As cities respond to the new coronavirus (COVID-19) and are forced to digitize many of their services, technology will play a key role in communicating information, tracking cases and maintaining normal levels of government service, speakers said on a Friday webinar hosted by Marketplace.city.
The webinar acted as a way to help leaders understand what is already available and what can be rolled out quickly. The World Health Organization (WHO) warned recently that the coronavirus is an "infodemic" as well as a pandemic, meaning disinformation is prevalent and must be addressed by governments at all levels to ensure facts are circulated.
Indeed, Eyal Feder-Levy, co-founder and CEO of resident feedback analysis company Zencity, said the combination of disinformation and other social media chatter can make it feel like "everything is burning."
Having open channels of communication is key to combat this, and technology can help ease residents’ concerns by giving them quick answers to questions. Cities will also need to put more of their everyday services online, especially as residents are urged to self-isolate and many government employees working remotely. Liz Fischer, chief customer officer at CityBase, referred to this as a "Digital City Hall."
Indianapolis and San Francisco, which have re-purposed a municipal payment platform into a place to make charitable donations, have already led the way in these efforts, she said.
Chris Crosby, founder and CEO of AI communications company Xaqt, cited Kansas City, MO's efforts to automate the process of taking residents’ calls about trash pickup, which has saved the city $50,000 and 716 hours of time talking on the phone since it was implemented in June 2019.
"With cities and states going in lockdown every minute, there's new questions and communications that have to happen with your citizens," Crosby said.
Additionally, automated chatbots, whether they are online or through text messaging on cell phones, are vital in getting information out to residents, several speakers said during the webinar. That is especially true for existing city hotlines like 311 services and dedicated numbers that may have been set up by local health departments being inundated with calls for assistance.
"The point is: quick release of information to your residents," Bratton Riley, co-founder and CEO of SMS push notification service Citibot said.
It will also be key for cities and technology providers to work closely together and break down the issues of trust that have traditionally plagued private and public sector cooperation. On the webinar, many companies said they were waiving various fees and other expenses, in a bid to help new cities stand up their services more quickly and cheaply in these trying times.
"We're moving virtual, as we all know, and we need to unlock some of these tools, much like some of the other great tools that you're looking at today, to help break down those barriers of communication with your residents," Riley said.
To keep up with all of our coverage on how the new coronavirus is impacting U.S. cities, visit our daily tracker.