Building community trust. Eyal Feder-Levy, CEO & Founder of Zencity, joined the podcast to talk about the work Zencity is doing to track the public sentiment of the COVID-19 vaccine in cities across America. He shared there is currently twice as much negative sentiment towards the vaccine as positive. He also outlined the impact local governments and leaders can have on the sentiment of the vaccine for their community. Zencity recently published a guide to help local governments build trust in the vaccine.
Host: Toney Thompson
This is Brian Murphy ELGL’s Data Manager. The ELGL diversity dashboard is the first national data collection on the gender, race and age of local government leadership. We’re excited to launch our third full year of data collection. This year, we’re expanding our collection to include all levels of local government positions, not just Chief Administrative officers, in an effort to get a better understanding of diversity across a wider variety of local government positions. This year’s survey is looking for responses from Local Government Leaders working in many different positions. We look forward to hearing from department heads, project managers, analysts and others as we hope to get data on the diversity of local government leadership. You can find more information on the survey and a link to respond at ELGL.org/diversity-dashboard. We hope you’ll respond and follow the data as we work to make local government more diverse.
Toney Thompson 01:00
Coming to you from Durham, North Carolina, this is Gov Love, a podcast about local government. I’m Toney Thompson, your Gove Love co host for today’s episode. On today’s episode, we’ll talk to Eyal Feder-Levy from Zencity about American public sentiment on the COVID-19 vaccine and the critical role local governments can play to combat misinformation and negative perceptions of getting vaccinated. Eyal Feder-Levy is an urban planner and smart city geek Eyal has worked with numerous cities to implement advanced technology and methodologies. In Zencity, he helps local governments around the world make better decisions daily about analyzing millions of citizen feedback data points using advanced AI. Before founding Zencity, Eyal was part of the founding team of city center, Tel Aviv University’s Interdisciplinary Center for cities and urbanism where he led several Smart City programs. Apart from Zencity and academic work Eyal part of the World Economic Forum’s feature of cities advisory board, a member of the US Conference of Mayors Business Council, and the youngest board member of the Israeli urban planners Association. Welcome to Gov Love and thanks for joining us Eyal.
Eyal Feder-Levy 02:10
Thank you so much for having me, Toney. I’m super excited to finally get to be on the speaking side of one of my favorite podcasts. Excellent.
Toney Thompson 02:17
Excellent, we love, we love to have you. So let’s get started with the lightning round. I’m sure you’re very familiar with this from listening to other podcasts episodes. It’s just an opportunity for our listeners to get to know you a bit better. The first question I have for Eyal is, if you could have any superpower, what would it be?
Eyal Feder-Levy 02:34
Well, I hate to be cliche, but it would definitely be mind reading. I’m obsessed with what people are thinking, as you know, what Zencty does probably speaks to. And I would love to be able to understand what the people in front of me have in mind as we’re talking.
Toney Thompson 02:49
Yeah, I think that’s a superpower that everybody would love to have. That’s a good one. Second lightning round question, what are you currently reading?
Eyal Feder-Levy 02:58
Well, I’m a bit geeky. And I like to have both a fiction and a nonfiction book to read at the same time. So on the fiction side, I’m reading Ready Player Two, because I really liked Ready Player One. And on the nonfiction, I’m actually reading Capital Cities, which is a great book about how real estate and capital shape modern day cities.
Toney Thompson 03:19
Those are really two good choices. You’re not the first person to say that, you know, you have a methodology of reading like a fiction and nonfiction book at the same time. I may need to get into doing that. I usually just tend to read one or the other. Yeah, yeah, definitely. Okay, so this is the one that I think everyone loves, loves to hear the responses on. What is your most controversial, non political opinion?
Eyal Feder-Levy 03:45
Well, I hope I’m not burning myself here. But I’m really not a dog person. I have two cats and I’m very proud of liking cats and dogs kind of freak me out.
