A Return to Normalcy: Truly Celebrating Independence this Fourth of July

Zencity

Zencity

Many were left disappointed after last year’s lackluster July 4th celebrations; a result of the global pandemic. However, this Independence Day things may be looking up. With vaccinations available to all, President Joe Biden said he is hopeful that America can “mark independence” from Covid-19 on the 4th, hoping to have 70% of all US adults at least partially vaccinated.

As of mid-June, 13 states have met Biden’s goal and much of the US is slowly returning to “normal.” With cities and counties each facing their own unique set of vaccination challenges, local leaders are adjusting celebrations accordingly, prioritizing their residents’ health and safety above all else. With the National Holiday just around the corner and vaccine rates plateauing, here’s how local leaders have planned festivities in their communities.

Modified Celebrations

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Last year, public events and gatherings were postponed, heavily altered, or cancelled altogether, but this year, despite modifying or scaling back on many of the activities, community celebrations should be reminiscent of years prior. 

Jersey City’s Freedom and Fireworks event will not include the festival and superstar concerts of the past, but residents will be able to watch the show at the Hudson River waterfront. For reference, 46% of Jersey City residents are vaccinated. The City’s Mayor, Steven Fulop, said, “We’ve come a long way since this time last year, and bringing back the fireworks next month will not only commemorate our nation’s independence, but, for many, it also serves as a big step towards normalcy following a year of lockdowns worldwide.” 

In the Great State of Texas, Harris County officials have modified their Fourth of July celebrations for the second year in a row due to Covid-19 restrictions. While the annual Shell Freedom over Texas celebratory concert will be held virtually this year, locals can attend the fireworks show in person at select open spaces. Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner cited low vaccination rates, with 34% of Harris County residents fully vaccinated, and risk of spread among concertgoers as the rationale for the modifications. 

Back in Action

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After a one-year hiatus, cities and counties with vaccination rates above the national average are picking up where they last left off. No adjustments or changes required, these communities are able to celebrate like years prior much to the delight of their residents.

Milwaukee County recently removed their outdoor capacity limits at county parks, allowing them to proceed with their 4th of July fireworks. County Executive David Crowley explained this decision was “based on the consistent positive trends in vaccination rates and low infection rates.”

Deputy City Manager Toni Lundgren of Manteca, CA, confirmed that their annual Fourth of July fireworks show and Main Street parade are also a go this year. The City has a higher percentage of its targeted population fully vaccinated against Covid-19 than the California and national averages, with nearly 60% of Manteca’s adult residents having received at least one dose.

Community Engagement Platforms for Analyzing Resident Sentiment

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Analyzing over 175,000 public data points of online discussions on July 4th celebrations from across our hundreds of partner cities and counties, the data shows that positive sentiment around July 4th festivities this year is almost 3X higher than negative. Meanwhile, in the first week of June alone, we see the highest number of interactions on the topic compared to any other week since the beginning of March, highlighting residents’ excitement towards a long awaited return to normal. A deep dive into the discourse shows eager residents expressing their joy over the possibility of coming together to celebrate this year, even if celebrations involve certain limitations and modifications. While only a small share of the sentiment is negative, the primary concern was the possibility of unvaccinated residents attending events.

It’s important to understand from residents what and how they feel towards locally run programs and events, like holiday celebrations, or vaccine initiatives and other resident-centric issues. Many communities have made impressive headway with their vaccine rollouts, resulting in the ability to celebrate and enjoy festivities, whether modified or not, that were not possible a year ago. Community engagement platforms with resident sentiment analysis capabilities, like Zencity, removes the guesswork from the equation, providing government leaders with the light they need to guide them through these muddled times.

Learn how government leaders are leveraging community engagement technology and sentiment analysis to inform decision making on some of the most consequential topics today.

Vaccination Incentivization is Sweeping the Nation

Zencity

Zencity

From scratch-off lotto tickets to free booze, some of the best ways local and state governments are getting residents vaccinated

As state and local governments work to meet President Biden’s 70% vaccination targetresident hesitancy is proving to be one of the biggest barriers to success. Among adults on the fence when it comes to getting the vaccine, research shows that close to 50% are concerned about vaccine side effects, while about 48% report they don’t trust the vaccine.

At the moment, vaccine incentives seem to be an effective, nationwide phenomenon for getting Americans vaccinated. We’ve seen countless examples of city, county, and state leadership turn to incentives like “Shots for Shots” programs in Miami and New Orleans, who in an attempt to get residents on board with the Covid-vaccine, are offering free drinks to residents who get their dose then and there. But now, with demand for COVID-19 vaccines plateauing, government leaders have had to step up their game.

As you refine your vaccination strategy, below are some of our favorite, innovative incentive programs to inspire and encourage your efforts.  

Free Tickets to Live Shows & to See Your Favorite Teams Play


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After more than a year of limited live entertainment due to the pandemic, entertainment venues and attendees alike are longing to return. Accordingly, states, cities, and counties are partnering with popular local institutions, like professional sports teams, to incentivize vaccination.

Be a good sport by getting jabbed

Vaccinated New Yorkers have the opportunity to receive special seating and discounted or free tickets to upcoming New York Yankees and New York City Football Club games, or cross the bridge and catch the Brooklyn Cyclones. On the other side of the country, Los Angeles County is incentivizing its residents with similar offerings, including entering citizens into sweepstakes to win season tickets to LA Lakers, Dodgers, Galaxy, and Kings games.

Comparably, Washington State has announced that residents who receive at least one dose of the vaccine will be eligible to win tickets to Seattle Mariners, Sounders, Storm, and Seahawks games. They also have the opportunity to win sports-related SWAG like signed jerseys and balls.

Sit on the edge of your seat and not because of social distancing

In addition to sporting events, the two major coastal cities and counties are offering incentives by way of live entertainment.

Los Angeles County residents have the opportunity to receive tickets to Hamilton the Musical at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood. Meanwhile, New York City is offering a variety of incentives, including free tickets to venues ranging from museums, aquariums and the zoo, to performances at Lincoln Center and The Public Theater. 

Vaccinated New Yorkers will also be entered into the State’s COVID-19 Vaccine Incentive competition, where they can win further prizes. It’s a good thing it’s called The City that Never Sleeps since vaccinated New York residents have plenty to do.

Hungry for Herd Immunity


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Perhaps one of the most common forms of incentives we’ve seen all throughout the US: local eateries and bars are teaming up with their local and state governments to offer free or discounted food and delicacies to vaccinated residents.

Food rewards are back 

If you are a resident of Brooklyn, NY, (or its surrounding boroughs) and enjoy hotdogs- especially ones that are famous- you’re in luck! Nathan’s Famous is offering free hot dogs on the same day of Brooklynites’ vaccines at their original Coney Island location.

In the heartland, the Indiana Department of Health partnered with the Girl Scouts of Central Indiana to provide free Girl Scout cookies to participants at select COVID-19 vaccination clinics throughout the state.

Another wonderful example of communities partnering to get their neighbors vaccinated is in New Orleans, LA, where the city health department has partnered with City Councilman Jay Banks, local businesses and a local seafood market in what they’re calling “1 pound for 1 shot of crawfish.” As of May, only 32% of Louisiana residents had begun the vaccination process, which inspired the City and State leadership to look into regional cuisine, like crawfish boils, to entice their residents.

Add it to the State’s tab 

For residents who have already been vaccinated and didn’t cash in their rewards the same day, many localities are offering incentivizations to those who can prove they have received at least one dose of the vaccine, regardless of where or when it was received. Case in point, Illinois Governor, JB Pritzker, recently signed a bill allowing businesses that sell alcohol to offer customers a free drink with proof of vaccination and Governor Ned Lamont of Connecticut launched its #CTDrinksOnUs campaign along with participating locations providing vaccine recipients with one free drink with the purchase of food.

Money, money, money!


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Governors throughout the US are using federal funds to offer cash incentives for vaccinations. After issuing the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package in March, the Treasury Department has since updated its guidance for how states and local governments can spend the funds. So long as they’re “reasonably expected” to increase vaccinations and the costs are “reasonably proportional” to the expected public health benefit, lotteries and cash incentives are allowed and encouraged.

Lots of lotteries 

After noting that locals weren’t rushing to schedule appointments, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine conceptualized the lottery-vaccine incentive, igniting a trend. The State announced it will award $1 million prizes to five winners and full-ride college scholarships to five students ages 12 to 17, paid for with federal COVID-19 relief money. Since the announcement, State officials have received more than one million entries for the cash prize along with thousands for the scholarship. 

Following in Gov DeWine’s footsteps, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan announced last week that the State would conduct a vaccine lottery, giving out a total of $2 million in prizes. Additionally, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo issued the “Vax & Scratch” pilot program which provides those who get vaccinated with lottery tickets for prizes up to $5 million.

