AI: The Tool You Didn’t Know You Needed to Save Time and Money For Your City

Tali Fierer

Tali Fierer

Content & Social Media Manager

The budget. It’s a pain point for most cities, especially since it usually entails budget cuts for particular departments, projects, and/or individuals, rather than budget surpluses. For cities, budgets are a complex beast. Ultimately, cities are left with the annual challenge of how to spend limited resources in the most efficient and effective way possible, and this is no easy feat. Especially because cities, in particular, are renowned for being under-funded and under staffed. The good news is that with technology today, the right tools can compensate both for budget and for staffing, and here’s how:

1. Technology is a Lean Team’s Spinach for Data Management

The same way that spinach gave Popeye superhuman strength when it seemed like he was down for the count, Artificial Intelligence (AI) can assist lean teams by suddenly boosting their abilities to do more with less. It allows cities to compensate their limited staff with the means to manage larger scale activities that would require extensive manpower, and to help them budget more effectively by keeping track of what worked and what didn’t with various projects and activities throughout the year, including when an emergency pops up.  

The City of Dayton, Ohio, for example, had a city-wide crisis on their hands when the water main for the city burst. The City’s call center, which usually handled just a couple of hundred calls per day, was suddenly swamped with thousands of calls. The situation required cross-departmental cooperation and up-to-date information needed to be available to all parties involved with the managing of the crisis. The City opened up their can of spinach, in this case, Zencity’s AI platform, to help them flex their digital muscle to analyze the massive amount of phone calls, as well as the comments through social media, to oversee the situation in real-time. The result was that Dayton was able to manage all the input it was receiving through the multiple channels, and to be able to successfully update residents and local media in real-time with a lean team.  AI provided the City with the ability to easily analyze massive amounts of information from internal and external data sources, even with limited manpower, without it getting lost along the way.

2. AI is All About the Need for Speed

Even when it’s not an emergency scenario, Artificial Intelligence can help speed up the analysis of a large volume of data for a city to help understand specific initiatives, events, and even policies. This past spring, the City of Beaverton hosted a city-wide event that became vastly oversubscribed. It used Zencity to help it prepare a report within minutes on what participants were saying on social media about the event, that otherwise would have taken its staff hours if not days to manually prepare. Abigail Elder, Director of the Office of the Mayor for the City of Beaverton, Oregon, concisely describes what an AI platform like Zencity offers the city’s staff when handling situations like the above:

“Beaverton’s staff is small and nimble. Zencity saves us time and money, particularly when it comes to pulling reports. Thanks to Zencity, we’re able to quickly and easily gather data on topics that would have normally taken extensive staff time. Zencity is therefore an excellent capacity building tool for us, and a resource-saver.”

Beaverton has also used Zencity’s platform as a capacity building tool to understand resident feedback on specific initiatives, like their innovative but initially controversial Safe Parking pilot program, which they recently launched to help tackle homelessness.

The ability to quickly process data helps cities to save time, which in turn allows staff to work on other priorities that need to be taken care of which helps save the city money.

3. Using AI to Upgrade Your Existing Toolbox

Beaverton’s examples touch on another important feature of AI – gathering and analyzing resident feedback. Traditional citizen engagement tools such as surveys and town halls have helped cities figure out and manage some of the issues that need improvement. Though ultimately these tools should help cities plan more effectively, they often end up being costly and inefficient, since they may force cities to use expensive external consulting processes and post-analysis services, meaning cities receive resident feedback answers months after they set out to answer questions. AI can help reduce this requirement by providing a quick and easily accessible means to go through results and assist with the analysis in a nuanced fashion, all at the click of a button. This is because AI can automatically collect and process vast amounts of resident feedback data instantly, something consulting teams just aren’t capable of no matter how talented.

