Home for the Holidays: How Local Governments are Festively Supporting Their Economies

Michaela Sokol

Michaela Sokol

Yelp’s recently released Economic Impact Report found that between March and August of this year, an estimated 163,735 U.S. businesses closed their doors, with 60% shutting down permanently. Unsurprisingly, the most impacted businesses were those in the retail and dining sectors. The Coronavirus has also shifted consumer spending, resulting in a $49 billion decline in sales tax this year; a projected $45 billion next year; and $46 billion in 2022. As a result cities and counties who heavily rely on sales and income taxes to operate have taken hits.

The Small Business Economic Impact Study from American Express found that on average, half to two-thirds of every dollar spent at small businesses in the U.S. stays in the local community. This means a consumer’s local impact during the holiday shopping season can be significant. Mayor Jeff Hall of the City of Alexandria, LA, paints an accurate picture: “Retail stores and other small businesses are the heart and soul of our community. As we work to recover from the shutdown and adjustments made due to COVID-19, it’s especially important to do all that we can to support our local businesses and help revitalize our local economy.”

With the holidays quickly approaching, local governments throughout the U.S. are working diligently to support their local economies. 

Tis the Season to Support Local Businesses 


While shopping locally is not a new concept, many cities and counties are getting on-board with the “Shop Local” trend in response to COVID-19 and in preparation for the holidays by partnering with local businesses and nonprofits to implement official “Shop Local” campaigns with a wide array of incentive structures.  

  • The City of Alameda, CA, will be providing local retailers with complimentary gift bags to be given to any shopper who spends over $50. They have also created an “Alameda Gift Card” that can be used exclusively at participating local businesses.
  • The City of Salisbury, MD, together with the Office of Business Development, has launched their “Shop Local Salisbury” campaign online. The City’s website is now home to the Shop Local Business Directory which features locally owned and operated businesses, including what they offer, their locations, hours etc. 
  • Some cities have taken a more direct approach, like the City of Eureka, CA, whose mayor is using her digital platform to encourage residents to shop locally for the holidays. In her November 6 Mayor’s Address, Mayor Susan Seaman addressed local business owners advising the use of the hashtags, #choosehumboldt and #shopeureka in their posts to bring their business to the forefront of community members attention. 

Innovative Holiday Festivities


Tis the season for holiday markets, tree lighting ceremonies, and light parades. Not only are they a festive way to spend time with loved ones but are also a great way to give back to the community. This year, there have been many attempts to keep the holiday spirit alive while simultaneously bringing foot traffic to local businesses.

  • The City of Princeton, MN, is transforming its local campground into an illuminated winter wonderland and is encouraging nearby local businesses to light up their windows and buildings and participate in a local lighting contest. As part of Small Business Saturday, they’ll also be hosting a Shop Local QR Code Scavenger Hunt as another incentive to encourage people to shop in town this holiday season.
  • Coronavirus isn’t stopping the City of Knoxville, TN, from celebrating. The City is installing a “Peppermint Trail” throughout its downtown area for residents to collect holiday treats from the local shops. 
  • Rather than cancelling events during COVID-19, many local governments made them virtual. Likewise, Oswego County, NY, will be hosting their annual Holiday Farmer’s Market online. The website will provide customers with a list of local vendors and their product offerings in order to provide financial support directly to local businesses.  

Free Parking for Holiday Shopping

A simple measure many local authorities took at the start of the pandemic was waving on-street parking fees to promote picking up food from local eateries. Now, local leaders are taking a similar approach by offering free designated parking for the holiday season. 

  • In Charleston, WV, “Citizen Appreciation Parking” is a small incentive to generate business downtown. As Mayor Amy Shuler Goodwin explained, “by providing free Saturday parking at our meters city-wide, we hope to help drive traffic to our local retailers and restaurants.”
  • In accordance with Small Business Saturday, Philadelphia Municipality will offer free metered parking for the day. If someone chooses to park in a nearby parking structure, the revenue generated will go directly back into the neighborhood.  

In order to help local economies bounce back from this pandemic, it is on local governments, businesses, and residents to continually collaborate and provide each other with mutual support. In what’s sure to be a first-of-its-kind holiday season, we look forward to seeing the various ways communities across the world are adapting and responding with creativity and innovation. 

Find out how Zencity can help you in your efforts to support your local economy this holiday season, here

Weathering the Storm: How Local Govs Can Balance COVID-19 and Severe Weather with Crisis Management Software

Michaela Sokol

Michaela Sokol

“Disasters don’t stop for a virus,” said former FEMA administrator, Craig Fugate. The Atlantic hurricane season that started on June 1, was predicted to be one of the most active hurricane seasons on record. With the country already vulnerable, the looming threat of hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires and other seasonal severe weather, combined with COVID-19, was a recipe for disaster.

This situation needed a new kind of emergency response plan from local governments. 

COVID-19’s Impact on Emergency Response Teams

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Whether in pre-corona times or in this ‘new normal’, natural disasters require focused management and significant manpower from local governments to best mitigate the repercussions. Now, with emergency response teams and local budgets already spread thin due to the pandemic, government officials and disaster response teams are concerned with their ability to provide relief effectively. So what can be done? 

How Local Governments can Leverage Software and Data in their Weather Management Efforts

There are many crisis management preventative measures to take, including advanced planning and rehearsals. However, in life or death situations technology can help ten-fold, accelerating and expanding access to critical systems and resources. Including software like call management and email automation platforms, as well as social media monitoring tools into your emergency response and management plan, can make all the difference when combatting a natural disaster. 

Crisis management requires a proactive approach. Local governments are taking advantage of social media and online alerts to help spread awareness and important communications/digital resources in real time. The ability to communicate rapidly with those who are in need of information, is of the utmost importance when time is of the essence, and Zencity was built with this in mind. 