Cash or credit?

While not specific to lotteries but in line with cash incentives, West Virginia Governor Jim Justice recently announced that any state resident between 16 and 35 who gets vaccinated for Covid-19 would receive a $100 savings bond. For a more immediate incentive with a quicker turnaround time, LA County is offering $75 Target gift cards and $50 prepaid grocery cards to vaccinated residents at participating vax sites.

One of the more unique approaches we’ve seen has been by Detroit Deputy Mayor Conrad Mallett who is not just offering incentives to vaccinated residents but incentivizing residents to offer a helping hand to their neighbors by offering $50 prepaid debit cards to anyone who drives another person to get their vaccination.

Measuring the Impact of Vaccine Incentivizations with Resident Sentiment

While incentive programs are a great way to connect with residents and attempt to return to a pre-pandemic way of life, their success is dependent on local leaders’ ability to understand if these programs are resonating with residents the way they are intended to. One sure-fire way to do this is to refer to sentiment analysis data.

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For example, one of our Zencities recently launched a food giveaway initiative, drawing significant attention and support from residents. Local leaders referred to their Zencity dashboard to understand the impact of their campaign and residents’ sentiment towards it, noting that the announcement generated 12.5K interactions, a quarter of all vaccine discourse in the City during that period of time! Besides the substantial interest, the initiative was quite well-received as evidenced by 88% positive-neutral sentiment expressed through supportive likes, loves, and shares on posts describing the giveaway. The high levels of attention and positive feedback initiated by the giveaway enabled the City’s leadership to measure and understand the impact of their incentivization program and know whether or not to invest more time and resources in the program.

While many of these incentivization programs are well received and entice residents to get jabbed, unfortunately, this is not always the case as is evidenced by the data from another one of our Zencity partners, highlighted in the graph below.

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Discussions in this State regarding vaccination incentive programs generated 24K interactions from May 16-29, a 60% increase compared to the previous two weeks (15K between May 1-15). The possibility of a state-run incentive program elicited nearly 7X more negative sentiment (41%) than positive (6%). The main objection was that rewarding individuals who have yet to take “responsible” action was insulting to those who have already “done the right thing.”

Although these types of programs are generally well received, without the ability to analyze resident sentiment towards these efforts, it’s impossible to know for sure.

Want to know what your residents are saying about your community’s vaccine incentive programs? Learn more about Zencity’s sentiment analysis capabilities for vaccine initiatives and other resident-centric issues. 

From CDBG to ARP: An Overview of The COVID-19 Stimulus Package

Zencity

Zencity

At Zencity we’re constantly striving to support the local government professionals championing their communities everyday and even more so during these unprecedented times. In response to the recent signing of the American Rescue Plan Act, we consulted with leading policy professionals in Washington D.C. to put together an overview of the ARP for the inspiring local government leaders who have been on the frontlines of this crisis.

We hope that this overview will prove useful as you shift your focus to adjusting to new changes and deploying federal funding for the short and long-term betterment of your community.

Ensure you make the biggest impact with your stimulus spending.  Learn more in our Guide to Strategic Stimulus Funding Allocation ⇒

Part I: The Basics

Just over $130 billion of the federal relief funding is specifically for local governments

The ARP offers $360 billion in direct aid to state, territorial, tribal, county, and municipal governments. Of this, $219.8 billion will go to the District of Columbia and state governments and $130.2 billion is for local governments. An additional $10 billion will be divided among state and local governments for capital programs

Local Government Break Down 

Counties $65.1B

Metropolitan cities (50K) $45.57B

Smaller jurisdictions $19.53B

The U.S. Treasury Department under Secretary Janet Yellen will oversee the distribution of this funding.

An additional $10 billion is for capital projects related to the COVID-19 response

Of this $10 billion, a certain portion is already allocated to the District of Columbia and to tribal governments and indigenous Hawaiians. The remainder will be distributed according to a number of factors which include population size and poverty data. Capital projects entail a number of different types of projects from enabling remote work, to education, to health monitoring, to broadband infrastructure.

Metropolitan cities and most counties will receive their first batch of funding by May 10, 2021 but smaller cities and towns will have to wait longer 

While your qualifying residents may have already begun receiving their stimulus checks and online deposits, there are still a few months ahead of us before the funding makes it to local government. That’s because the massive aid bill is currently making its way through the federal regulatory and rule making process. These processes will determine how the funds will flow; any restrictions or requirements in how local governments and states may use the funds; and record-keeping requirements.

Metropolitan cities (50k+ residents) & most counties will receive their funds directly from the Treasury in two equal tranches, the first by May 10, 2021, and the second by March 11, 2022. 

Smaller cities and towns, and counties that are not their own political entities will be transferred funds from their states – who will be receiving the funds May 10, 2021. Once the states receive the funds, they have 30 days to redistribute them to local governments (but they can always ask for extensions).

Fund Allocation will be based on the existing Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) formulae

As of now, it seems that to get the funding, local governments won’t have to do much because allocations are currently based on existing formulae used to distribute federal funds- Community Development Block Grant or CDBG. But, we should be aware that this could change via the rulemaking process currently underway. But once they have the funding, all ARP funds must be spent on costs incurred no later than December 31, 2024.

What are Community Development Block Grants (CDBG) and how are they connected to the stimulus package?

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD’s) Community Development Block Grant program (CDBG) improves the economic, social and physical environment of eligible cities and counties, and now in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, it can be employed by states and local units of government to support economic and community development effort. As mentioned above, relief funds will be distributed through the Treasury according to a modified community development block grant formula but CDBG rules will not be taken into account. 

While waiting for final federal guidance and for funds to come in, this is an excellent time to begin the process of fund allocations. In analyzing the ARP, the Economic Policy Institute said it best – you and your communities are best positioned to know how to rebuild better:

“…the reality is that no one has a clearer sense of the needs of local communities than the people in those communities and the public servants who work to serve them.” 

Part II: How Local Governments Can (and Cannot) Use the $130 Billion in Funding

The American Rescue Plan Act provides discretion in terms of what local governments may use the federal funding for. The congressional intent behind the act is broad and the Plan lists examples (such as those below) and not requirements. 

Local governments (and states) MAY use Rescue Plan funds for helping those affected by the pandemic in terms of both the negative health ramifications and the negative economic consequences. This includes:

  • Aid to households, small businesses, or nonprofits; aid to “Impacted” industries such as travel, tourism, and hospitality  
  •  To restore government services to the extent they were cut or reduced due to tax revenue lost due to the pandemic
  • Making “necessary investments” in water, sewer, or broadband infrastructure. Anytime there is a qualifying term like “necessary” in the Plan we can expect some debate as one politician’s necessity is another’s frivolity.
  • State and local governments can transfer the funds to a private nonprofit organization, a public benefit corporation involved in the transportation of passengers or cargo or a special-purpose unit of State or local government.
  • Respond to workers performing essential work during the COVID-19 public health emergency by providing premium pay to eligible workers of the county that are performing such essential work, or by providing grants to eligible employers that have eligible workers who perform essential work.
  •  Premium pay is an amount up to an additional $13/h to an eligible worker up to $25,000/year per workers.

Local governments (and states) MAY NOT use Rescue Plan funds for:

  • New fiscal policies 
  • Old debts 
  • Public pensions funds
  • To directly or indirectly pay for tax cuts enacted since March 3rd and until December 31, 2024 

Local governments can also expect to feel the impact of the remainder of the $1.9 trillion ARP 

In addition to the $360 billion in aid to state and local governments, the $1.9 trillion ARP covers nearly all aspects of civic life. Billions of dollars of funding are dedicated to policy-specific programs including education, energy and environment, agriculture, transportation, and infrastructure. While most of the funding will flow through existing federal agencies and programs, like Community Development Block Grants, it is certain that your residents will feel the benefit of the additional funding and that, as a local government professional, will be invaluable to these programs in helping to make them as effective and efficient as possible for your community. 

In our overview, we’ve focused on a few policy areas that we think can directly impact your residents and where you can help shape spending for the better.

Download our guide for local governments to learn how you can use your federal stimulus funding to provide effective & equitable relief with a robust community engagement strategy.

3 Takeaways from 2020 for Better County Management in 2021

Zencity

Zencity

It’s been over a year since the first cases of Covid-19 were detected, reshaping our lives, shattering economies, shutting down schools and small businesses, and of course, compromising the well being of millions. And although the Covid Vaccine rollout has begun, an optimistic outlook suggests that the earliest the majority of the American population could be fully vaccinated will be September. While this hopefully means the end of the pandemic is in site, it seems like masks, physical distancing, and frequent handwashing, will still be around for the longer haul.