4. Improving Efficiency with Technology

AI doesn’t just allow you to gather resident feedback data more quickly – and in real-time as Zencity lets you do – it also can gather resident feedback from a much broader range of sources in parallel, like official and unofficial channels on social media, city hotlines as noted with the Dayton example, or comments on news website. This provides a more complete understanding of what is happening in a city and what the majority of residents really think, in a timely fashion. A city is then able to avoid falling into the ‘Same Ten People’ trap where only a loud, vocal minority is heard. Understanding widespread resident feedback in real-time enables cities to take control and to be able to govern proactively, all the while being able to manage potential problems before they snowball into something larger that causes friction between residents and city officials, and often ultimately costs the city in staff and financial resources. As noted by Michael Pegues, Chief Information Officer for the City of Aurora, Illinois:

“In the short time we’ve used ZenCity, it’s been an early win in terms of improving operational efficiency and cost savings. ZenCity consolidates everything into one place. It’s easy to use and it surpasses all of the other platforms we were using to understand what’s happening in our city.”

Conclusion

Whether it’s due to balancing the budget or completing tasks with fewer resources, time and money are always on the minds of city officials. No matter what the circumstances are though, they still need to be able to provide the needed services for their residents, even in the face of financial uncertainty. With the help of Artificial Intelligence, it not only makes life easier, but actually saves time, money, enhances existing tools, and improves efficiency for the city and its residents alike.

What Do Your Residents Think About Your City’s Brand And Why Keyword Searches Can’t Help You Answer That Question

Tali Fierer

Tali Fierer

Content & Social Media Manager

Introduction

Searching for information has become intuitive, easy, and mundane. All you have to do is open your preferred search engine, type in what you’re looking for, and hit enter. That’s it. What might have taken people hours, days, or even weeks in decades past can easily be achieved within seconds in the palm of your hand with your mobile phone. Still, even with all of the technological advancements that have been made, not everything is perfect when you search online, and this is especially the case with cities and their citizens’ sentiment towards them.

What to Know What Consumers Want? Go Online

It’s easy to connect consumer sentiment to consumer goods. Some brands, like Coca-Cola, are old and established from the days before the shift to digital, while others, like Amazon, built their reputation thanks to the digital age. For big brands, keeping their finger on the pulse of consumer sentiment is vital to brand success, and they spend a great deal of money to know what people are thinking about them, both offline and online. The digital world has become a primary resource for gathering data on what people like and dislike, and companies rely on a host of digital tools to help them aggregate this data to understand consumer behavior and preferences. Digital tools for big brands rely on keyword searches – like “Coca-Cola” – to aggregate and analyze all brand mentions. However, unlike for private entities, these tools are weaker when it comes to providing the same type of results and information for local governments.

Why Can’t Cities Use the Same Tools?

Several factors prevent existing B2B and B2C tools, such as those used for social media management and aggregating data from those channels, from giving cities the right and relevant info needed to connect with resident preferences and feedback but a lot of it boils down to how existing digital tools and platforms use keyword searches:  

  • Many general keyword searches won’t provide relevant information for city administrators because other cities or products share the same name. Instead, they’ll overwhelm the city user with an avalanche of irrelevant information that refers to anything-but-that-particular-city. For example, Springfield exists in multiple states, and in the world of TV as home to The Simpsons. A keyword search for Corona (California), competes with the brand of beer.
  • Additionally, there are many more city-related mentions online that connect to local businesses, real-estate listings, or other organizations other than to topics or issues important for city management. Sifting through all of that data manually to pull out what’s relevant is virtually impossible in the big data age.
  • In addition to competing names and name-duplicates, another reason it’s hard for general keyword searches to pull useful information for city management is that cities have a small audience size online in proportion to the private sector, usually just consisting of the local population that resides there and perhaps on the regional level as well, so its hard for cities to compete online.
  • City websites and social media channels may not have many sites linking to them, or people actively referencing them on social media, as a consumer brand would – all things which ensure that a keyword search of a city name is unlikely to serve a city’s needs.
  • Other digital resources will most likely outrank city-specific comments and information, including a Wikipedia entry on the city itself.

