan for the year ahead, we decided to take a minute to deep-dive into how cities of all different population sizes are leveraging Zencity’s capabilities.

Small Towns

It’s no surprise that cities of different sizes have different advantages and challenges. In the case of the smaller cities we work with, we find that the city managers and town administrators often have the privilege of lots of daily interactions and ways to interface personally with their residents. On the other hand, they often don’t have the capacity for data analytics. That’s where Zencity comes in. With smaller populations, we’ve found that we provide the towns and cities we work with, with the necessary infrastructure to quantify and measure the impact of different town and city initiatives, in a way the city isn’t otherwise able to. Even cities of 10,000 residents produce vast amounts of unstructured data that is impossible to manage and extrapolate valuable information from without the right technology – especially without an in house team of data analysts. Zencity becomes that “in house” team, serving this need which smaller cities often aren’t able to meet before they start working with us.

Mid-size Cities

Mid-size cities are on the rise in the United States and growing cities means growing needs. One of the most common use cases we see in Zencity’s midsize partner-cities is in bridging the gap between the city and its residents. Unlike smaller cities, where it’s common for many folks to know the city manager by name, mid-size cities face the challenge of the silent majority and connecting with the many residents who don’t attend the local council meeting or town hall. This is complicated by a capacity issue. In these cities, Zencity provides a wider-perspective, tapping into city-wide discourse and feedback, and providing invaluable insight into what’s important to residents on a daily basis, and over time. Mid-size cities often use this information to think about policy and communications campaigns differently and to sharpen these to better respond to their residents’ priorities.

The Big Kahunas

In big cities, there’s never a doubt that the data is there. Big cities often even already have some data analytics tools and sometimes even entire teams in place. However, most big cities silo their data by department and are limited as to the types of data they collect. Zencity serves the needs of big cities in two primary ways. First, Zencity provides one place for aggregating and layering all of the different data sets in a city. These datasets are enriched ten-fold when they can be looked at one next to the other, and when resident satisfaction is also being analyzed and quantified. Moreover, we’ve found that because of the data sources we leverage and thanks to our geolocation technology, big cities find Zencity especially helpful in connecting to disenfranchised communities that are not otherwise being heard. Zencity plays an imperative role in helping cities better understand which communities are not leveraging the city’s formal communication and service channels, and what they’re real needs and priorities are.

While every city is unique, the reality is that cities across the United States share many similar challenges. One of the powerful experiences we’ve had at Zencity is seeing how cities of all sizes and in different corners of the country make the most of Zencity’s AI and machine learning algorithms. It’s been fascinating to see the different ways we can parse the data we collect to identify patterns between cities of similar sizes, or with other shared characteristics. We look forward to a fruitful 2019 with many new partners and many new insights.

Top 8 GovTech Experts You Should Follow

Inbal Naveh Safir

Inbal Naveh Safir

Director of Strategy & Communications

If you live and breathe government and technology, then staying on top of what’s happening in this sphere is imperative. It was a tough choice, but here are our top favorite experts and leaders in an industry that’s growing fast – and bringing about a transformation for cities and their residents.

Keisha Lance Bottoms
@KeishaBottoms 50.4K followers

Keisha Lance Bottoms, the 60th Mayor of Atlanta, is a real powerhouse who has become a significant voice representing the best in civic leadership and urban growth. She’s been named by Politico magazine one of “the most prominent black female executives in the South and one of the few in the entire country.” An inspirational speaker (check out her inaugural address), a larger-than-life personality, and a real community leader – there’s very good reason that over 50K people are following Mayor Bottoms. We love her work because she really uses social media as a means to communicate with her constituency and with Americans. This kind of tech-forward civic engagement is certainly the future.

Miguel Gamiño Jr.
@MiguelGamino 9.1K followers

There’s no question that Miguel Gamiño has earned his 9K+ followers: he’s a civic technologist and entrepreneur committed to making tech work for the people. Currently Executive VP and Head of Global Cities at Mastercard (and formerly New York City’s Chief Technology Officer), Gamiño is an authority in the field who writes online and speaks publicly – with infectious enthusiasm – about future city trends and smart technology. His experience both serving in local government and now at a Fortune 500 gives him unique perspective and insight. Check out his great post on cities and tech to see what we mean: City Possible: Collaborating to Unlock Possibilities for More People.