In an attempt to return to our ‘normal’ way of life, local governments have been doing their part to achieve this. With a full year’s worth of learning under their belts and resilient communities, local leaders can rely on lessons learned from the past year rather than reinvent the wheel when it comes to Covid-19 management. Referring to real resident sentiment data from counties across the country, we’ve pulled together a few key takeaways that can be applied in 2021, based on what worked and what didn’t in 2020.

Counties Top Covid-19 Concerns
Covid-19 Top Concerns - Sentiment Comparison
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1. Preempt residents concerns

Zencity’s data shows that in 2020, the most discussed issue in counties in the context of Covid was face masks and covers. Masks have remained a hot topic amongst citizens and the discussions about masks have been contentious and often negative. A lack of clear federal guidance when the pandemic began probably contributed to this as state and local government leaders were left with the challenge of setting their own policies, leading to further confusion, conflict and concern. The data also showed that discourse surrounding face masks in counties focused primarily on businesses, with over 45% of interactions representing general comments about the local economy. Many residents were confused when it came to enforcement and the challenges businesses would face in making sure that both employees and customers complied with face mask guidelines. As recovering local economies becomes a top priority in 2021, it is without a doubt that face masks will remain to be a hot topic.

2021 Tip: As we journey through the next year, don’t pass over publicly available information, like resident discourse data, to help make and inform policy decisions and protocols – especially around the issues that matter to your residents the most. And it may sound obvious, but what worked last time – do it again this time; whether it’s clarifying mask guidelines across different jurisdictions in the county, providing masks, or certain levels of enforcement.

2. Stop the spread of misinformation with transparency

2020 saw the rise of misinformation and disinformation becoming a worthy opponent for official local government communication channels, leaving county leaders to innovate in order to promote the credibility and integrity of official information. For example, at the turn of the new year, with vaccine roll outs beginning at varying degrees across the US, misinformation and skepticism were and are still significant challenges to successful vaccine operations in counties. Public conversation and the narrative around Covid-19 vaccines at this crucial point in time were being driven by non-government sources and organic resident discussions, resulting in the spread of false information. Zencity’s data showed that only a mere 15% of all discourse on Covid-19 vaccines was generated by the official local government sources.

In addition, Zencity’s data revealed that amongst county residents, the second most negatively discussed topics in 2020 were hospital capacity and confirmed cases, meaning people are discussing the data that is out there.

Engagement on these topics and the fact that they are a point of negativity provides an opportunity for county leaders to proactively be even more transparent in their local reporting as well as lead the conversations on these tough topics as we push through 2021. Many counties across the country, like Oneida County in New York, have set Covid-19 communication plans, in addition to online dashboards with metrics and guidelines regarding confirmed cases. Accordingly, many local governments have also rolled out vaccine information portals, like Pasadena, CA, who launched an effective FAQ all about their vaccination distribution and vaccine safety.

2021 Tip: Continue to drown out misinformation with accurate information. Always be truthful and honest with residents even if it’s not great news to maintain trust between residents and county leaders. To answer this need, various counties have taken a transparent approach creating online communication dashboards and resident information portals.

3. Cross agency collaboration - ensure the right channels are being utilized

A county’s integral role in handling Public Health includes the need for external communication and focused messaging with residents. Official communication channels are defined as social channels owned by the county or city. According to our data, from July through October, 2020, 25% of official communications put out by cities were Covid-related, compared to only 16% of county official communications. Although cities dedicated a higher percentage of their public communication efforts to Coronavirus and public health than counties, the engagement generated by counties was similar to that of cities. These numbers suggest that residents look to both county and city leaders for information on public health, and both county and city governments should be providing transparent and frequent updates to their constituents. We’ve seen similar patterns around messaging and the Covid-19 vaccine. In order to optimize resources, the ability to understand which channels are most impactful is key as we move into the next phases of the pandemic which include vaccinations and economic recovery.

2021 Tip: This year, both county and city leaders should work in tandem to determine the most effective communication channels on a case by case basis, as well as focus on releasing impactful and honest messaging in real-time to put residents at ease. Whether it’s communicating about new strains, vaccines, policies, or strategies for reopening, cross-agency alignment and communicating unified messaging is imperative.

Looking Towards the Future

These unprecedented times require a unique plan of attack, one that is constantly being improved based on lessons learned and community unity. While the next couple of years will continue to test and try our health and safety, the will to learn and help our neighbors will be our saving grace. Learn more about how Zencity is revolutionizing County Management.

Black History Month Spotlight: Carey Neal, Assistant City Manager, Lancaster, TX.

Zencity

Zencity

This month at Zencity we’re celebrating the Black civic leaders we have the honor to work with on a daily basis.  

Celebrating his recent promotion, Assistant City Manager of Lancaster, TX, Carey Neal is humbled and excited as he discusses his unique journey into local government. After working in Human Resource Management for over seven years, Carey pivoted to the government sector, bringing his impressive skill set with him, translating well into local government. He puts it best, “I’m teaching colleagues how we can embody customer service because, after all, we are an organization serving the public.”

Although he caught the government bug early on, his career trajectory was all but traditional.
He first got a taste of public service when he interned for State Representative, Yvonne Davis, while still in high school.

“The process of just working with Yvonne really showed me what it meant to be an effective public servant in our community. She was an incredibly positive example for me, growing up in an underprivileged area and seeing someone very well respected in her field- an African American woman who embodies professionalism, power and grace. It was Yvonne who really inspired me to do something great for the community.”

While he credits Yvonne Davis for catalyzing his interest in government, Carey Neal named his educators and teachers as great inspirations, ultimately guiding his decision to pursue a degree in Education at the University of Texas. After graduation he began his career at Walmart as a Human Resource Director but soon felt a need to return to public service, this time, specifically within the local sector.

“I was working in human resources and while it was fulfilling helping people, I wanted to do something on a greater level. I realized I wanted to work in government and so I looked into the type of education individuals in that capacity have, which led me to public administration.”

While pursuing a Masters in Public Administration, Carey was exposed to the wonders of local government.

“It was there I started learning more about the local government side of public service. I learned what a city manager does and how they directly impact the community first hand, how they provide the services people don’t appreciate until they’re gone, like roadways, water, recreational services, parks. You know, the types of things that directly impact everyone’s quality of life. Once the opportunity presented itself for me to get into that line of service, I started my local government career with the City of Lancaster as the Assistant to the City Manager.”

Young, motivated and ambitious, it only took Mr. Neal two short years with the City until his well deserved promotion in January 2021. Carey’s quick rise through the ranks is a direct reflection of Carey’s enthusiasm for continuous learning and growth, and passion for helping people.

“The greatest reward is being able to interact with the people of Lancaster on a personal basis, listening to their concerns and hearing first hand what’s troubling them, and ultimately creating a plan that will fix these issues. It’s great just being able to help the community and see it grow and flourish as a result.”

He credits his love of the job to his residents and takes just as much joy in his own work as he does in seeing community members getting involved in city operations via boards, commissions, or even just by giving feedback. In his process of working with residents, Carey is also excited to share with them his own passion for local government. “Generally, people don’t know about the role of local government, so teaching people about what we do everyday, like ordinances, what they are and how they affect them is important.”

As a public servant, Carey has seen how public perception has changed towards local governments, particularly within the last year. “Now more than ever people are looking towards their local governments for assistance. They’re seeing that we’re the ones who can provide certain services for and fix things. So now all eyes are on local governments rather than federal or state level, for residents to get the help they need.” And Carey is happy to oblige.

“Even during the pandemic, it has drawn me closer to loving local government and what we do. Over the course of the pandemic we were able to offer programs for residents such as residential assistance, child care assistance, utility assistance, and support for seniors. We always found a way to innovate. Now more than ever, just being able to see how we continue operations and provide services to people has been an incredibly beneficial and very rewarding experience for myself.”

As he looks towards the future, Carey shows no signs of slowing down. “The ultimate goal is to one day be a City Manager. I have the distinct pleasure everyday to serve along Opal Mauldin-Jones, who I would say is a legend in local government. She’s absolutely awesome and to be able to sit next to her and learn from her absolutely puts my mind at ease that I know one day I’ll be sitting in the city manager’s chair. Not necessarily in her position but fulfilling the position somewhere when the opportunity presents itself.”

Black History Month Spotlight: Mike Pegues, CIO Aurora, IL.

Zencity

Zencity

This month at Zencity we’re celebrating the Black civic leaders we have the honor to work with on a daily basis.  