Toney Thompson 03:59
I completely disagree with you. But I appreciate your honesty.
Eyal Feder-Levy 04:04
I told you it’s a controversial opinion. Not trying to hide it.
Toney Thompson 04:08
Yeah, thank you. Thank you. I’m sure I’m sure some of our listeners are also cat people and don’t like dogs, but I’m not one of them. Okay, so let’s, let’s get let’s start talking about some of the great work you’ve been doing with Zencity. So, as our listeners probably know, the COVID vaccine is here. And a lot of focus has been around, you know, the logistics of getting that vaccine across the country, and how best to decide who gets the vaccine first. But the work that you’ve been doing with Zencity and the data that you’ve been collecting suggests that local governments also need to be concerned about what citizens are currently thinking about the vaccine. Can you tell us what your data is showing around this Eyal?
Eyal Feder-Levy 04:54
Sure. So just in a nutshell about Zencity to give a word of context. So we’re a startup. headquartered out of Tel Aviv, Israel. And our goal is to help local government agencies really understand the needs and priorities of the communities that they serve, so that they can make better decisions around policy actions and messaging. And the way we do that is not only in traditional methods like polling and surveys and asking questions, but also in tapping into where people are already sharing their opinions and their sentiments towards life in the city. It can be in the city’s own customer service data like 311, it could be in sources like social media, which is probably one of our biggest sources of information or local media, online forums and in many other places. And today, we work with about 200 communities across the country, from cities as big as LA and Chicago, all the way to tiny communities like the village of Lemont, Illinois, or the city of Rockport, Texas. And what we have the privilege of seeing from working with all of these amazing local governments and these great communities, that we actually get to get a read, get a pulse check on what communities across the country of different sizes are thinking about, you know, we talked about my desire to read minds, this is a maybe a small approximation of that. And we get to see what people are publicly sharing about their opinions, their concerns, things that they’re happy with and unhappy with. And in regular times before COVID, we use this a lot to understand people’s perceptions of public safety and of transportation and infrastructure and many different things. And over the past, this past year, we’ve been really helping a lot of our local governments understand what their communities are feeling and seeing around the COVID-19 crisis. And most recently, as the vaccines have been starting to really become a reality, which to me, personally, is super exciting. And an event that’s filling me with hope. We were really surprised to see that the sentiment across communities in the US is not exactly that. While we were expecting to see a very positive sentiment of people, you know, celebrating the potential end of this crisis, and the fact that we will, you know, we see a light at the end of the tunnel, what we’re actually seeing is very high levels of negative sentiment, skepticism, people that are unsure if they would agree to take the vaccine. And honestly, more than all that just a lot of misinformation that’s being spread out there. And I have to say I personally was shocked to see the numbers as we start to analyze this data from across the country.
Toney Thompson 07:49
Yeah, that’s I mean, that’s really fascinating. I’m, I’m in agreement with you. I think when you first told me about this, I was a little surprised. So a little surprised when you said like the just the the proportion of negative sentiment that’s out there. I mean, from your data, can you could you give like a rough proportion of what’s negative to positive? Is it like a 70/30? split negative positive or 80/20?
Eyal Feder-Levy 08:17
It varies from community to community. I think that’s the beauty of of this country, there are a lot of different communities. But overall, what we saw is that in many of the communities that we checked, and across the board, the level of negative sentiment was about twice as high as positive sentiment in many, meaning there was twice as much negative sentiment than positive sentiment, which was not the case around a lot of other, even COVID related issues, even controversial issues like mask wearing or issues like economic response, even they, on average had a lower ratio of negative to positive sentiment.
Toney Thompson 08:57
Wow, yeah, that’s a pretty that’s a pretty large proportion between two to one. In terms of the negative sentiment Eyal, what are some key themes that you’re that you’re seeing people express negatively around the vaccine?