How does Zencity empower local governments as they manage crises like extreme weather? The innovative platform collects millions of resident and city-generated data points from a multitude of external and internal sources. Algorithms then work to sort through the data, offering both a comprehensive view of all relevant resident conversations, as well as a detailed segmentation into key topics, providing leaders with the insights they need in times of urgency. 

How exactly are local governments leveraging Zencity in their severe weather management?


Take one of our partner towns in Illinois, for example. When a derecho storm descended upon the state during Summer 2020, the Town used Zencity’s AI and data-based software to inform their crisis management actions. Local leaders were able to track all relevant online discussions from a variety of sources; media sites, unofficial citizen service request pages and groups and official village channels. This data helped them understand which emergency weather resources to prioritize. With nearly half of the conversations revolving around fallen trees and the subsequent dangers they posed (such as power outages), the Town was able to rapidly and efficiently pinpoint locations where trees had fallen and send out their Public Works Department to clean up the mess, much to residents’ appreciation. In the past, town officials often had to guess which areas were most affected and needed immediate attention. 

By tuning in to their residents’ feedback in real time as part of their disaster response, the town was able to minimize the guesswork and navigate the severe weather repercussions with even better community-facing communication and resources.


On the west coast, a Zencity partner in California turned to Zencity’s insights when it was facing unruly wildfires. Analysis of residents’ online interactions revealed to city leaders that there was confusion surrounding official updates from the City’s channels. Many residents indicated that recently released evacuation orders were unclear, with many indicating that the provided map was not user-friendly and explicit. Others noted that the City’s official updates were not being released frequently enough and lacked sufficient details. 

The City was also able to learn that the PD account was the leading source in communicating about the wildfires. This understanding enabled City leaders to adjust their messaging accordingly, improve their evacuation map, and prioritize the use of their PD’s official account. Zencity’s influx of aggregated data helped the City promptly disseminate critical safety information based on qualitative reasoning.


With the Southeast facing one of its worst hurricane seasons on record this past summer, this Zen-County consulted their Zencity dashboard to ensure residents’ needs were being met and that safety measures were getting through to them. The County found that the majority of conversations were taking place on local cities official channels, rather than the county’s official channel. Conversations focused on evacuation routes and storm watches, and to a lesser extent on collecting donations for storm victims in neighboring states; all of which was met with positive response from residents. The County’s official channel led the discourse solely in regards to preparation guidelines. This breakdown of local discourse by channels and sources highlighted the importance and need of cross-departmental and cross-governmental collaboration to ensure cohesive messaging. The use of software in their severe weather management efforts allowed the County to know without a doubt the effectiveness of their messaging. 

Weather the Storm with Performance Management Software


No one could have predicted what summer 2020 would entail when the year began. While the season is known for its unpredictable weather in certain regions, add a global pandemic on top of that, and that can lead to pandemonium. Technologies and software like Zencity are a vital tool in your crisis management arsenal, whether it be a global pandemic or life-threatening storms. Artificial Intelligence and big data can help you eliminate theorizing and assumption from the equation, providing you with data-backed insights to confidently address any crisis head on.

Find out how our partner cities and counties are using Zencity to manage severe weather with Zencity’s Interactive Weather Insights Map

How Local Governments are Addressing Residents’ Concerns in the 2020 Election

Michaela Sokol

Michaela Sokol

A Pew Research Study conducted in August found that nearly half of American voters are approaching this year’s presidential election with uncertainty due to the combination of the pandemic and a fear of cyber attacks.

Generally, during election season there is a slew of misinformation and disinformation, but this year, the spread of false information has been especially severe, particularly around COVID-19. It’s therefore no surprise that our data shows an uptick in residents’ unease about various issues relating to the election and voting in practically all of the 160+ cities and counties we work with across the US. We crunched the data to identify top concerns amongst Americans this year, including: (1) conversations around early voting; (2) debates about requirements for mail-in or absentee ballots; (3) fear of fraud and claims that voting in-person is the only way to prevent voter fraud; and (4) confusion amongst voters regarding drop box usage and locations as well as irregularities at the polls.

With early voting underway in several states, we’ve already seen these top concerns stemming from resident discourse substantiated. In Texas, where early voting was opened on Oct 13, eager voters waited in line for hours due to varying issues. In one Texas County, the long lines were caused due to a poll worker testing positive for COVID-19, forcing the County to temporarily shut down three early voting locations. In other parts of the State, the long wait times were attributed to inexperienced poll workers, a common theme this year as COVID-19 created a need for more volunteers than ever before. 

Although the situation is not ideal, local governments are none-the-less rising to the occasion. We’ve highlighted some of the best work being done to address the concerns our data flagged. Here are a few of the counties and cities out there promoting voter education, encouraging voter participation through new avenues, and recruiting additional poll workers in the face of COVID-19 and voter trepidation:

Weber County, Utah

  • To help alleviate the spread of false information in their jurisdiction, Weber County leaders have been releasing informative social media graphics to directly address concerns about remote voting. 
  • In response to resident fears regarding early voting and COVID-19 friendly booths, the County has also been posting election updates regularly on their official Facebook page, as well as informational videos to help ease any mistrust. 


Multnomah County, Oregon

  • Multnomah County is incredibly diverse where residents speak a number of languages. That’s why their local government leaders have put out informational cross-platform videos in a variety of languages.
  • Additionally, the County has also translated informational pages and press releases to ensure nothing gets lost in translation.


Los Angeles County, California

  • In order to meet the voting needs of essential workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk (RR/CC) initiated the VSAP Mobile Voting Program which will be serving different locations every day of the Election Period.
  • As of October 5th, over 400 secure drop boxes were placed throughout the County to give voters a safe, accessible and contact free method to return their ballot during COVID-19.