Mike Pegues is only heading into his fourth year in the public sector but he’s already a legend and one of the best-known CIOs in the local government space. It’s true, he has an incredibly rich career behind him – with almost two decades in the private sector and the U.S. Department of Defense – so he did come in with a certain cache. But it goes beyond that. It’s his deep and strategic vision for the City of Aurora’s IT Department which translates into Mike having a hand in solving a large chunk of the problems that come across the Mayor’s desk – even those we don’t traditionally think of as tech “problems”. “Technology is built into everything,” he explains.

Mike also puts a lot of pressure on himself: “There are a lot of uses with technology, and as a CIO in the IT field at my level, where there are probably less than 3% Black executives that fall into this role, I feel that I have a duty to do that much more to drive social impact, to drive purpose. For me it’s not just a job, it’s personal.”

And in fact, Mike’s move from the private sector to the City of Aurora was very personal. When Mayor Irvin was running for his third re-election, he asked Mike – whom he had grown up and served in the military with – if he would join his team. “He told me, ‘we have a purpose being young African Americans to be role models in our community,’” and that’s exactly what Mike Pegues, who grew up in Aurora, has been doing since he joined the Mayor’s team in 2017: serving with purpose and role modeling leadership and change.

“One of the things I’m focused on is conquering the digital divide. How can we bring high-speed, affordable internet access to disenfranchised communities? I grew up here as a young African American. I didn’t have specific opportunities handed to me, I had to go and find mine. But for some of these kids, we can provide opportunities and a pathway by addressing a multitude of different issues – social equity, social injustice, how technology is used, how minorities are disproportionately negatively impacted by the use of technology – these are some of the things I’m working on and thinking about.”

Mike is working on some of the toughest and most sensitive issues of the day – and showing us exactly how important it is not to forget the role of tech. For example? Right now he’s deeply immersed in the City’s RFP around police body-worn cameras.

“I am directly involved and looking at it from a technology perspective and asking – how can we make sure that certain requirements are met when the City is evaluating and selecting this technology. Recently, with social injustice and body cams we’ve seen a ‘this happened and the body cam just happened to be off.’ There are vendors that offer a set up so they can record after the fact – so my job is to ensure that’s a requirement in our RFP. It’s about looking to see how I can be involved with that – in a way that supports the City, the Police Department, the community, and the Mayor’s vision overall.”

Under Mike’s leadership, Aurora’s Smart City program is paving the way forward and broadening the important role a classic city IT department can play in some of the most important issues of today. Mike does this with personal drive and passion and with business savvy.

“For the City of Aurora, we have our mission to provide smart city solutions and services to our city government, to our residents, to our businesses – but how we do that is as a strategic IT business partner for the City. We look at it from the perspective that it’s not just about the technical aspect – it’s how we translate that into business outcomes for the city and fulfilling the Mayor’s vision and purpose.”

It never actually occurred to Mike to join the ranks of local government – even though he spent many years in Federal government – before Mayor Irvin reached out to him. But now that he’s here – and especially with everything that’s happened in the US over the past year – he knows it’s an excellent and maybe one of the best ways to give back and affect change. Whether you’re a citizen, a business, a university – Mike is not only certain that there’s a way to get involved in your local government, he also feels it’s “incumbent to get involved because that’s what makes a difference.”

“We just witnessed this with the elections,” he explains. “Look what happened to Georgia. It flipped because of one person who came in, made a difference locally, got out there grassroots style, said we’re gonna change this, we’re gonna make a difference.” Mike is talking about the work of Stacey Abrams – who he deeply respects and credits for impacting the outcome of the US election on a national level and in the Senate. Stacey, he says, “is a real-life example of how getting involved in local government can make a difference.” His call to action and words of advice:

“You don’t necessarily have to be on the board – but you can. You can be on committees, you can join different neighborhood groups, you can get involved in the city council meetings which are public – talking about different topics and issues. Get involved. I’m sure there’s something there for you and that every individual can find their place.”

Despite only being in the job for a short period of time, Mike has made unparalleled contributions in his role as CIO, in advancing technological innovation and leading an era of cultural transformation to the benefit of community elevation. Mike is an absolute philanthropist, who is undoubtedly sewing a timely legacy as a humanitarian and champion of change.

Black History Month Spotlight: Mayor Lori Wilson, Suisun City, CA.

Zencity

Zencity

This month at Zencity we’re celebrating the Black civic leaders we have the honor to work with on a daily basis.  

As he was leaving office, former President Barack Obama addressed the nation in his farewell speech: “If something needs fixing, lace up your shoes and do some organizing. If you’re disappointed by your elected officials, grab a clipboard, get some signatures, and run for office yourself.” In 2017, Suisun City Mayor, Lori Wilson, was actually already a couple of steps ahead. About a decade ago, inspired by a different Obama speech, Lori had already looked up who her council members were in order to start getting more involved locally.

“My life has always been about service. My family was always out in the community. We grew up with that. But when I became an adult, I became involved with my church but in another city so I started looking into getting more involved in my own city.”

Lori’s first local activity was to organize a group for women to “come and just talk about the things of life and just grow as human beings.” She started noticing that every year, women left the group as they moved, with their young families, out of Suisun City. Lori had heard Barack Obama talk about the importance of advocating to elected officials and decided, for the first time in her life, to turn to City Council. The council members she spoke with about prioritizing additional services for young families certainly listened, but they just weren’t that interested. For Lori the next step was obvious:

“I started trying to encourage my friends to run for office – especially when I realized everyone on my council was older and retired. I was trying to get younger people to run. Eventually my friends hosted an intervention and told me – you’re the person who needs to run. It took me two years, but then I decided to do it.”

In eight years, Lori went from not being sure who her council members were, to joining Council herself, which led to her running for and becoming Suisun City Mayor.

“I joined City Council to bring the younger voice to the City and make sure our policy discussions centered around families and how people can raise children and stay in Suisun City. While serving, I began to realize that there were a lot of things that the Mayor gets to control, so I said – okay it’s time to be the Mayor. I ran for Council on the platform of Fresh Voice. When I ran for Mayor, I said it’s not just about having a fresh voice it’s also about having a Fresh Vision.”

Lori became Mayor of Suisun City just about two years ago, and since then, she has tried to demystify what it means to be an elected official. Her constituents have her cell phone number, her email, and her social media accounts. Lori says that being the Mayor has been both the hardest thing she’s ever done, but also the most rewarding. Why has it been so rewarding? Because Lori has genuinely seen the quality of life for her residents change for the better, even in the face of the pandemic. One of her favorite examples of how the City of Suisun has improved quality of life while she’s been Mayor is in the way that the City has helped to facilitate informal community relationships and neighborliness, especially because Suisun City is what Lori calls a “commuter-ville.” The community relationships the City helped to forge have proven to be invaluable during the pandemic.

“A big factor for quality of life is whether your community rises up to greet you when you come home at the end of the day. Is the atmosphere great? Is it safe? Is it clean? That’s why we established the Suisun City Clean Team where we, as a community, came together and cleaned up. And the cool thing about that, aside from making our community look better, it built these key relationships. I can’t tell you how many times people have sent me notes related to families that met while they were on the Clean Team that then supported each other during the pandemic. That they knew their neighbors.”

Lori shares that during the pandemic, when there was a need – when someone had COVID, for example – there were always other community members ready to jump in and help because the City had already built an informal network around the community of people who serve together, who were then able to support one another.

That might be the silver lining of the pandemic but Lori knows many of the ramifications of COVID are yet to come. That’s why the biggest challenge she’s working on now is getting ahead of a potential homelessness crisis – something many cities in California and across the US are seeing. Suisun City is already experiencing a homeless migration to its community that it doesn’t have the resources to handle. Additionally, the longer the pandemic goes on, the higher the number of community members losing their homes. Mayor Wilson, who began her run in local government with the purpose of helping increase services that would encourage people to stay in the City and not move out, strongly states that she never wants people leaving the community for distress reasons. Following the lessons of the recession a number of years ago, Lori also knows that when the economy begins to bounce back, the recovery process may leave out many of her residents.

“What can we do for people who have run out of savings and benevolent family members? There are pockets of our community that are low income and service-industry people – and I’m worried about where they’re going to be. So making sure we have services in place for existing homeless is one thing we’re doing, but I’m also thinking about how we are setting up for the next generation of homeless that are impacted by the economy. I’m thinking of how we as a City are preparing for what’s next after the pandemic. Not just the ‘oh we might have a boom’ but for the people who might have been left behind, where’s their safety net as they regroup from the devastating impacts of the pandemic?”

One project she’s very proud of that recently broke ground and should make a difference is the creation of affordable housing on a long-standing vacant lot.

Mayor Wilson, who truly takes things into her own hands to effect change, has strong advice for those looking to make an impact in their community by getting involved in local government.

