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

Tali Fierer

Tali Fierer

Content & Social Media Manager

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

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

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

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

2. AI is All About the Need for Speed

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

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

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

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

3. Using AI to Upgrade Your Existing Toolbox

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

4. Improving Efficiency with Technology

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

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

Conclusion

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