Jefferson County, Kentucky

  • Not only has Jefferson County expanded in-person voting on Election Day but they have also hired more poll workers to help sanitize and wipe areas, and ensure they have enough backup alternates available in case a poll worker contracts the virus during the voting period.
  • Despite being Kentucky’s most populous county, early voting, which began on October 13, went off without a hitch. This was in part thanks to the four early voting polling stations available to residents within the County compared to the one being offered throughout the rest of the State.


Greensboro, North Carolina

  • To encourage voting come Election Day, the Greensboro Transit Agency (GTA) will be completely free with their “Move to the Polls” initiative.
  • Likewise, the GTA’s customer service area will be offering printed registration forms that riders can complete on site or take for later completion.


With an unparalleled election well underway, the ability to listen to your residents’ concerns and address them as best as possible is essential, as seen in the examples above. See how Zencity can help you manage any election in your city or county.

COVID-19 Crisis Management: 3 Lessons County Officials Have Learned on the Front Lines

Michaela Sokol

Michaela Sokol

With over 3,000 counties throughout the US, county officials are at the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic. In an effort to help local county leaders navigate these uncharted territories, Zencity held an open discussion with county administrators from McHenry County, IL, Nevada County, CA, and Ottawa County, MI, to discuss their personal experiences.

Below are three lessons they shared:

 1. Cohesive Cross-Channel Communication is Key

Getting communication processes and plans in order at the onset of the virus proved difficult. With no benchmarks in place or previous messaging best practices mapped out, local government leaders had to jump through hurdles quickly and efficiently.

As new and constantly changing information was publicized by the CDC and the IDPH, Scott Hartman, Deputy County Administrator of McHenry County along with his team, solely focused on residents pressing needs while highlighting locally relevant data. As a result, they were able to form a Joint Information Centre (JIC), which used a multi-agency approach towards messaging. This allowed the County to ensure their residents were getting consistent and reliable information from a wide range of sources. Additionally, as new resident concerns came to light, the County adjusted messaging in real-time. Messaging shifted from public health concerns to highlighting the available tools the County has in place to assist with other needs, such as mental health, unemployment, and local businesses. Using Zencity’s dashboard and alerts, McHenry County was able to pivot quickly as new trends presented themselves.

McHenry County using Zencity data to create informative reports for stakeholders


2. Adaptability Above All Else

COVID-19 demands that county leaders think on their feet and respond as quickly as possible. One major adaptation has come in the form of Census 2020 outreach.

Nevada County’s assistant CEO, Mali Dyck, shared how the County’s initial plan to increase participation was to hold kiosk and pop-up events. With that option no longer available, the County had to adapt quickly. They enlisted the help of partner organizations that provide social services, like food banks, as well as family resource centers to reach out to the community. In a more updated approach, the County began reaching out through social media and other mediums, including, radio, local newspaper, outdoor banners, and phone banking.

Meanwhile, Coronavirus hit local economies hard. In an effort to help their local businesses, Nevada County set up the “Nevada County Relief Fund” to support those who did not qualify for state funding. To date, over $400,000 in community grants have been awarded through NCRF. Additionally, the ‘Reopening Advisory Committee’ was created by the County to collect and disseminate best practices for reopening, including template plans and training for working under social distancing measures. The County used Zencity to analyze residents’ opinions on various reopening issues. For example, after noticing a spike in conversations in favor of implementing a mask mandate, County leaders reached out to businesses in their jurisdiction requiring all employees to wear masks.


3. From Anecdotal to Ongoing Resident Surveying

Out with the old and in with the new. This new-normal is just that, and local government leaders are stepping up by innovating and laying the groundwork for new crisis management processes.

Alan Vanderberg, the County Administrator from Ottawa County, MI, expressed how his team’s openness to innovation has helped them face the crisis. This County has had its finger on the pulse for years, in fact they began conducting citizen surveys 17 years ago. Now, with Zencity they are the ultimate innovators, referring to the product as a “24/7” survey, as it enables them to sync up with residents whenever they want; from monitoring residents’ reactions to the County’s COVID-19 efforts to gauging resident feedback on various projects and initiatives led by County leadership such as the Green Route Infrastructure project.

For the full webinar recording, watch here.

Learn how Zencity can help your County navigate any crisis, here.

Back to School? Residents’ Top 4 Concerns About Reopening Schools During COVID-19

Michaela Sokol

Michaela Sokol

Since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, schooling and education has been one of the top concerns for families and communities. Facing daunting economic challenges and with the utmost concern for child development and public health, school districts and policymakers must now make unprecedented decisions: from building new policies and procedures to enable in-person learning, training teachers to work online, and ensuring adequate broadband internet access to make e-learning possible.

Parents, teachers, and community members are actively sharing their concerns and questions about school policies online. For decision makers, this presents an enormous challenge: administrators need to both stay on top of issues and questions raised, while making sure that initiatives and health guidelines are properly communicated to residents.

In the months leading up to the beginning of the school year, Zencity has observed an uptick in resident discourse across all of our 150+ partner cities and counties. We analyzed the data and provided local decision makers with insights to help them understand the primary concerns that residents are voicing online. Here’s what we’re seeing below.

Top School-related Concerns and Themes Facing Residents

#1: Wearing Masks in Class

    • As a Zencity insight for one Minnesota city reveals, this topic leaves many residents divided. While some acknowledged that it would be difficult to enforce but still necessary, others insisted that they will refuse to force their child to wear a mask while learning.


    • In communities and regions where mask-wearing has been less common, generally in sparsely populated areas, school officials are concerned that coronavirus cases will increase as students return to the classroom.