Stephen Goldsmith
@GoldsmithOnGov 9K followers

 Stephen Goldsmith, Director of the Innovations Program in the American Government Program at Harvard Kennedy School, gets big data and why it matters to cities. In his current role, he’s doing what he loves: helping cities use data efficiently to solve problems. Follow Stephen to find out the latest on government and tech – he’s an excellent writer who gets to the heart of the key issues and he brings with him tremendous experience from the field – as the former Mayor of Indianapolis and the former Deputy Mayor of New York City. Two great examples of Goldsmith’s writing that you should definitely check out are Utilizing Data-Driven Tools to Solve Municipal Trash Problems and Implementing Smart Leadership in Cities.

 James Anderson
@JimOnCities 6.7K followers

James Anderson spends all of his time – in his own words – helping mayors “be awesome.” As Head of Government Innovation Programs at Bloomberg Philanthropies, he runs programs that connect to innovation and technology like the Mayors ChallengeWhat Works CitiesBloomberg Harvard City Leadership, and more. Have a look at what he has to say after visiting 300-plus city halls. Anderson is a real industry leader about everything to do with smart cities and local government. And bonus, he tweets about really awesome resources that you’ll want to read and follow.

Chris Cabaldon
@mayorcabaldon 6.1K followers

It’s no surprise that, under Chris Cabaldon’s leadership, West Sacramento was listed as one of the 21 smart communities to watch in 2018. He is civic engagement personified – broadcasting a deep understanding of his community and a real motivation to leverage innovation and technology in creating a better future. Cabaldon’s Twitter feed is like a window into his life as Mayor – covering everything from local benefit concerts and new restaurants in town, to news about important city initiatives.

Shaun Abrahamson
@Shaunabe 3.8K followers

Serial entrepreneur Shaun Abrahamson runs Urban Us – a seed stage venture fund and network of advisors that serves urbantech startups that work to make city life better. You’ll appreciate Shaun’s blunt posts, bringing attention to important threads on topics that you want to read about but don’t have time to search for including poor rating systems for choosing cities when relocating. And check out his latest post on APIs that provide updated data about transportation services in urban areas.

Krista Canellakis
@kristallakis 2.5K followers

Passionate about making cities more livable and inclusive, Krista – who has made her own mark in the world of GovTech – is Chief Innovation Officer for the City and County of San Francisco. Previously, she led communications in a national renewable energy startup. She also built a crowdfunding platform that helped communities fund civic projects in Chile. For us, her experience means she also gets the GovTech space from the perspective of a startup. Krista’s energetic and insightful posts about everything to do with San Francisco, city government, and tech should not be missed including tech policymaking and eliminating minimum parking requirements for housing projects in San Francisco – she is a voice that really “gets” the startup perspective.

Noelle Knell
@GovTechNoelle 1.1K followers

The November elections, Atlanta’s ransomware incident and other cybersecurity threats, modernizing state technology and its challenges … These are just some of the topics Noelle Knell, editor of GovTech News, touched upon this month in her Twitter feed. Having worked in both state and local government, she’s coming from that all-important insider’s perspective – and you can tell just by reading her tweets how much experience she has with public projects, transportation, business, and technology. Check out this article Noelle published on GovTech about how Arizona Pursues “No Wrong Door” Approach to Online Services – or take a look at some of her other pieces here.

 Are we missing someone off this list? Do tell us who you’re following; we’d love to know.


Hey City Managers! AI Might Be The Tool You’ve Been Looking For

Inbal Naveh Safir

Inbal Naveh Safir

Director of Strategy & Communications

If you’re looking for ways to help your teams become more productive and efficient as city managers, we’re on the same page.

Managing the world of big data is one piece – admittedly of a very large puzzle – especially when it comes to cities. What we know at this point is that few technologies hold as much promise as AI, and that cities are also beginning to reap the benefits of AI by using it to connect with residents, shape policy, and plan.