“If you’re going to engage, engage on the things you’re passionate about, and don’t apologize. Focus on the things that you care about. Your passion will be infectious. Show up like you’re meant to be there, and say what you need to. You bring a perspective and your perspective is valid. I want to hear it all, and I want to hear it even if you’re angry at me.”

Black History Month Spotlight: Austin Faison, Town Manager, Town of Winthrop, MA.

Zencity

Zencity

This month at Zencity we’re celebrating the Black civic leaders we have the honor to work with on a daily basis.  

Austin’s fate in local government was sealed in the 5th grade when he played the part of Benjamin Franklin in a class debate. Growing up in New England, Austin says there was always an “omnipresent government feel” but it wasn’t until much later in life that he actually became a public servant. After negotiating a career between professional sports and political campaigns, Austin decided to pursue his MPA. It was during grad school that it became clear to Austin that he was destined to be a city manager.

“I wanted to work in municipal government because of the intimacy of the impact. I like the idea of being able to fix things at the ground level. I like the idea of really helping people out.”

With his eye on the prize, Austin began his local government career in 2012 as an analyst in the City of Somerville, Massachusetts. In six short years, he reached his target as Winthrop, MA’s, Town Manager.

“I’ve always been good at project managing and getting things done. I set being a town manager as something I wanted to do and that was it. From there on, it was about what jobs would help me progress to get where I wanted to go.“

When Austin joined Winthrop in 2018, he had three goals in mind: professionalization of services, transparency, and fixing the budget. In under three years he can proudly say: “I’ve done those three things.” Austin is driven by processes and data. “I don’t shoot off my hip, I don’t go by my gut. I go off of the data and information. If I don’t know something, I call someone and figure it out. I research it online.” But throughout it all, what drives Austin is to improve and do better, and this is also the ethos he tries to impart on all his staff:

“If you aren’t continuously trying to learn and do things better, then what drives you to do what you’re doing in the first place?”

Today, Austin, who is in his late thirties, sits on coalitions and advisory boards with his former bosses and nationally recognized leaders like Boston Mayor Marty Walsh. “It still blows my mind,” he says. “I’ve had to learn how to get over my imposter syndrome.”

In the years to come, Austin remains driven and forward-thinking. In this next decade, especially after a year like 2020, he’d like to spend some time seeing some of the “longer term stuff” coming to fruition while he continues to engage in work that has a positive impact.

At Zencity, we’re also excited to work with and be inspired by an incredible and driven professional like Austin.

[Updated Data] Coronavirus in US Cities: Residents turn their focus to honoring public safety officials and panic buying

Zencity

Zencity

COVID-19 has made it harder for local governments to physically hear from their communities, especially at a time when they need their feedback the most. City halls are closed, many local government teams are working remotely, and most community meetings and activities have been suspended or transferred to the virtual realm. Subsequently, “traditional” channels of communication between residents and their local government agencies are no longer available. 

Yet while in-person communication has decreased, another channel is bustling with activity. People are increasingly using social media to raise their concerns and discuss points of interest surrounding the coronavirus outbreak. Social media presents a powerful opportunity for local governments  to listen to their residents. Notably, people are talking about their cities and related concerns/opinions on social media every day, especially in a time when change is constant and the future is unclear. By monitoring the issues that their residents are discussing, local government teams, on the frontlines of this outbreak, can better adjust their communications and budget priorities and initiatives.

Aiming to help local government leaders understand the public discourse, our team at Zencity has been tracking the changes in public online discussions surrounding COVID-19 from week to week since the beginning of March. On a high level, we’ve seen residents’ key concerns evolve every week as the virus touched down in the US and then seeped into every facet of daily life. This week’s research is based on the analysis of over 4.7 million social data points from 130+ US cities and counties, from April 1st-6th and the data has a story to tell.

Our main findings this week include:

  1. Top three concerns remain in place – After seeing weekly shifts in the top concerns for the first three weeks of our research, this week’s data exemplifies some consistency. The top three coronavirus concerns/points of interest have remained dominant  since last week’s report and include: Community Solidarity, Department of Public Safety, Crime and Scams.

     

  2. Support for public safety overshadows concern about crime – in a shift from last week, we see that residents have significantly increased their mentions of support for the public safety departments in this crisis, while reducing conversations about crime and scams.

     

  3. Public online discourse around panic buying has increased by 50% – this topic jumped to become the 4th most prominent concern while growing in volume by 50% over last week.

     

  4. Residents concerned with higher education – A new concern emerged this week, as we complete the first week of April. Residents have begun to actively discuss the topic of exams and graduations ceremonies and how they will be impacted by COVID-19.

Let’s dive into this week’s data a bit further to better understand what the public has to say:

Residents’ key concerns around COVID-19, in numbers:

coronavirus concerns april

As we can see, the top three concerns remain at the lead from last week.  This consistency indicates that people have shifted to a new normal, understanding that the current changes are not a passing event. This data also indicates that local governments need to address these matters with long-lasting initiatives and possible policies. 

Let’s explore what learnings we can draw from these concerns:

Community solidarity remains the top focus in US cities

 The public’s focus on Community Solidarity has maintained its place as the leading topic of conversation amongst residents, and is growing in focus. In fact, since last week’s report, the topic has increased by an additional 2% in the public online discourse, further cementing its status. Guided by community members’ discourse, local governments are in a strategic position to contribute and provide support to residents, by highlighting current initiatives and working to build new ones. Below we touch on some key takeaways from the discourse on this topic: 

  • Main topics of conversation within this category remain the same as last week, with requests for further support for  first responders, like medical staff, police and firefighters, followed by how-to explanations for DIY mask creation, and supply donations. We’ve seen incredible initiatives by cities across the U.S. to support their first responders, including the “Deschutes First Response Fund,” a relief fund to support first responders working the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic in Deschutes County, OR, and a meal donation drive for first responders and hospital staff members in West Ridge, IL.
  • A lot of residents are actively sewing masks for people in need and discussing it online. We saw some residents even sharing “tutorials” for how to make masks. Many cities and local governments are also actively encouraging the donation of masks by their community members. In a commendable example of community unity, a retired nurse from Geddes, NY, has been sewing hundreds of masks for members of her community, free of charge.
  • Based on the data, residents are also concerned with supply shortages in hospitals and raising funds to support those in need. Discussions about general food donations have decreased over the past week.

Positive interactions between the public safety department and residents overshadow concerns about crime 

 For the third week in a row, operations of public safety departments remain a top interest in the public discourse, rising to 15% (compared to 13% in the previous week). Concurrently, we saw a small drop in conversations around Crimes and Scams. This week residents are mostly discussing public safety in a very positive manner – sharing thank you posts dedicated to local first responders and reacting to social distancing compliant “thank you parades” set up by local departments. We’ve seen many local communities across the U.S. come together to support their first responders. In addition to the recognition of the tireless, ongoing work of the public safety department we dug into a few additional data points below:

  • Many police departments are leveraging this growing attention on social media to actively inform their residents on social distancing guidelines and explain whether or how they will be enforcing stay-at-home orders.
  • Police departments are also utilizing social media to increase community relations by sharing updates on how they are working to keep the safety of residents. For example, the Essexville Public Safety Department has been putting up heart signs on their windows to show their commitment to the community. 
  • While the discourse around crimes and scams have slightly decreased since last week, new topics that are drawing more attention include theft of testing kits.
  • Residents are also showing growing interest in the discussion of prison inmates who are considered for release, either due to positive COVID-19 testing or to avoid fast infection by releasing vulnerable, “low-risk” inmates and reducing transmission rates in crowded facilities. 

Panic buying and associated hoarding become a leading concern

Most notably, we’ve noticed a significant rise in the discourse surrounding panic buying, with an increase of approximately 50% from last week’s report. From the onset of the pandemic, we’ve seen how fear can manifest itself in peoples’ daily activities, mainly by way of panic buying. Additionally, supermarkets and grocery stores have become hazardous spreading grounds for COVID-19, instilling a growing concern for standing in checkout lines in close proximity of others, and requests for more enforcement of social distancing in the stores themselves. Here is how the discourse this past week exemplifies this particular behavior and its impact:

  • Many residents are concerned about the lack of social distancing enforcement in grocery stores and that the risk of infection from visiting these establishments is extremely high. Food stores throughout the country are arming themselves accordingly, installing plexiglass at each cash register in Florida for the safety of both customers and staff. They are also brainstorming new ways to control the distance between shoppers. Kroger, for example, the largest supermarket operator in the U.S., is testing out one-way aisles at some of their stores. 
  • There has also been continuous concern surrounding hoarding by community members, thereby leading to supply and stock shortages. 
  • Local mayors and government officials are urging their citizens to stop panic buying and are utilizing social media to get the message out. Eric Garcetti, Mayor of Los Angeles, CA, stood alongside the leaders of several major grocery store chains, in an act of reassurance to Los Angelinos of their handling of the situation and encouraging people to buy less. 
  • One of the more concerning conversation points, as more cities require residents to wear masks and cover faces, is the confusion around where masks can be purchased (especially considering that many cities are in short supply). 