#2: Working Parent Predicament

    • A common theme raised across many of our partner cities and counties is the near-impossible situation in which working parents will find themselves if they need to facilitate their child’s online learning.


    • As analysis for a city in an Indiana town indicates, some residents are worried that they may need to quit their job, or that they will not be able to support their child’s learning whileworking full-time.

#3: Alternative Options and Hybrid Solutions

    • In response to proposed hybrid-models of learning, parents looked for more information and freedom to choose the most suitable options for their children.
    • When a county in Virginia announced its plans to begin the school year in person in August, and later shift to online learning in September, Zencity analysis revealed resident concern and confusion, with 17% negative response. In comparison, when one of the same county’s school districts announced the plan to open the year exclusively with virtual learning, their announcement generated only 4% negative interactions, and 19% positive.


    • Acting on their residents’ concerns, Louisiana school districts are making necessary changes to account for COVID-19. Desks will be spaced apart in classrooms, and classes are being staggered to minimize the number of students in the hall at one time. The school day will also be shortened to allow for more online teaching.

#4: Internet Access and the Digital Divide

    • While virtual learning programs have been largely supported by residents, many are significantly concerned that not every student has equal opportunity to learn from home due to the lack of viable high-speed internet or computers at home. Some commenters called on their local governments to offer free Wi-Fi to households as a solution. 

Image Source: digitalbridgek12.org 

    • For example, Charleston County has been a pioneer in this field. At the start of the pandemic, the director of the school district amplified WiFi output signals inside schools so that those living in close proximity can use it.They also deployed WiFi busses across the city to provide access in different neighborhoods. Charleston school officials are now providing internet access at 30 sites across the district.

Prioritizing Education through Resident Discourse

With so many differing opinions and concerns across the US, it’s more critical than ever to understand what your residents think. As the discussion continues to evolve, and new facts come to light regarding the virus, the ability to keep up with resident discourse is crucial. Local governments can use this information as a guiding force as they continue to work with school boards and parents towards the best solution for their children’s education and health. Learn how you can analyze and understand resident sentiment in your jurisdiction with the power of AI, here.

[PR] Zencity Raises $13.5 Million in Funding to Help Local Government Leaders Make Data-Driven Decisions

Michaela Sokol

Michaela Sokol

Funding round was led by TLV Partners and joined by Salesforce Ventures in addition to existing investors Canaan Partners Israel, Vertex Ventures, M12 – Microsoft’s Venture Fund, and i3 Equity Partners

Zencity, the leading provider of AI-based insights for local governments, announced today the closing of a $13.5 million funding round. The round was led by venture capital firm TLV Partners and joined by strategic investor Salesforce Ventures, in addition to the company’s existing investors – Canaan Partners Israel (CPI), Vertex VenturesM12 – Microsoft’s Venture Fund, and i3 Equity Partners.

Zencity uses advanced AI to provide local government agencies with actionable insights about their communities’ needs and priorities based on discourse in digital channels. The platform collects millions of resident-generated data points from a multitude of sources and using award-winning AI algorithms, transforms this mass of unstructured data into real-time and ongoing insights for local government leaders. These capabilities allow local governments to understand wide-scale community feedback and ensure they can truly hear the range of their residents’ voices.

Founded in 2015, the Tel Aviv-based company has been growing exponentially and today supports over 150 cities and counties of all sizes across four countries and 28 US states – including major cities like Los AngelesHouston and Chicago, mid-size communities like Fort Lauderdale, FL, and Dayton, OH; and even small communities like State College, PA. 

During this turbulent time, as local governments battle the COVID-19 pandemic and undertake the task of economic recovery, Zencity’s platform has been pivotal in their responses. Local governments face a host of unique challenges; creating and enforcing social distancing policies, supporting local businesses, managing health services, and above all, providing their citizens with accurate and timely information. These challenges require understanding their residents’ needs, concerns and priorities in real time and on a wide scale, to ensure a quick feedback loop as they shape their policies, actions and messaging. Since the start of the pandemic, Zencity has added dozens of government agencies to its network, including Austin, TXLong Beach, CA and Oak Ridge, TN.

With this latest funding round, the company will continue to expand its product’s ability to serve the unique needs of state and local government agencies, particularly during these times of uncertainty. The funding will also aid in building out new strategic partnerships and further expand the company’s market presence.   

“We are proud to be able to help the heroic women and men of local government at a time when resident feedback is incredibly valuable and are looking forward to continuing in these efforts thanks to our incredible partners,” said Eyal Feder-Levy, Zencity CEO. “Now more than ever, this investment is further proof of local governments’ acute need for real-time resident feedback. The ability to provide municipal leaders with actionable data improves the efficiency and effectiveness of their work.”

“We see great value in the unique approach taken by Zencity and are excited to lead this funding round,” said Eitan Bek, Managing Partner at TLV Partners. “This is our first investment in a government focused company, and we see the amazing potential in supporting this sector’s needs. It is usually a “tough” market to penetrate, let alone scale in, and we were inspired by what Eyal, Ido and their government-obsessed team has been able to achieve.”

About Zencity

Zencity is an AI-powered data analytics tool providing local governments with data-driven insights about their communities’ needs and priorities. Zencity’s platform analyzes millions of pieces of anonymized, aggregated feedback from varied sources like social media, local broadcast media and government customer service channels to offer actionable insights based on trending topics in citizens’ conversations. Over 150 local government agencies in the US, from HoustonChicago, and Los Angeles to the Village of Lemont, IL, use Zencity to prioritize resources, shape policies, track performance and connect with their communities. Visit https://zencity.io for more information.

About TLV Partners

TLV Partners is a venture capital firm with $490m under management and a community of over 30 portfolio companies across different sectors. The fund is dedicated to investing in innovative and disruptive early stage start-ups. The firm seeks not only to invest, but also to partner and get involved with the start-ups it invests in. Learn more at www.tlv.partners.