So what’s the bottom line? The aggregate tools out there today that use keyword-based searches to help cities understand how they’re being spoken about in the online and social media worlds are simply not tailored for cities and their algorithms for data gathering are not city-specific. They just won’t provide the same level of information and resident feedback as a city needs. Instead, they’ll cast a wide net that returns all of the types of city mentions and discussions listed above – parallel names, competing brands, and info irrelevant to city management like Craiglist postings. The majority of this data will not be relevant for city management, and the onus will lie on city staff to dig into the data overload and figure out what actually is relevant.

Getting the Right Tools

So how can a city understand its brand presence and relevance to its residents? Local governments need a different way to be able to search and analyze data to understand what people think. This is where a city-specific platform, like Zencity, can provide a city with an understanding of its online presence and outreach, and help fill the gap for cities about resident sentiment towards their local government. Using AI technology tailored for cities, Zencity can cast a wide-net but then narrow down the data more appropriately to provide the city only relevant information for city management. For example, the algorithms can automatically differentiate someone tagging a city in a photo about a pothole versus just a selfie with their friends (both mention the city but only the first is relevant to city management). Additionally, rather than relying on keyword searches, Zencity’s team of expert data analysts knows how to identify the channels where residents are most likely discussing their city – resident groups and pages, 311 hotlines, local news sources, and more – to ensure data is being aggregated from these channels, not just from the entire social media world. Zencity’s city-specific AI algorithms are able to quickly dissect, tag, and organize all the various small pieces of information into one ‘big picture’ of what residents are saying about a city, which, in turn, helps provide local governments with the ability to pursue data-driven decisions and policies based on their residents’ real needs and priorities.

Zencity’s City-Specific AI Algorithm

Conclusion

Though cities do not have the same kind of presence online as a familiar brand in the private sector, there is still a wealth of invaluable information out there that a city normally has limited resources to collect and analyze without technology. By using the power of an AI-driven, city-specific platform that provides the right information for city officials, a city can hone in, at the click of a button, on the relevant online feedback information it can use to better serve its residents, which it would not otherwise be able to do with a platform that just relies on general keyword searches.

What’s the Best Approach to Managing E-Scooters in a City?

Tali Fierer

Tali Fierer

Content & Social Media Manager

E-Scooters have taken over the streets in cities across the world and the US has been the epicenter of the e-scooter phenomenon where companies like Bird and Lime took disruptive measures to introduce their new services to the market. The introduction of these dockless vehicles to city life was often met with no shortage of controversy as residents adjusted to this new mode of transportation.

People riding recklessly, scooters blocking sidewalks, and pedestrians getting hit are part of the difficulties when e-scooters are introduced into a new urban environment. On the flip side, they help connect people to public transportation by closing gaps in the system, provide a great alternative to cars and bikes within a city, and are fun to use. Though e-scooters make the headlines in less than flattering ways at times, the overall sentiment amongst Americans is surprisingly positive. Still, not every city welcomed this innovative transportation alternative with open arms, as was the case with the City of San Francisco, while others struggled with what to do with the sudden change.

The Town of Cary, North Carolina, for example, experienced such a conundrum when e-scooters popped up one day on its streets. Though there were certainly some loud and vocal complaints being expressed towards the e-scooters, and neighboring towns and cities already announced their own policies on the topic, the Town decided to tackle the issue with a data-driven approach before drawing and drastic conclusions.

Using advanced Artificial Intelligence technology, the Town’s leadership gauged widespread resident feedback over a three month period, measuring resident sentiment towards the scooters. The decision to monitor what was really happening provided the Town with the voices of the silent majority, and not only the vocal minority. The Town’s leadership then armed itself with this data when making its recommendations to Town Council as to what Cary’s approach should be towards the scooters.

To learn more about how Cary decided to approach e-scooters, what data they brought to the Town Council, and how they used cutting-edge technology in the process, download the full case study.

How to Transform Resident Feedback from Negative to Positive in Your City Using Technology

Tali Fierer

Tali Fierer

Content & Social Media Manager

Cities are made by people and run by people. And because of that, not everything will run smoothly or according to plan. Often, it seems that the negative feedback from one standout incident or against one policy or project drowns out the rest of the city’s hard work, effort, and investment in the community. Sound familiar? Don’t get discouraged. We’re here to tell you that you don’t have to get bogged down in the negative – and even when negative feedback is so overwhelming that you think the only solution is to rewrite policy, head to the city council, or scratch an initiative, there is hope. More than that, it’s possible to do more than just neutralize a negative situation; you can actually transform it into a positive one with the assistance of technology.