The question is how this is happening on the ground.

It’s All About AI

AI: “a branch of computer science dealing with the simulation of intelligent behavior in computers; the capability of a machine to imitate intelligent human behavior.”

If you’ve got either Siri or Alexa in your life, you’ve seen first hand what AI can do just in your own home: gather information, recognize patterns in data, and form conclusions independently of outside influence. But on a larger scale, the question is how different industries can incorporate AI into their day-to-day and strategic operations.

AI has emerged at a critical time. One in which we’re generating more data than ever before. By 2020, 1.7 MB of data will be created every second for every human on Earth. And as much as we are attempting to be organized, the ability to process this volume of data manually is impossible. And because we are generating more data than we can handle, realistically there’s no way we’ll ever be able to review it.

This is exactly where AI comes in.

It’s a Match – The Benefits of AI and City Management

And here’s how AI can help transform your cities; it’s really a match.

#1 Benefit – Cities Can Run More Efficiently

A top benefit of AI is that it enables an organization to become more efficient at structuring chief operating tasks. When cities run efficiently, more is accomplished with less, and cities have a lot to accomplish with never-quite-enough resources and tight budgets.

AI can help city managers stay on top of policies and identify the initiatives that matter most to citizens. This allows city managers to plan for and measure the potential impact that each initiative will have on the city as a whole. A case in point is in LA, San Antonio and Pittsburgh where AI is being used to change the timing on traffic lights in order to adjust the flow of traffic.

#2 Benefit – Cities Can Focus on their Residents

AI plays a large role in delivering personalized user experiences, creating a more personalized connection for a city to its residents by adapting to their specific needs.

The work of city hall directly impacts the everyday lives of a city’s residents. Using AI to analyze feedback from citizens about this impact facilitates the shaping of policies and initiatives that address the most important issues. In North Carolina, for example, government offices realized that they could help speed up the process of responding to residents’ questions with the help of a chatbot. With fewer calls to respond to, government offices could dedicate more resources and time to other city projects, while being more responsive to citizens. And with increased life expectancy, cities are using AI to help bring down the exorbitant costs of caring for the elderly with the support of IoT-enabled products that can alert local authorities in the event that these residents need help.

#3 Benefit – Cities Can Remove A Great Deal of Bias

People are prone to bias and subjective decision-making because we’re human, making decisions that require objectivity – such as hiring – much more difficult. AI can circumvent some of our inherent bias. It does this by only considering variables that are relevant to a decision. Organizations have direct control over the AI algorithms they use to make decisions, and while it’s possible to create algorithms with built-in biases, these can be modified much more easily.

The “human” factor is removed. Like any activity, city management is just as vulnerable to human bias and prejudice. AI helps remove the amount of influence bias plays in decision making, shifting the focus away from what city leaders often think they want, and away from the sometimes “louder voices” in a city, and back towards what residents want.

#4 Benefit – Cities Can Make Data-Smart Decisions and Get That Extra Edge for Under-Resourced Departments

We saved the best for last. AI is an opportunistic tool for organizations of all industries and sizes to analyze data faster, make better decisions, and move faster. In the case of local government agencies and city halls, no one understands better the challenge of being under-resourced and understaffed. AI can help organizations do things that they may not otherwise have the staff capacity to do, or in some cases, that they might not be able to do at all, even with all the resources in the world.

Decision-making becomes simplified. AI can analyze data from all kinds of different sources to provide city managers with important insights. For example, in the case of communicating with residents, instead of manually reading through discussions, social media posts, and other sources of citizen feedback, city managers can use AI to automate collecting, curating, and organizing this data for them. Ray Greenwood, AI and Machine Learning Domain Expert, shares that, “AI is best when it tackles highly structured and repetitive processes that supports decision making – tasks that consume a ‘fair amount of human time.’”

Are Cities Ready for AI?

The answer is a resounding yes. AI has the capability of being the new frontier for city managers and the potential to transform the policy-making process into one that is more effective and that engages with more residents, including a broader and more diverse, city-wide citizen base than ever before.