About Salesforce Ventures

Salesforce is the global leader in Customer Relationship Management (CRM), bringing companies closer to their customers in the digital age. Salesforce Ventures, the global investment arm of Salesforce, invests in the next generation of enterprise technology that extends the power of the Salesforce Platform. Salesforce Ventures is building the world’s largest ecosystem of enterprise cloud companies and extending that technology to customers. Portfolio companies receive funding, strategic advisory, and operating support, and can easily join Pledge 1% to make giving back part of their business model. Salesforce Ventures has invested in more than 400 companies, including DocuSign, GoCardless, Guild Education, nCino, Twilio, Zoom, and others across 22 countries since 2009. For more information, please visit www.salesforce.com/ventures.


BBQ, Fireworks, and Masks: Understanding Residents Coronavirus Concerns this 4th of July

Michaela Sokol

Michaela Sokol

Co-Author: Assaf Frances

Public events and gatherings were (and are continuing to be) postponed, altered or cancelled altogether in response to Coronavirus sweeping the nation; but what are local governments planning for the upcoming federal holiday, on July 4th? Traditionally, Independence Day is celebrated throughout the U.S. with parades, barbecues, fireworks and general outdoor activities, yet this year, with ‘Phase Two’ of reopening in effect and lessons learnt from Memorial Day celebrations will undoubtedly be impacted.

As public servants, local government leaders have their residents’ best interests in mind but what do residents have to say? How are cities innovating in terms of balancing their people’s will to celebrate while keeping them safe and healthy?

Fireworks Fizzle out

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Almost as American as apple pie, fireworks have long been associated with July 4th celebrations. While not necessarily enjoyed in close proximity, like parades and festivals, many local leaders have expressed concern over the potential of citizens gathering at a time when stay at home orders are enacted and social distancing is still encouraged. Citizens have been making their preferences heard, with online conversations around the holiday spiking first around mid-May and then again around early June. After analyzing approximately 25,000 public data points of online discussions surrounding the topic across our 130+ partner cities and counties, the data showed that 3:1 residents reacted negatively to cancelling fireworks shows. The data here indicates that despite health concerns, residents are in favor of celebrating over not at all.


In Alabama, for example, a number of cities have announced the cancellation of their fireworks display, including the City of Gulf Shores. However, city leaders are facing both praise and criticism for their actions, putting them in a unique predicament. For example, in response to residents’ perplexion on the subject, Grant Brown, the city’s spokesman, elaborated: “There have been a lot of negative comments from people who are saying that you invited people to the beaches, so what’s the difference with fireworks,” said Brown. “But we are hosting this event and social distancing isn’t something we could guarantee.” In addition to the reason for keeping people separated in order to prevent a surge in cases, residents in favor have also expressed the current climate in America as a reason to hit pause on any celebration of independence. Moreover, many feel that taxpayers’ money can be better utilized elsewhere at the moment.

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Meanwhile in Brownsburg, Indiana, city and county officials announced the scaling back of their usual 4th of July celebrations but they were adamant about not extinguishing their firework display. While there will be no parade or block party this year, Town Manager, Jeff Eder, explained that “even though we are in the midst of COVID-19, town leadership couldn’t imagine July 4 without fireworks.” By holding the display in a local park, the city feels confident in residents ability to enjoy the show safely. Zencity’s data has shown that in towns like Brownsburg, where they decided to proceed as normal with their celebratory activities, over 90% of residents reacted positively.

Rather than cancelling or altering their firework shows, there are many cities throughout the country that are rescheduling and postponing their firework events. Tullahoma, TN, and the Township of Beachwood, NJ, have both postponed their firework displays to Labor Day. Comparatively, Jacksonville Beach, FL, rescheduled their firework event for New Years Eve, and Troup County, GA  has pushed off their event to August 8th. There are also some cities keeping the date but changing the venue. Instead of having residents watch from a designated area, cities like McAllen, TX, plan to broadcast their firework show so residents can enjoy safely from their homes. Meanwhile, in Harlingen, TX, residents have the option to watch from their cars. Similarly, the City of Elk Grove, CA, is getting innovative and will be launching their fireworks from an undisclosed location and encouraging residents to watch from just outside their homes. The city will also simultaneously broadcast a soundtrack on a local radio station for a fully immersive experience. From our data assessment and examination of a range of online city announcements, there doesn’t seem to be a clear cut view of how to best celebrate the upcoming holiday, but one thing is certain: local governments are doing their best to listen to residents’ concerns and adjust accordingly. CA

Pause on Parades

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While there is a lot of confusion and conflicting beliefs on how municipalities should traverse national celebrations in the wake of reopening, when it comes to parades, residents seem to be in favor of canceling.

The City of Waukee, IA, for example, is still planning on premiering its firework show to its citizens but have announced the cancellation of both its Independence Day carnival and parade. Why cancel one and not the other? City leaders proposed that it is easier to enforce social distancing amongst residents in a designated area that they know can incorporate large crowds of people.

Alternatively, the famous town of Woodstock, NY, known for its large amounts of land capable of hosting mass gatherings, canceled its July 4th Spectacular Parade and Festival entirely, in order to comply with the CDC’s guidelines and restrictions put in place by the state government. The announcement was paired with a message from City Manager, Jeff Moon, who explained, “We consulted with elected officials, state officials and staff and determined that there is no good way to stage Woodstock’s annual parade and festival this year with current restrictions in effect.”