 

New Topic: Final exams and graduation ceremonies

With May graduation ceremonies around the corner, it seems that stay-at-home orders will have many educational institutions closed for more weeks to come. This has caused colleges and universities nationwide to announce that graduation ceremonies are going virtual. Naturally, the public discourse on the matter has grown throughout the past week, occupying 4% of residents’ online conversations:

  • Online discussions during the past week include concerns about if and how upcoming final exams will be taken, and whether local graduation ceremonies will be held as planned. Some residents have reacted positively to the idea of virtual commencement ceremonies while others have actively called for postponements. 
  • The emerging discourse about exams could also be a result of recent developments regarding university and college admissions for 2021. With the April ACT session postponed and the May SAT test cancelled completely, multiple colleges and universities are deciding to move to test-optional admissions where undergraduate applicants will no longer be required to submit standardized test scores. Institutions converting to test-optional admissions due to the pandemic include the University of California schools and Boston University.
  • Naturally, the online discourse includes some reports of students testing positive for COVID-19, but also surrounds the varied and wonderful ways that students are stepping up to support hospitals and local communities, such as volunteering at call centers and caring for healthcare professionals’ children. 
  • Residents are raising their concerns and criticism towards students who have tested positive for COVID-19, following spring-break trips. This subject has been widely discussed on national news following multiple stories of spring breakers who have returned with the virus and not heeded CDC guidelines.

Wrap-up

Our analysis of nearly 4.7M social media interactions within our 130+ local government partner network from this past week, has shown that the main topics of concern have remained consistent across the board. Another trend that remains the same as last week is the diversity of topics. From support for local businesses and children, online recreational activities and volunteering initiatives, to evictions and job loss – COVID-19 is without a doubt impacting the fabric of society. There is no “returning to normal”. 

Considering the far-reaching impact of this global pandemic, it is imperative that the local government teams not only break through the noise and share actionable information with their residents, but in turn, are able to track and understand the most pressing issues facing their residents week to week.

With that in mind, local government teams should aim to create long standing services and policies that address these consistent concerns. They should also seek out opportunities to collaborate with their vocal, online community on possible initiatives. We’ve seen amazing examples of this across the United States and commend the hardworking women and men in local government for their exemplary efforts during this challenging time. 


To learn more about how our partner cities and counties utilize Zencity to monitor their residents’ concerns even on a daily basis, visit our dedicated COVID-19 action plan.

[Updated Data] Coronavirus in US cities: Residents’ key concerns turn to actions around community solidarity

Zencity

Zencity

As the coronavirus new normal sets in and confines people largely to their homes, residents are continuing to utilize a range of social media platforms to voice their concerns/interests related to the outbreak. The public might be practicing “social distancing” in the physical realm, but digitally, they are more “socially interactive” than ever before. 

This online discourse is indispensable for local governments. Why? In addition to the ongoing public health challenges, state lockdowns, and the major lack of emergency equipment, cities and counties- who can no longer meet their community in person- need to be able to quantify and process this online resident feedback as the situation evolves quickly. By monitoring these diverse concerns, local government teams can better adjust services and initiatives according to these “voiced” needs.

This is why our team has been diligently tracking changes in the public online discourse data week to week. As part of our research initiative throughout the month of March, we’ve assessed another week of online public discourse (March 25th -31st)  presented in the analysis below. Since our initiative began in the first week of March, geared at supporting local government teams across the U.S., we’ve tracked over 18M data points across 125+ US cities and counties. From week to week we’ve seen significant changes in the top topics occupying public discourse- which serves as a testament to COVID-19’s far-reaching impact on daily life and confirmed case proliferation. 

What changed week to week?


In the beginning of March, residents’ concerns were more centered around school closures, potential and/or official event cancellations, and public transportation sanitation and transmission risks. This discourse illuminated that residents were beginning to gauge and/or seek out information about how COVID-19 would affect key aspects of their routine. It also shows an underlying fear and uncertainty regarding transmission and social distancing practices.

In the following week, from March 11th to the 17th, we identified a significant focus on the operations of cultural/entertainment establishments (44% of comments), the impact on local restaurants and businesses, and panic-buying. We also saw city-owned social accounts serve as active members in the online discourse, especially in encouraging support for local businesses and establishments, sharing social distancing best practices, and announcements regarding city services and utilities. 

Last week, from March 18th to the 24th, the key topics became even more diversified, highlighting the fact that COVID-19 has communities thinking about the very core of our social fabric, both for the good and the bad. On one end of the spectrum we saw an increased focus on crime and scams (13%) while at the other end- on a more positive note- we saw elevated discussions about new community solidarity and volunteering (12%) initiatives. Residents also discussed new realities such as support for children not in school, “ordering in” campaigns, and logistics associated with utilities and city services.

This week, we saw one key topic lead the pack and new concerns enter the public online discourse; reinforcing the fact that COVID-19 is driving our society to show it’s true colors.

Let’s examine how residents’ key concerns/points of interest have changed over this past week:

coronavirus concerns march 31

We see that while topics are extremely diverse, one topic in particular is clearly dominant. Residents have turned their attention to displays of community solidarity and resilience (20% of the discourse) which ranked as the second top concern last week (16% of the discourse)

In addition to conversations about food donations and fundraising for local residents, residents have turned their attention to support for first responders and healthcare providers. We saw calls for sanitizers, wipes, food, and money for those on the frontlines of the public health crisis. Additionally, considering the significant mask deficiency, residents across US cities have begun to sew face masks for those in need.

While this is an incredible show of strength and character from communities across the country, this is also a key theme that local governments have to be aware of, as there is a real opportunity to cooperate and support communities in their desire to organize and contribute. It is essential for local governments to be aware of these initiatives and their communities’ specific areas of focus, to ensure that their support makes the right impact.

In other themes, we also saw new topics rise to become top of mind, such as a preoccupation with evictions (8%) and logical fears surrounding unemployment (9%). Residents are also actively discussing concerns for those experiencing homelessness (4%). Let’s dive into the noteworthy changes and new concerns that entered the public online discourse this week:

Concerns about Job Loss/Employment 

  • A large portion of the discourse consisted of residents’ concerns about job loss and job security
  • We also noticed a fair amount of posts from particular businesses which shared information about need for additional workers (mostly large retailers and supermarkets)
  • Some cities actively participated in the discourse associated with this concern. We saw some cities’ chambers of commerce social accounts posting and directing residents to job openings and employment assistance

Concerns about Paying Rent/Eviction 

  • Many cities have passed policies that forbid landlords from evicting tenants during the outbreak
  • Many residents have taken to social media to actively call for a rent freeze or rent strike. We also saw a lot of discourse about the subtopic of ‘rent suspension’
  • Anxious and frustrated rhetoric around eviction; lots of calls for action from communities
  • Many residents have actively voiced criticism about proposed policies (eviction ban, freeze on rent increases). We also saw other communities utilizing social media to circulate petitions and discuss online strikes
  • We presume that this topic has increased in discourse volume because our assessment spanned the end of March, when rent is due

Concerns about the Homeless Community

  • Residents are discussing and interacting with city/community-based initiatives to install portable restrooms and handwashing stations
  • There has also been notable concern and discussion about the exposure of the homeless community to the virus and potential solutions for mitigating this risk
  • There has also been increased discussion in the predicted rise of homelessness due to the economic crisis, job loss, and inability to pay rent

Virtual and Online Public Events

  • Many residents are increasingly discussing and engaging with virtual/online events 
  • Examples of quarantine socializing range from dj streams and poker nights to charity concerts and city council meetings

Social Distancing in Parks 

  • There is a discrepancy across US cities in the policies for visiting parks, beaches and recreational sites and residents are actively discussing this inconsistency and related questions online. Some parks are closed, while some remain open. Feedback from residents is mixed as some claim that people are congregating while others feel it’s important to exercise and breath fresh air (keeping in mind the social distancing guidelines and transmission policies)
  • Residents are also confused about what is “allowed” when it comes to outdoor exercise
  • There have also been active calls from community members to enforce social distancing at parks. Some parks have even been closed due to lack of compliance with the CDC guidelines

Additional Points of Interest

  • Operations of public safety departments remains a top interest over the past two weeks. In addition to the discourse we saw in the 3rd week of March we also saw residents discussing increased police patrols to enforce social distancing and disperse gatherings (especially in light of school closures)
  • Support for children is still a key topic, with new discussions bubbling up about how school counselors can support students at this time
  • In addition, we see that concerns for local businesses (4%) is still a discussed topic yet less prominent compared to the week prior, where it ranked as the fourth top concern (11%)

As local governments need to rapidly release new services and constantly share information with their community, we hope that these key concerns could help better inform teams on areas for prioritization this week. Clearly, residents are preoccupied with the repercussions of an economic downturn and are also seeking out community building initiatives. 