Turning Crisis Into Positive Community Dialogue

Crisis-management in a city is no walk in the park. A city has to solve the crisis and, at the same time, keep residents informed and make them feel secure and taken care of. Traditionally, cities responded to the public through local media, which often controls and frames the discussion. Today cities also have the world of social media and online news sources to contend with. Technology has incredible applications for crisis-management, with the potential to enable cities to take control and lead the conversation about an event, and follow what’s happening with residents in real-time to create positive results. This means that rather than being threatened by the 24-hour news cycle and the possibility of a disaster going viral, cities now have a way to leverage these opportunities and give them an edge of control.

The City of Corona, California, faced exactly the kind of crisis every town fears. Local police discovered the body of an abandoned, deceased infant and the incident became viral, triggering a firestorm of activity and criticism both online and offline towards the city and its Safe Surrender policy. The local government used Aritificial Intelligence to manage the swell of resident feedback. Where previously it might have been overwhelmed with the amount of discourse, AI allowed city hall, at the click of a button, to understand and break down resident sentiment towards the situation in a clear fashion to provide it with nuanced insights. The data showed that various rumors and misinformation were taking hold of the discussion within the media and the public at large and that residents did not have a complete picture of policy and the case itself. With this knowledge, the city used technology to implement a proactive, data-driven approach to manage the crisis, and responded in a targetted way to correct the misinformation and its citizens’ concerns. City leaders were able to improve engagement and communication, shifting a difficult, crisis situation into fruitful community dialogue. And with technology, the city could also track this shift, from negative to positive.

Getting Residents on Board When They Hate Your Project

Even though you have good intentions to improve your city, sometimes residents’ knee-jerk response will simply be to hate your plan as soon as they hear about it. Maybe they feel it will change the neighborhood’s character, other times they may think it will just be too disruptive to their day-to-day lives. Or, residents might simply not understand the city’s broader vision. You can’t always please everyone, but a serious mistake a city can make is to make assumptions and brush aside citizen sentiment without checking what residents are really thinking. Technology can help to bridge the gap between city hall and its citizens to create better trust and understanding between the two groups, and ultimately even to help align residents with your good intentions.

The City of Ashdod, Israel, is a great case-in-point. As part of its vision to catapult its public transportation system into the future, the city rolled out a long term infrastructure project called the Bus Rapid Transport (BRT). When construction began, residents expressed their immediate dissatisfaction with the project, and city hall made its assumptions about what it believed was the problem – traffic caused by roadwork. The relationship between the two deteriorated and started a downward spiral that resulted in serious criticism of the current administration and nearly stopped the BRT as a whole. Something needed to change. The city decided to take a hard look at the data around it by using technology. The government was aware that there was a great deal of discontent being expressed on social media, but with AI, it was able to quantify and analyze the data to specify what was really upsetting the residents. To the surprise of the city, it learned that residents weren’t resisting the impact of construction; they were pushing back on the BRT system as a whole and they didn’t understand the city’s broader vision. With this kind of insight, the city adjusted its messaging, followed how residents responded, and was able to rebuild trust between city hall and the community. The result was not only that Ashdod succeeded in quieting a lot of the negative pushback, but public perception of the project as a whole was transformed. The project gained a majority of public support and the city was able to continue with it, this time with positive community feedback.

It is All in the Data

While city officials can expect some bumps in the road and complaints as part of residents’ day-to-day discourse with the city, there are some scenarios which can snowball beyond expectations. When that situation develops, it can feel like everything is out of control, especially when your residents’ displeasure comes in from every direction. None-the-less, it is possible to manage negative feedback loops with the use of technology to help clear the way through the sea of criticism. With the right tools, you can do even more and create a positive outcome for all.