We’re knee deep in the era of change, and the data is certainly out there to help cities make strategic changes to make cities and towns better places to live. The name of the game is figuring out how to transform all aspects of everyday life in cities – from healthcare to communication – with AI at its core.

What To Be Thankful For This Thanksgiving – City Managers’ Edition

Inbal Naveh Safir

Inbal Naveh Safir

Director of Strategy & Communications

It’s Thanksgiving and we’re not missing a moment to properly thank you, our awesome city managers, who do so many things to make the city run – from long-term strategic planning to implementing welfare policies, to making sure that the city’s infrastructure is structurally sound and up-to-date. Our city managers really listen and respond to what residents have to say. So at this time of Thanksgiving, we’re taking a moment to appreciate these amazing public service officials who look after our every urban need.


It’s time that everyone acknowledges what you already know. So, here’s the scoop – the city’s “inside story”: it’s actually the city manager orchestrating all the different things that make your city run.


Interestingly enough, many people aren’t familiar with the term “city manager” let alone know who their city manager is. But truthfully, a city manager does a whole lot of the work around a city. City managers – who have often committed their entire lives to public service – are usually not known or appreciated enough by residents simply because they do everything behind the scenes. At Zencity, we’re privileged to work with city managers and their teams on a daily basis.

The laundry list of tasks that city managers are responsible for is long and varied. City managers oversee the city’s budget, direct initiatives across departments, and handle day-to-day issues like fixing broken traffic lights. And at the same time, they are creating and implementing plans for the city’s future. In short, they manage the city – just like their title suggests! Increasingly these responsibilities are more effective with the help of technology which streamlines many of these tasks and processes.

In short, this year for Thanksgiving at Zencity, we’re taking a moment to express our appreciation for our city managers. Here are just a few of the many reasons why we’ve learned to love them as we work hand-in-hand together.

Because…they are truly interested in what you have to say!

City managers are accessible, open, and interested – looking for innovative ways to make sure city residents continue to share their most pressing concerns while ensuring that the city’s leadership hears them.

By actively seeking feedback from city residents, city managers support a proactive approach to governance that helps drive citizen engagement. One encourages the other: the more residents feel that their city responds to their needs, the more active they become.

Because…they run cities effectively and efficiently!

City managers are constantly measuring the effectiveness of city projects, and in some cases, they’re even light-years ahead, collecting data that allows them to make data-driven decisions in order to spend resources wisely and ensure that the community’s needs are being met.

When cities determine KPIs and measure them regularly, they can make better choices about where to invest resources. In the City of Corona, California, for example, the municipality provides an open dashboard called “Corona Open Performance.” The dashboard first gives residents a quick way to access city information at the click of a button, and then presents the data in visual-friendly formats. This help residents make data-driven decisions in real time by working through challenges they are facing, while improving the effectiveness of service delivery and community engagement.

Because…they give residents what they need when they need it!

Many of today’s city managers believe in the importance of continually being proactive and addressing issues that are happening in the city in real-time – i.e., not merely being reactive.

To do this successfully requires actively seeking feedback directly from residents about the quality of municipal services – and then responding by making effective changes. This means city managers must be up-to-date on the latest trends and patterns happening across the city. They make sure to know when they need to step in – whether it’s for something as big as a politically charged murder, or something as small as a downed electricity pole.

We love what the City of Chicago is doing with a system called Windy Grid which informs city leaders about emergencies by accessing around 7 million data points, maps, and analytics daily from Chicago’s 15 most important city departments. Department managers across the city are now identifying potential issues and coordinating responses, helping them allocate the necessary resources for dealing with problems as they arise in real-time.

Because…they have our backs when it comes to the future!

City managers frequently stay in their position much longer than mayors, who – because they are elected officials – tend to end up serving for a shorter period. So when it comes to considering the long-term future of the city, the city manager is really able to think “down the line” about what services and infrastructure projects are best for the city and its residents.

Because many city managers hold the position for a longer period of time, they understand the need for developing a long-term strategy. They know who lives in the city, and what they care about. In West Sacramento, California, for example, the city developed a program called Home Run to improve the city’s overall readiness for the workforce as well as to plan for the prosperity and future of the city as a whole. The “cradle-to-career” initiative uses educational programming from early childhood all the way through college to provide opportunities – including locally based internships and financial support for literacy programs – to produce a stronger and more qualified workforce for the city.