Eyal Feder-Levy 09:15
So, one of the interesting things about this negative sentiment, before we dive into the specifics, is why is this even important? Right? Why should we even care that people are writing negative things about the vaccine online? And what we see across the board is that in order to run a successful vaccine campaign, you have to get your community on board. Eventually the whole idea behind the vaccine is that a large enough majority of the population will get vaccinated, and then we will stop the spread of this virus. And when we see these extremely high levels of, of distrust of misinformation, of negative sentiment towards the idea of, of taking the vaccine of getting the shot. It makes me wonder, Will these people actually cooperate with the vaccine operation? If we’re talking about a ratio of two to one negative to positive? Will we have this large group within our communities that is not cooperating with the vaccine population, in essence, really making it not work? Right, if we don’t have a large enough group that cooperates, that could really put a real strain on on on the effectiveness of this entire effort. And the types of negative sentiment we’re seeing is, is mostly a lot of distrust, towards the process that the vaccine was approved in, and a lot of misinformation that supports that distrust of all of the negative side effects of, of the vaccine of you know, the, the fact that the political level is not taking the risk on themselves, but you know, rolling it out to the public, and all of those different types of negative sentiment mostly revolve around distrust in, you know, is this an actual remedy for the situation?
Toney Thompson 11:22
So if I’m hearing you correctly, a part of a part of the thing that’s driving this negative sentiment is like the speed in which the vaccine came out, is that correct?
Eyal Feder-Levy 11:32
Yeah, definitely. Yeah, the speed, what are the side effects and the feeling that, you know, these side effects have not yet been researched. And the interesting thing that we’re seeing is that these negative sentiment drivers vary between community to community. In some communities, you might see most of the negative sentiment centered around how the county or the community decided to prioritize who gets the vaccine first. And in other places, you’ll see negative sentiment around the side effects and other places, you’ll see negative sentiment around the speed in which it was approved. But in an all, negative sentiment is usually characterized by some sense of distrust to the process.
Toney Thompson 12:17
Right. And, you know, this, this makes me think of, you know, I wonder, maybe your data is showing this. But how much of this negative sentiment when you’re talking about distrust, is just the general context of the the level of trust that American citizens have with the American government right now. So I imagine you’re doing work with other countries or other communities outside of the United States? Are you seeing the same level of negative sentiment and other cities outside of the US that same two to one ratio of negative to positive?
Eyal Feder-Levy 12:56
Well, we’re definitely seeing negative sentiment on the rise in the different territories we work with, but I will have to say that we’re seeing more extreme levels of negative sentiment in the US, so the majority of our of our customer base is in the US, so yeah, speak, to the best to, to what we’re seeing in in the US discourse, but we’re definitely seeing higher levels of negative sentiment in the US than, than in other places. But to your point about distrust in the government in general, I think one of the most interesting findings for me was that we saw a very, very strong correlation between communities with a more positive outlook on the vaccine operation to communities that the local government was actually active in its messaging about the topic. So when the local government was actively posting about, about the vaccine operation when the mayor was posting personally or the official accounts for, for the organizations were posting about the vaccine, we saw a significantly more positive trend in the public discourse about the vaccine than in communities where conversation was controlled by, you know, the, let’s call them the unofficial sources like you know, the local media or citizen groups.
Toney Thompson 14:23
Yes, that’s very interesting Eyal, that you that you brought that up? Can you give a specific example of one of the communities that density works with that, you know, really highlighted, who did a good job of highlighting what you just said?
Eyal Feder-Levy 14:36
Sure. I think one of the interesting ways in which our data is used is first and foremost to understand, in your specific community, what is the what is the pulse right now? Are people more positive or negative? And then what’s driving that conversation? And when I when I speak about what’s driving I mean, in two different levels. One is what are the specific concerns or topics that are driving both the positive and the negative sentiment and B what are the outlets that are driving that sentiment? for example, in one of our counties in Texas, we recently saw that in November and December, there was a significant spike in negative sentiment regarding the vaccine, we can really see the negative sentiment doubling in quantity from October, to November and December. And one of the interesting things that they found was that there was one specific media outlet that was driving most of the negative sentiment regarding vaccines. So that was an opportunity for the county to interact with that media outlet, and share with them more reliable information about the vaccine, helped them share a more positive message towards the vaccine, and really get more trust for the community to support this important process.