However, there are always outliers, such as some New Jersey towns planning to move forward with their 4th of July celebrations. Ocean County officials have extended their parade route by 4 blocks to encourage social distancing from participants. The parade, complete with homemade floats, decorated bikes, and musical performances, is “very much a resident (affair) and people look forward to it,” said Councilwoman Joella Nicastro. Prioritizing the health and safety of their community members is indicated by the examples above. While it isn’t ideal to cancel celebrations, the general consensus seems to be that it is preferred over facing another spike in COVID-19 infections, similar to what happened this past Memorial Day.

Leveraging Community Engagement Technology

With each city, county and state in its own phase of the reopening process, local government leaders must be able to formulate a means for effective two-way communication with residents. Rather than only using traditional methods of market research like surveys and polls, leveraging community engagement technology allows for city and county leaders to maximize resident communication and stay ahead of a crisis. For example, Cranberry Township, PA, used insights collected from online public discourse to quantify negative reactions following the cancelation of a major event due to the initial outbreak of the virus. The city’s communication team was then able to realign messaging and validate the success of their efforts based on data that showed a significant increase in positive sentiment. Technologies that can alert users in real-time with actual resident feedback are key in situations where resident sentiment differs greatly and local leadership is looking to improve community solidarity.

There is no one size fits all solution. As you can see from the data above, it is challenging and practically impossible for local government leaders to ensure that every citizen is “happy” when it comes to celebrating this 4th of July. It’s more important now than ever before to separate needs from wants and local leaders across the country are doing just that by putting their residents’ health and safety first. The ability to engage with residents in real time and prioritize their concerns, can help guide local leaders as they navigate these critical times, and particularly as it relates to public events and celebrations’.

For more information on how you can leverage technology to better engage with your residents about public and community events, request a demo.

4 Best Practices for CIOs and Local Gov Leaders Amid the COVID-19 Crisis

Michaela Sokol

Michaela Sokol

With activitations of state of emergencies throughout the U.S. and self-isolation periods lasting beyond a month, the very fabric of society has been impacted . Many local government CIOs had contingency plans in place pre-corona, to ensure the uninterrupted continuation of operations in their district despite particular crises. However, in light of the unprecedented, rapid evolution of the COVID-19 outbreak and new technological challenges, CIOs have found themselves rushing to adapt to these tumultuous times. With no previous “coronavirus guide book” available for reference, many leaders must adjust on the fly. Leaders that possess accurate data to drive those decisions are often able to adapt more quickly and confidently, despite these uncertain times.

One of those data driven city leaders is Michael Pegues, CIO of Aurora, IL. On April 7th, Michael hosted a special webinar alongside Zencity, to discuss the acute needs and issues facing CIOs in the wake of the global pandemic. While each city across the country is facing a new set of challenges according to state declarations, confirmed case numbers, and unique economic needs, Michael took the time to share his  experience from the City of Aurora, in the hopes of helping other local government leaders as they navigate this “new normal”. 

To help you extract takeaways as quickly as possible, we’ve summarized 4 core challenges that were discussed in the webinar and how to tackle them effectively:

1. Effectively Communicating with Residents

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Michael put it best when he said, “Open up the lines of communication with your team.” He also stressed the importance of having both internal and external conversations amongst colleagues and peers as a means to plan, strategize and anticipate. With more residents taking to the internet to voice their thoughts and concerns on COVID-19, this lends itself to data-based actionable insights that government leaders can rely on. In situations where time is of the essence, the ability to methodically communicate with one’s residents is a must

  • Use data to streamline communication between internal teams and departments, and take part in conversations with external sources. This can help fortify your city’s response methods and plan of action. 

  • The rise in misinformation and disinformation across non-city owned channels has made it difficult for cities and local governments to ensure that the right messages are circulating amongst residents. There is an urgent need to actively track discourse on these channels to fully understand what their community is talking about when it comes to COVID-19. Zencity’s AI based technology is unique in that it can collect public discourse across city owned and non-city owned channels and help cities, like Aurora, quickly identify sources of misinformation in real time. 

  • As a Zencity partner city, Aurora has been utilizing the Zencity dashboard regularly as a means of understanding its residents key concerns through online discourse, allowing Michael and his team to effectively allocate  resources and communicate priorities internally and externally.

2. Digital Transformation and Moving to the Virtual Space

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Traditionally, local government work is primarily conducted via face-to-face interactions. Now, this has proved rather difficult as public servants deal with and enforce new social distancing laws. Whereas, many local governments had begun implementing new technological systems into their daily activities, the full scale of the pandemic has led to local government teams having to fully rely on technology, implementing new systems, like call directories, collaboration tools and cloud based solutions. When it comes to new workforce technology, many won’t consider the government sector as early adopters. However, with this being considered the new normal, many municipalities are testing out new platforms and solutions, in hopes of increasing productivity and optimizing performance. 

  • First and foremost, assess your current incident response plans and policies, in order to adjust and react in a concise manner and execute accordingly. As the majority of federal attention has been focused on national capacities, many local governments have been left by the wayside. This has led to the formation of groups like the Bloomberg coronavirus response network for mayors, an online network of mayors and public health experts helping communities deal with the spread of the novel coronavirus. You should seek out communities like these for guidance on managing medical facilities, handling quarantines, and providing overall support for residents who have fallen ill. 

  • Cloud based solutions provide governments with the means and capabilities of using the technology ecosystem that is available in the physical office, while enabling them to work from home, with relatively few alterations. 

  • Utilizing video conferencing and online meeting tools like Zoom have been a saving grace in community engagement. For example, Aurora, began hosting their city council meetings on Zoom in light of COVID-19. Zoom has truly proven its worth, especially in times of crisis, as Aurora city council members had a virtual turnout of 9500 citizens in their last meeting, compared to the 2400 people they average on their Facebook live streams, pre-corona. 