Let’s give city managers the thanks they deserve

City managers do so many things to make the city run – from big projects to day-to-day tasks, to running decade-long, multi-million dollar initiatives – all the while, of course, also handling emergencies.

So this Thanksgiving season, let’s appreciate these amazing public service officials who look after our every urban need. We know at Zencity, our work is made that much brighter by the dedication and initiative of the city managers in our midst.

Wishing you and yours – wherever you live – a very Happy Thanksgiving!

Why Sheryl Sandberg & US Mayors Swear By The Usage Of Tech And Social Media In Connecting Cities To Their Residents

Inbal Naveh Safir

Inbal Naveh Safir

Director of Strategy & Communications

As we grow our work across cities in the US, we have seen, again and again, the ways in which city leaders are harnessing technology to improve their communications with and to their residents. Cities are becoming increasingly aware of the value of social media tools like Facebook and Twitter, which, unlike other traditional communication tools used by many cities, are gender, race and socioeconomically agnostic, meaning they have the potential to tap into diverse communities across cities and towns of all sizes. At Zencity, we believe that helping cities access and analyze this kind of data serves as a way to give a voice to the otherwise silent or passive majority.

“If you’re a city in America and you’re not using technology, you’re missing an opportunity, number one, to connect to your constituents, but number two, to allow your constituents to connect to the city. That’s what’s so important.”  – Mayor Marty Walsh, Boston, MA

Where Technology & American Cities Meet

At the recent 86th Annual Meeting of the US Conference of Mayors, which our team just returned from, we were thrilled to see that some of the leading mayors in the US have identified the importance of technology for exactly the same reason. The Annual Meeting wove together the Conference’s three key priorities for 2018: infrastructure, innovation and inclusion. With those themes in mind, a panel on the intersection between technology and American cities focused exclusively on this idea of using technology to connect to all citizens. Houston Mayor Sylvester TurnerBoston Mayor Marty Walsh and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg took the stage and repeatedly stated the importance to city leaders of social media as a tool to communicate and connect with their communities, as well as the importance of giving all communities access to technology and innovation.

Mayor Walsh succinctly laid out a message that resonated with us greatly: “If you’re a city in America and you’re not using technology, you’re missing an opportunity, number one, to connect to your constituents, but number two, to allow your constituents to connect to the city. That’s what’s so important.” Mayor Walsh’s emphasis on the way in which technology and new media provide a tremendous opportunity for cities by creating a two-way channel of communication should not be taken lightly. Whereas traditional media resources for cities like press conferences and the 6 o’clock news were once a way for a city to have a one-way conversation with its residents, mediums like Facebook Live, Twitter threads, and even the comments sections of online newspapers are all platforms for dynamic, two way conversations, where the city can speak to its residents – and the residents can always answer back.

Continuous Planning & Strategizing Made Possible

Mayor Walsh also highlighted how this kind of dynamic engagement extends beyond social media. He spoke about how the City of Boston went through a master planning process (the first in 50 years!), and have now implemented a dashboard on their website to talk about what they’re doing. “In the past,” said Mayor Walsh, “you do a master plan and it would be a document and it would be on the shelf … now, because of technology, that’s a living, breathing document. Because of technology, what might have worked three years ago, doesn’t work today, and you can adjust that master plan to today.” Utilizing technology to continuously revamp and revisit planning and strategy is one of the driving motivations behind our work at Zencity. Moreover, we believe that you should revisit strategic initiatives and improve them using metrics.

Boston is starting to do this. They’ve begun utilizing metrics to improve services and to make these improved services more available. For Mayor Walsh, measuring statistics in both the long-term and over the course of the day has been enormously insightful for the city. Hearing a mayor talk about the power and importance of measuring data over time and daily was like music to our ears because this is one of the linchpins of the success of our platform – the fact that it provides different vantage points for different time periods.