We are working closely with our 130+ local government partner network to understand how they can best leverage our platform to help champion their communities in light of the coronavirus crisis. If you want to learn what they are doing and what we can do for your community, click here:

[Updated Data] Coronavirus in US cities: Residents’ key concerns this week are crime, scams and community resilience

Zencity

Zencity

As another week goes by, it seems like the world is starting to set into a  new normal, a coronavirus normal. The coronavirus pandemic and resulting lockdowns, self-isolation, and school closures have meant that communities need to rapidly adjust to a new way of life. Now more than ever, the public is taking to the internet to share their concerns, needs and quarantine routines and we can look at those conversations to really understand – what’s on their mind. 

Over the last couple of weeks we released reports which analyzed over 8M online data points from the first weeks of March. This analysis highlighted the key concerns of communities in over 100 cities across the US regarding COVID19.

Our goal with these reports was to aid local government teams- the men and women on the frontlines of the COVID-19 outbreak- to efficiently identify their community’s needs and better shape their crisis response, policies, and messaging.

But as the crisis continues to unfold, there is an acute need for updated, relevant data to support these big decisions. And that is why we’re sharing this new, updated version, analyzing 5.7M online interactions from this past week.

While in our previous report we found that residents were most concerned with operations of cultural/entertainment institutions (over 44% of the comments), this week’s data is more diversified, highlighting the fact that COVID-19 has now touched every facet of city life. 

Specifically, we see the leading topics this week touch on the very fabric of society and of residents’ lives, both positively and negatively, making crime and scams (13%) and community resilience and solidarity (12%) take the lead.

Residents Key Coronavirus Concerns (March 18-24)

coronavirus dialogue volume

Before diving into the specific concerns of city residents, let’s take a quick look at how the discourse volume has changed since our previous analysis (March 11-17). After a peak in the discourse last week (specifically on March 16th), the discourse dropped and has remained consistent since. Overall, there was a 15% drop in discourse volume. We presume that this is in part due to the fact that residents have begun to adjust to the new normal amid the pandemic, causing a subsequent drop in online conversations. 

Accordingly, let’s examine how residents’ key concerns/points of interest have diversified over this past week:

 

residents coronavirus concerns

We see that contrary to past weeks, there is no singular issue that is dominating the conversation (such as cultural/entertainment establishments or school closures in past weeks). This indicates that many fundamental uncertainties/fears within a city have been addressed, such as whether schools will remain open, transmission anxieties, and cancelling of public events.

Rather, residents have shifted their focus to discuss adjustments to their routine, potential threats in their transformed day to day, and likely new, permanent changes that will be seen in their community

The leading concerns tell a moving story of the fight to keep the fabric of society together. On the one hand, the leading category (Crime and Scams) shows the security challenges that this new situation brings. On the other hand, the elevated discussions about volunteering reinforces a sense of  hope as communities across cities come together to support ones in need. No one knows exactly what will come, but we do know that society- government, healthcare, the economy, our lifestyles, and more- will change. 

Below is a deeper examination of the new key concerns:

Crime and Scams

  • In some cities, there have been reported cases of violence and abuse, mostly of children, assumed to be triggered by stress and quarantines. This has garnered substantial attention on online channels
  • Alerts about scams, such as people trying to sell fake at-home testing kits for Coronavirus, are quickly circulating within communities
  • There have been many reports of people stealing toilet paper from park restrooms and residents are actively commenting on these updates
  • In California, some people have openly discussed the need to buy guns, while in parallel crimes/rumors of crimes related to the virus have increased (e.g. rumors of burglars disguising themselves as COVID-19 testers )

Community Resilience and Solidarity

  • New community-run initiatives have sprung up across cities such as food donation, mask distribution, and fundraising/volunteer efforts for local businesses. These initiatives have gained a lot of sharing and positive feedback online.  
  • Many community members are discussing ways in which they can actively provide assistance to senior citizens and how some residents are already helping 

Operations of Public Safety

  • Many police departments are sharing online how they strive  to enforce the “shelter at home” order
  • Police departments are also utilizing their channels of communication to share information and/or direct people to the city’s official coronavirus information page. In parallel, we also see many people are turning to the police for answers about coronavirus
  • Police and fire departments are frequently posting about their daily routine and showing how they practice social distancing 
  • Many residents are curious about how they should report noncompliance with city ordinances and what warrants calling 911

Supporting Local Restaurants

  • Posts by cities and/or other local organizations which list open restaurants and encourage residents to support these businesses via ordering, have gained substantial traction within multiple cities. 
  • Many residents are discussing current restrictions on dining out and how to best move to deliveries. Some are also discussing the tougher regulations on takeaway food 
  • Popular campaigns that encourage ordering food, such as #Digitaldining have gained a noteworthy amount of attention from residents

Operations of Entertainment Establishments

  • We see that residents still seeking to understand the operation status of entertainment/cultural establishments

Support for Children 

  • Many residents, especially parents, have taken to the internet to discuss online activities for kids. We also see city libraries and parks departments proactively sharing suggestions
  • A lot of online conversations have been centered around the distribution of laptops for remote learning
  • County communications teams, local organizations, and parents are actively discussing and getting the word out about creative solutions for providing meals to students

 Panic-buying and social distancing at stores

  • There are still reports and online chatter about panic-buying, mostly toilet paper. This discourse is often coupled with ongoing concerns about hoarding.
  • Residents are also concerned with lines in grocery stores and how they fundamentally violate  social distancing guidelines

Economic Impact

  • Reports of price-gouging have caused residents to actively discuss the issue online
  • Many residents are concerned with COVID-19’s economic impact. Updates from Chambers of Commerce in cities are gaining a lot of traction online as well as the promotion of shopping locally 

Operation of City Services

  • Residents are interested in updates from cities about services and how these services might be impacted during this time of crisis
  • They were also particularly concerned with operations of services in light of city hall closures and expressed the need for clarification on how they would pay taxes/utilities/moratorium

Utilities 

  • Posts by city communications that assured residents that tap water is OK to drink gained a lot of traction online 
  • Many cities have proactively requested that residents do not flush wipes (in light of toilet paper shortages) 
  • Cities and residents are also actively discussing guidelines for waste management

As local governments need to shape new policies, support the vulnerable members of their communities, and constantly share information, we hope that these key concerns could help better inform teams on areas for prioritization. Take a look at our updated report that analyzes data from the 25th of March to the 31st.

Zencity also released a short one-pager describing main ways our 130+ partner network leverages the platform in light of the coronavirus crisis. Read more here:

[Updated Data] Coronavirus in U.S. Cities: Residents’ key concerns in numbers

Zencity

Zencity

The coronavirus outbreak is completely changing day to day realities across the world, and fast. As more cities announce positive cases, create new policies, and implement different measures, the concerns of their communities change as well. And we can see that manifest itself in online conversations. 

Last week we released a report, which analyzed over 1.5M online data points from the first week of March, and highlighted the key concerns of communities in over 100 cities across the US regarding COVID19. Our goal with this report was to aid local government teams- the men and women on the frontlines of the COVID-19 outbreak- to efficiently identify their community’s needs and better shape their crisis response, policies, and messaging. (See best practices for effective messaging here).

But as the crisis continues to unfold, there is an acute need for updated, relevant data to support these big decisions. And that is why we’re sharing this new, updated version, analyzing 6.5M online interactions from this past week. 

While in our previous report we found residents were most concerned with school closures (over 42% of the comments), this week’s data paints a different picture, and we see noteworthy variations in discourse topics as the COVID-19 becomes the “new normal”.

Residents Key Coronavirus Concerns (March 11-17)

coronavirus online dialogue

First let’s touch on the sheer quantitative growth in online discourse. An underlying difference between our analysis this week versus the first week of March is in the number of online interactions that we analyzed. In the first week of March, we gathered 1.5M data points, while from March 11-17th we gathered over 6.7M interactions about COVID-19. Specifically, we saw a significant peak in online discourse within the last three days of our analysis, from March 15th to the 17th. 

While this is not surprising, it is a dramatic increase. We know that everyone is talking about the pandemic. But what are residents actually concerned with this week aside from the topic of public health? How do residents believe the outbreak will impact their day to day and what are they voicing online? By using topic modeling and clustering, we were able to obtain answers to these essential questions. 