    • CIOs need to embrace that city hall meetings are now digital and support its logistics. It is also necessary to seek out feedback from residents accordingly. Cities like Venice, FL, are making sure all bases are covered, providing their members a variety of participation options. These include: dialing in by phone, watching online passively, watching online and providing public commentary in real time and watching online and emailing, mailing or dropping off comments/questions before the proposed cut off time. 

  • Tackling the backend operations of virtual webinars has also taken some adapting. Governments are looking at tools like Docusign to get signatures remotely, from both government employees and residents.

3. Overcoming Supply Chain and Resource Challenges

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One of the biggest obstacles that CIOs and local governments currently face is the lack of IT resources readily available and no means of production in sight. Aurora, IL, in particular, has 1,200 government employees and over 90% of them are currently working remotely. In times of calm, it is extremely important to perform due diligence as a means of developing a more efficient supply chain and delegation system for when the next unforeseen crisis occurs. With many local governments facing limited resources and a deteriorating economy, it is crucial to find a solution fast.   

  • To put this in perspective, the city had approximately 10 laptops readily available for distribution within its municipality at the onset of the virus. Similarly, if you scale this across the U.S. it is apparent there is a huge need of thousands of personal computers and laptops across the governmental supply chain.  

    • According to the Public Technology Institute, only 50% of local government tech officials said their organizations are ready to distribute laptops and mobile devices to employees who are ordered or decide to work from home during the ongoing coronavirus crisis.

  • Hardware isn’t the only thing in short supply for local governments throughout America. Software, effective infrastructure, Internet support, VPNs, etc., are all in high demand, with the majority of governments ill prepared, struggling to pick up the pieces.

  • Finding the right means of acquisition and distribution is vital. With the DOD and federal government first in line for prioritized resources, local governments are at a standstill. Many state officials, like Illinois’ Gov. Pritzker has turned to the federal government, requesting a new procurement legislation that would increase productivity of essential resources to help them manage the epidemic as best they can.0

4. Departmental Accessibility and Support

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While there are many benefits of technology in the workforce, particularly in times of social distancing, there are also residual drawbacks. It is the CIO’s responsibility, alongside his or her team, to tackle these limitations appropriately, as some departments easily migrate to digital platforms, while others do not. How can this be done to ensure efficiency in the workplace?

  • Development services departments, which include code enforcements, building permits, property standards, public works, etc. are providing most of their forms online so they’re easily accessible. In Aurora, they have also begun conducting virtual inspections using tools like Duo, Zoom and Facetime

    • Enacting these capabilities for these departments have shown them how valuable they are, as they are easy to utilize, and simultaneously, increase productivity. These methods are also being used to validate operational performance in areas where cost could be optimized. 

  • However, more paper heavy departments, like that of Human Resources, are greatly in need of digitized services. The City of Aurora is using this time to prioritize the search for different services and digital tools which can be used to benefit these types of departments. For example, moving timesheets and paychecks online. The benefits of a more connected, digital workforce, will remain long after we finish the battle on coronavirus. 

  • Pre-corona, Aurora’s police department and Water production group, were some of the city departments who had already begun moving into the digital space. This more readily prepared them and expedited their transition as early adopters. With no choice but to move departmental work online, department heads would be wise to look at the tools they have had to employ and determine what can be utilized long after the curve is flattened.

In Conclusion

While everyone has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, not everyone has been affected equally. From limited resources, to finite federal support and general technological hurdles, local government leaders must adapt rapidly and seek out strategic partnerships, alternative technologies and virtual solutions to help in their fight against coronavirus. Local government heads and CIOs, like Michael Pegues, are also leveraging  online resident feedback data to understand their residents’ needs and service performance. By utilizing a tool like Zencity to swiftly gather and track thousands of public discourse data points in real time, the Aurora team is able to pinpoint their community’s needs and improve crisis management, recently leveraging our data to manage a  tragic incident.  To learn how our additional 130+ partner cities and counties are leveraging the Zencity platform in light of the pandemic, check out our COVID-19 Action Plan.  

Stay Apart and Keep Strong: 5 Key Approaches Local Governments Have Taken to Adapt Services and Events During COVID-19

Michaela Sokol

Michaela Sokol

Stronger together, weaker apart; or so the saying goes. In the wake of the Coronavirus era social distancing has become the new norm and we all need to find a way to stay apart while keeping strong. With new guidelines in place we’ve seen a plethora of public events of different scales being postponed or cancelled, as well as general shutdowns of many local facilities and services. Yet, through these tough times, our communities prove to continue and support us, share-in experiences in ways we couldn’t imagine, and above all provide us with a deeper sense of belonging than before.

Local governments are at the front lines of this crisis, and remain a key facilitator of the new community resilience. They equip their residents with the information they need in order to stay aware of the situation as well as with ongoing social, mental, and community support. Services formerly administered by our cities are required to adapt and meet the new needs of the time. Public events and recreation facilities that used to provide us with cohesion and joy need to find new ways to continue and deliver these values in times when social distancing is a requirement.

Over the past weeks we have seen many local authorities adapting their services and events to the new reality COVID-19 has presented us with. Below are 5 ways they’re doing this:

1. Virtual City Hall

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Particularly in times of heightened panic and uncertainty, city halls need to continue serving their communities and keep them informed and engaged. From New Orleans, LA to La Verne, CA and many places in between, cities are announcing virtual public access to essential local government meetings in their district. In order to maintain safe social distancing practices, cities have turned to Skype video chats, Zoom conferencing and Facebook and Youtube live streams in order for citizens to take an active part in these meetings; and they are! Aurora, ILordinarily finds an approximate of 20-50 attendees at their council meetings, however, their latest virtual meeting had 350 attendees. 

By way of their official city websites, government leaders are taking a transparent approach in keeping the public informed with the latest updates on COVID-19 response initiatives. Many cities, including Durango, CO and Grand Forks, ND , have pages solely dedicated to their new virtual city hall meetings which include streaming capabilities of the most recent meetings as well as summaries.