“The more connected we are, the more we can move together, forward, together.” – Mayor Sylvester Turner, Houston, TX

Empowering Cities to Go Further

The panel at the US Conference of Mayors was rounded out by Mayor Turner, who could attest to the power of technology and the community connections it enables during some of the toughest times – in his case, in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. Mayor Turner is practical and forward-thinking: “the reality is that things are changing, technology is here and it’s here to stay,” he said. Consequently, he is focusing on leveraging social media to help communities stay connected and to bring technology and innovation to under-resourced and underprivileged communities. Moreover, he wants to make sure the city “doesn’t further increase the divides between the haves and have-nots.” Mayor Turner knows that there are many people in the city that are hard to reach, and that “technology is a way to connect with them … For me, it’s all about connectivity. The more connected we are, the more we can move together, forward, together.”

Facebook Committed to Local Communities

And of course, how could we leave out Sheryl Sandberg from a recap of a panel that she took part in? Sandberg preached the good that Facebook can bring to local communities and the reality that, “city by city, street by street, town by town, people connect on Facebook whether it’s during a disaster, whether it’s for a birthday, whether it’s the everyday things in your life.” So how is Facebook taking an active step on the city level? Sandberg used the panel to announce Facebook’s commitment to investing in local communities by investing in local economy. Facebook will be supporting the growth of small businesses through Facebook by providing social media training. Additionally, she stressed how Facebook provides a platform where mayors can connect directly to their constituents, again touching on themes of connectivity but also transparency through communication.

All in all, we were fired up to see some of the most prominent leaders of our time, in both the public and private sector, coming together to talk about the way that cities can continue harnessing the power of tech to move cities forward. This is what we’re all about at Zencity and we believe that leveraging the communication channels that residents are using to enable cities to connect to all the communities in their city is an opportunity not to be missed. Watch it here:

Zencity Wins Innovate.AI Competition 2018

Inbal Naveh Safir

Inbal Naveh Safir

Director of Strategy & Communications

Zencity is the Winner of Innovate.AI Competition in Israel, hosted by M12, Madrona Venture Group, Notion and Vertex Ventures Israel

As the winner of the Innovate.AI competition in Israel, Zencity has been officially selected from hundreds of startups working to transform the future through AI.

Hosted by M12 (formerly Microsoft Ventures), along with their VC partners Vertex Ventures in Israel, Madrona Ventures Group and Notion, the global competition for startups sought out the most promising and innovative artificial intelligence and machine learning technology solutions in the world. Zencity will be awarded one million dollars in venture-backed funding to help us progress the future of AI.

Recognized as Leaders in Artificial Intelligence

Winning the  competition in Israel is both incredibly humbling and validating. Israel has climbed the ranks as a top producer and category-leader of some of the most powerful and cutting-edge AI technology in the world. To have been recognized by M12 and Vertex Ventures – truly global leaders in the venture capital space – as one of the best AI tech startups speaks volumes to the work we’ve done and is a huge feat in the Smart City space.

We’re particularly proud because we’ve been recognized for the strength of algorithms which have the potential to genuinely impact life in cities. At Zencity, we empower cities to use AI to make citizen-backed decisions. Our machine learning algorithms analyze data from hundreds of thousands of public, citizen-generated interactions on social media, city hotlines, and other communication channels to surface sentiment and other trends on an on-going basis and in real-time. The application then provides detailed insights on how citizens view and use their city – and this feedback, in turn, powers decision-making so that civic leaders can improve the lives of the residents they serve.

“Healthy dialogue between a city and its citizens is integral to any prospering community,” said Nagraj Kashyap, Corporate Vice President, Global Head of M12. “That’s why we’re excited to support Zencity in its use of AI to advance communication between cities and its citizens, ensuring that voices are heard.”

We believe it’s a unique opportunity for urban innovators and cities when a Smart City startup wins a global competition of this magnitude for its machine learning solutions, meaning that some of the most advanced technology of today is being used to better how we live and work in cities. With our winnings, we will continue pushing forward to develop the best and most innovative technology solutions for cities, making AI accessible to the public and an invaluable catalyst of positive change in the world we live in.