 

coronavirus concerns march 11

As we can see, the main topics of concern changed significantly from last week, with cultural institutions becoming the leading topic, and schools dropping to account for only 11% of the discourse. 

Below we’ve provided a more in-depth analysis of the above graph and essential takeaways on what residents are saying.

Entertainment and cultural institutions:

The most prominent cause of uncertainty and concern within communities across cities was the topic of entertainment institutions, such as museums and theaters, that are cancelling performances and/or closing operations for the time being. Residents also discussed institutions that distributed notices about remaining open. Most residents expressed joy and gratitude towards those particular entertainment institutions and asked whether their operations would be adjusted to accommodate social distancing practices and CDC guidelines. As this topic becomes more of a focus across the U.S., even Insider decided to highlight what some theaters are doing in order to stay open

Festivals and Public Events:

The second major topic of concern for residents in association with COVID-19 was about cancellation of city and non-city run events. Residents also wondered why some events were cancelled why others remained scheduled as planned, and sought out clarification. In some cases (especially when the festivals were poised to have considerable positive impact on the local economy) there was objection and concern about the economic toll that the cancellation would have on the community. Overall, most cancelations were well-received by residents.

Schools:

Now that school closures have become the standard across the U.S., the discourse volume in this category has dropped compared to our first week of analysis. Conversations within the category have also now shifted focus to arrangements for remote learning (access to internet) and initiatives for providing meals to school children. Residents also expressed concerns about children disobeying social distancing and gathering outside of school in groups. Furthermore, many working parents in particular, voiced their worry about access to childcare arrangements. On the flipside, many students voiced their disappointment regarding canceled games and after school activities. Despite residents taking to the internet to share their worries about the impact of school closures on their daily routines, the act of closing schools was generally favored by communities

Local Restaurants and Bars: 

A lot of the online chatter regarding local restaurants and bars consisted of updates about which businesses are operating and offering delivery, curbside pickup, and/or online orders. Many cities are proactively aiding restaurants and bars by advertising that they are still running and even assisting operationally to accommodate the high demand for deliveries and pickups. While dining rooms are closing across the county, boxed meals and inspiring solutions are abundant. In particular, online discourse is proving to be critical in aiding  residents, cities, and businesses get the word out to help salvage restaurants and bars. However, some of that online discourse also consists of young people who do not want to abide by social distancing recommendations and believe that the best way to aid restaurants and bars is to continue to go out in public and support these local establishments.

Panic-buying and availability of goods: 

There’s a science behind panic-buying during an epidemic. As Amy Mckeever of the National Geographic notes, “Panic-buying supplies is one way humans have coped with uncertainty over epidemics since at least 1918 during the Spanish flu—when people in Baltimore raided drug stores for anything that would prevent the flu or relieve its symptoms—all the way up to the 2003 SARS outbreak.” 

“When you’re seeing extreme responses. It’s because people feel like their survival is threatened and they need to do something to feel like they’re in control,” explains Karestan Koenen, professor of psychiatric epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. 

Accordingly, with coronavirus uncertainties swarming online we are seeing a continuation of discourse about stockpiling and panic-buying. Yet residents aren’t just expressing “panic” online. Many have taken to the internet in response to the pictures of empty shelves and the fights over toilet paper to discourage their fellow community members from panic-buying and encourage consideration of those who are truly in need of the resources. Police and law enforcement communications also occupied the discourse, with formal warnings to residents about scams by those who are trying to capitalize on public anxiety.

Additional Concerns of Residents:

While the following concerns did not represent a significant percentage of the discourse data, there is a chance that we can see these concerns become more pronounced in the coming week or even in the next few days. Thus, we thought it would be worthwhile to note them below:

  • Closing campuses and dorms – residents actively discussed the topic of arrangements for students that have nowhere to go due to these campus closures
  • A portion of residents had questions about the continuation of city services such as community centers and libraries. Considering these concerns, some libraries for example, have begun to offer online books or wave late return fees
  • Residents were also concerned about the potential shutting off of utilities such as water and electricity. As a result, some local governments distributed messaging emphasizing that they would halt any disconnections or shut-offs for the time being. 

We hope this report aids local government professionals as they work tirelessly to manage the coronavirus crisis in their communities. Be on the lookout for our updated insights for the week of March 18th to the 24th.

Zencity also released a short one-pager describing main ways its 120 partner network leverages the platform in light of the coronavirus crisis. You can read the full resource here:

 

TLDR

From our analysis, we were able to extract these essential takeaways from residents’ online discourse:

  • Speculation about school closures had occupied over 42% of the community discourse in the first week of March and has now dropped to only 11%
  • With school closures having become the new normal, discourse has now shifted to a focus on how to cope with this reality (e.g. access to online learning, meals, and childcare). 
  • There was less of a focus on the sanitation of public transportation and its relation to the transmission of the virus compared to the previous week. We believe that this is due to the fact that many cities have shut down public transportation and that residents have begun to self-isolate/remain at home
  • There is still lack of clarity within communities about the status of events and what is permissible in terms of going out in one’s city (e.g. inconsistency of event cancellation, CDC guidelines for leaving the home).
  • Also, the new restrictive policies to deter transmission have engendered significant distress regarding the economic impact on businesses and individuals. These concerns have sparked helpful initiatives led by the city, other businesses and the community 
  • Overall people have shifted from discussing the dawning of the outbreak and are now more focused on discussing life as it continues against the backdrop of the ongoing crisis: food delivery, family services, going out, making a living, paying bills, etc.
  • At first, the  practice of social distancing had a fair amount of opposition, yet now we see more acceptance of this preventative method, which is reflected in attempts by residents to maintain a semblance of normalcy under this new paradigm.

Diving deeper into residents’ online discourse, Zencity analyzed over 86M social media data points to unveil how Coronavirus has changed the way cities and residents communicate. Discover insights on leading channels, engagement statistics and more here.

5 Cool City-Sponsored July Fourth Events!

Zencity

Zencity

There’s nothing more American than going all out, and the 4th of July is as American as it gets! What better excuse to eat inordinate amounts of fried food, enjoy flashing fireworks displays, or kick back and relax with friends and family. With the actual holiday falling smack middle of the week this year, there’s more to this day than America’s favorite pastime: the classic red, white, and booze. In the name of freedom, the 4th of July is the perfect excuse to let loose and celebrate the freedom the day stands for in a variety of “American” ways. So, read below to find out which cities we think know how to put together a proper Independence Day celebration!

1. San Antonio, Texas

Is there anything more quintessentially American than a Bud Light? San Antonio clearly thinks so. Adding to the already beautiful ambiance of San Antonio’s River Walk, the city annually places thousands of Bud Light decorated luminarias along the river in an event called Bud Light, Stars, Stripes, and Lights. Don’t know what a lumanaria is? Don’t worry, because neither did I! Nonetheless, seeing the countless lanterns (a luminaria) along the river radiate patriotism is a great way to celebrate your day.

2. Hialeah, Florida

The only thing that can surpass the awesomeness of a good 4th of July fireworks show is a fireworks show complemented by lasers! Yes, that’s right, every year, the city of Hialeah, Florida, puts on a fabulous light show that includes both sparklers and tech-heavy lasers. You can watch a video of last year’s celebration here and revel in delight like we did!  

3. Colorado Springs, Colorado

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, Uncle Sam, Luke Skywalker, and ET competed for ruler of the galaxy. And by a galaxy far, far away, we mean at the Colorado Springs annual 4th of July celebration! On Wednesday night, sit back and marvel as the Colorado Springs Philharmonic plays a song from each of these monumental films before fireworks light the night.

4. Crestwood, Illinois

Only 30 minutes away from Chicago, the folks over in Crestwood have an annual lawnmower parade! Just like it sounds, the city gathers to watch people ride ATVs, mini-bikes, SUV leveraged speedboats, and of course, lawnmowers. Dating back to Crestwood’s agricultural roots, have no fear, town locals will not, in fact, make you mow their lawns afterward! Check out this video to see last year’s shenanigans.

5. San Diego, California

Have you really celebrated the 4th if you haven’t witnessed a pyrotechnic display illuminating the great American sky? Did you really commemorate America’s birthday if you didn’t post firework pictures on your Instagram? The answer to the second question is obviously a big fat no. Thus, what better way to simultaneously up your social media game and enjoy America’s Independence than at San Diego’s Big Bay Boom celebration! This firework display is said to be one of the largest in the country, whereby people can watch fireworks explode from four different barges throughout San Diego. The cream on the cake is who you’ll be watching the show with. With thousands of service members living in San Diego, Patriotism shatters the night sky’s darkness.