As city council meetings make their way to the virtual realm, local governments like Cedar Park, TX and Venice, FL are encouraging public comments and announcements via email and website submission forms, which can then be read aloud at the live assembly and help maintain a sense of normalcy and order.

2. Community Engagement

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In times of crisis the ability to communicate in real time with members of one’s community, is of the utmost importance. As they adapt to the times, we’ve seen many instances of cities moving their community engagement outreach into the digital space. For example, government heads in cities like Lemont, IL and Wellesley, MA, have created coronavirus community Facebook groups as a way to openly communicate with their community members in a clear and concise manner. These enable cities to provide members with services they can no longer access in person, such as holiday festivities, a list of general resources, and virtual community events. 

But that’s not all that’s changed since the onset of the virus. Many official city websites, like that of Buffalo Grove, IL and San Francisco, CA, have dedicated pages built with the sole intention of keeping their residents up to date on the most recent COVID-19 local news. These pages advise community members on COVID-19 related services, like donations, paying bills online, a list of open businesses, and online resources. Additionally, to ensure their community members’ needs are being met, cities like Fort Worth, TX and Norwalk, CT have issued surveys to gauge community pain points and areas of improvement. State College, PA and the Village of Buffalo Grove, IL engaged residents with a Zencity Survey to learn about their Awareness and Impact during COVID-19.

We have also seen an uptick in resident discourse and engagement on cities’ official social media pages as local government teams have begun utilizing social media platforms much more as a way to keep their residents informed in real time. With an increase in volume of online conversation, we also know that residents are using digital channels more than ever to find relevant information and to raise their concerns, thoughts and ideas. 

Zencity’s recent findings show that residents are finding true value in the information provided by their city. Many residents are also taking an active part in disseminating these updates by actively “sharing” this information with their community and close social circles. We are seeing now more than ever, how important social media and the digital realm are in keeping communities united.

3. Virtual Parks and Recreation

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With every recreation and community center’s physical locations closed for the foreseeable future, how are these departments accommodating their services? For those cities trying to maintain a sense of normalcy, like Mountain View, CA  a virtual recreation center was introduced, housing a variety of activities promoting mindfulness, health and motivation. The Community Services Departments out of Lake Forest, CA and South Bend, IN, have also been offering resources via the city’s website, in order to inspire their community members to engage in new and creative activities that will in turn promote the community’s health and well-being. From virtual art exhibits, to online workout classes and museum live streams, residents won’t need to leave their front door to partake in leisurely activities.

One of the best examples we’ve seen of local rec centers truly engaging and encouraging their community members is Reno, NV. In addition to ensuring their community members can maintain a sense of normalcy, by way of providing them with all they need to stay healthy, entertained and well-informed, the virtual rec center is encouraging community participation, asking residents for any of their ideas and resources to include on the page. After all, who knows community members better than the members themselves? 

4. Culture, Arts and Events

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Arts and culture go hand in hand and are vital parts of any community. With federal laws prohibiting US residents from partaking in group gatherings, local governments have taken to alternative methods of promoting culture and community unity. The Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs, under the leadership of Mayor Eric Garcetti, the Los Angeles City Council, and the Cultural Affairs Commission, has compiled a list of art and educational resources to help fill the gap during this difficult time. Meanwhile, the city of Chicago has started a “Sharing Your Art from Home” initiative, which encourages local artists to keep up their practice and helps bring color to a rather dim situation. 

Families with small children have been tasked with continuing to promote growth and educational opportunities for their kids despite the unique circumstances, as a result there have been many efforts by local governments to help in any way they can. A wonderful example of this is Greenville, SC’s, Virtual Touch-a-Truck Facebook live event, where kids can ask firefighters all of their burning questions, while also learning about the important role first responders play in their community, all from the official city Facebook page. 

One of the first cultural and entertainment facets affected by COVID-19 was art, as big gatherings and events were banned and social distancing encouraged, artists took the brunt of the blow, seeing sales and commissions dissipate in a matter of days. In an effort to combat these hardships, cities like Boston and Cambridge, MA, Denver, CO, and Portland, OR, have all established emergency artist relief funds to ensure work for artists. Boston was the first to do so, as of March 12, the city dedicated half of its budget to programming and funding for individual artists. Not every city has the funds to donate solely out of budget; Cambridge has been matching city contributions with donations from community foundations and individual donors. Both Denver and Portland have been pooling funds to then distribute amongst artists, prioritizing those with the lowest incomes.

5. Local Libraries and Book Delivery Initiatives

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Coronavirus has now touched every facet of city life, which is why we have seen public libraries turn to eBooks, audiobooks and live-streaming or hosting book discussions and storytime for kids on social media. We have also seen libraries across the country waiving late fees and extending due dates until after the worst of the virus has subsided. The Altoona Public Library in Wisconsin is taking it one step further, not just offering digital library cards so residents can access electronic resources online, but they are also considering the idea of a curbside pickup. Cities like Orlando, had a book delivery drop off in place pre-corona but since the closing of its physical location, they’ve seen requests for books by mail triple, further indicating the value of library services to communities at this time.

The Power of the Zencity Network

Whether it be a global pandemic, a natural disaster or terrorist threats, in times of hardships the power of our local authorities lies in their ability to adapt to the situation quickly and effectively. They are measured by their level of service and support they provide to their communities. From smaller places like Cedar Park, TX to metropolis’ like Los Angeles, CA we can see the true power of urban innovation addressing critical needs of residents. 

In the wake of Coronavirus, Zencity is helping local governments stay on top of their community’s discourse, aiding in their efforts to meet their residents’ needs. To see how Zencity can help your community adapt during times of crisis, contact us.