Zencity Selected To Join Microsoft ScaleUp Program

Inbal Naveh Safir

Inbal Naveh Safir

Director of Strategy & Communications

Zencity is honored to have been selected by tech giant Microsoft to take part in Microsoft ScaleUp, a global program dedicated to helping late-stage startups quickly scale. As part of the Microsoft for Startups initiative, Microsoft ScaleUp cherry-picks later stage startups to participate in an intense and unique international program. The outcomes include joint sales engagements and co-marketing opportunities designed to help catapult Zencity into a deep network of Microsoft professionals, partners, and experts.

Leading the Way in Accessible Technology Solutions for Local Government

Microsoft has long been paving the way for innovation globally, and nowhere is this more true than in the public sector. Microsoft has developed some of the most cutting-edge and accessible technology products in the world for local government. Ranging from day-to-day platforms, to advanced analytics, to core software, Microsoft is a key technology provider to many cities around the world. Zencity is excited to leverage these relationships as well as Microsoft’s expertise in Artificial Intelligence, data and the cloud to push forward the boundaries of the Zencity platform and the service we provide to local government leaders.

On the Microsoft side, Navot Volk, Managing Director of Microsoft ScaleUp Tel Aviv shares that,

[w]e’re delighted to work with Zencity in developing innovative, data-driven solutions for cities. At Microsoft ScaleUp, we’ve focused this batch on emerging technologies with an artificial intelligence bend. Zencity was therefore an obvious choice for us with its strong tech and powerful mission, and we look forward to supporting the Zencity team on a global scale, and helping them grow their presence and product.

Zencity’s goal in joining ScaleUp is to partner with Microsoft on both the technology and business fronts. We are certain working together will be fruitful for us in helping to deliver an even better product and reaching many more cities including those already working with Microsoft. We look forward to scaling even faster with Microsoft’s support.

Zencity Is A Smart 50 Awards Recipient!

Inbal Naveh Safir

Inbal Naveh Safir

Director of Strategy & Communications

Last week, Zencity was announced a winner of the Smart 50 Awards from a pool of international tech initiatives from all over the world! This isn’t just exciting for us because it’s always fun to get a little bit of recognition – which is cool too – but because this year the Smart 50 included a layer in their finalists selection process that we think is critical to making a difference. This year, they also focused on implementation.

What are the Smart 50 Awards

Let’s take a step back. If you don’t already know, the Smart 50 Awards are granted annually at the Smart Cities Connect conference to the most innovative and influential smart city projects of the year. This time around, award recipients were selected for more than just exemplary innovation (also an important criterion!) Rather, also for the implementation of their innovative solution and for its concrete impact. We received the award for the impact our technology has had on our home turf, the nonstop, bubbling beach city of Tel Aviv.

At Zencity, this is so exciting for us because we are all about big data, and what we do with the big data we collect is unique. We take unstructured textual data from millions of data points in the forms of words, requests, complaints, Facebook likes, tweets, 311 calls, even comments on online news mags, and more – and automatically categorize them into city-specific topics. In the actual implementation for which we were nominated, for example, Tel Aviv’s Transportation Department used our tech to get feedback on a new car sharing program it launched. We were able to pull positive feedback as well as criticism, flaws and feedback from all of this unstructured data and make it useful for a specific unit in the Tel Aviv municipality – and they then used our data to refine the car sharing program.   

Making an Impact in Smart City Technology

Transforming different types of data created by city residents into measurable, actionable information for city leaders to utilize in shaping policy, allocating resources, and understanding what their constituents priorities, cares and concerns are is what we do best. Our success in Tel Aviv, as recognized by being selected a finalist in the 50 Smart Awards, is a testament to the fact that we can really have an impact with the kind of data we’re measuring and with how we’re categorizing and analyzing it.

It’s a huge honor to have been selected as a Smart 50 Awards winner this year, and especially with the recognition that what we’re doing is innovative, has been successfully implemented, and is therefor impactful! So thanks Smart Cities Connect and hope to see you, reader, at the conference in March in Kansas City, Missouri. And, if you haven’t already checked out the lineup for the conference, you can do so here.