Toney Thompson 15:58
Yeah, so I think, you know, what you’re saying is really fascinating. I think it speaks to, you know, the need for local governments to maintain a positive relationship with, you know, their local media outlets and have this close relationship. And so I would imagine, you know, based on, you know, the data that you’re collecting that the local governments that have that close relationship with their local media outlets, who can coordinate a message are driving more positive sentiment in their communities. Would you say that’s correct?
Eyal Feder-Levy 16:28
Yeah, definitely. I think that’s a message I can definitely get behind.
Toney Thompson 16:33
Yeah. So in in your data collection, were you able to tease out any differences in sentiment based on demographics? And if so, what what were those differences?
Eyal Feder-Levy 16:48
So because we’re very privacy aware, we don’t actually have demographic data about the the information we collect, because we anonymize all the data that comes in, we basically want to show a trend of the community at large. The places where we do see some correlation to demographics is when we break down conversation, either by location by neighborhood, or when we compare different cities or different communities or communities with a larger population of different kinds. So we definitely see varying sentiment between different regions, different city sizes, we see the conversation right now is much more active in the larger cities that already had the vaccine, delivered and started to be administrated. And in some small towns where they don’t feel that yet, there’s less conversation happening so far. But overall, I would say that, what we’re seeing is that this trend of misinformation, of skepticism, we’re seeing that across the board in varying levels. For example, in comparison to that county in Texas that I mentioned before, we can see in one of the big cities in California that we work with, a city of about half a million people, that the sentiment is much more positive about the vaccines. And one of the reasons as I shared before is because that local government is very active about that topic. The mayor is personally posting and celebrating the arrival of the vaccines. The official accounts are are very active and talking about that. And we still see skepticism there. But it accounts for about 6% of the conversation in comparison to about 30% of the conversation, which is positive, unlike that, two to one negative to positive splinting we see across the board.
Toney Thompson 18:39
Yeah. So you know, talking about that that county, you mentioned, does your data, show it how early they started posting about the vaccine, compared to other communities that you work with?
Eyal Feder-Levy 18:56
Yeah, they they really got ahead of the curve, and start posting about it, even before the vaccines arrived in the city. And I think that that was very helpful, but but we’re seeing that same effect, even when some local governments are showing up to that conversation now, right, even if they started being active more recently, and mostly, as they said, probably one of the most important parts of this is the elected officials accounts being specifically active on this topic, the community leaders that people see a trust in I think another aspect of this is, as we shared before about understanding the channels of conversation. One of the things that could be very helpful here we’ve seen on other topics like the census, for example, or other issues where we needed to get community cooperation throughout this year, whether it was a mask wearing or supporting local businesses, recognizing what topics are driving the most conversation, what outlets are driving the most conversation. Does a message resonate better when it comes from our community organization, or from the city’s official account or maybe from the police department’s account? Those things could be really, really meaningful in changing public perception, changing the sentiment here and driving more people to have a positive outlook about a sensitive topic like this.
Toney Thompson 20:18
Yeah, absolutely. And in terms of, you know, as you said, you know, getting the public officials out to be, you know, the people who are doing this communicating to build that trust, you know, is this is this only through social media, your data? Is your data showing or, can they also get that message out through their local media outlets, is that also as effective?
Eyal Feder-Levy 20:38
So I think it’s, it’s definitely as effective. It just depends on the reach of these channels. I think that iterating a message both on social media and on the local media could really be a strong pull towards positive sentiment, right, if we see that the local media outlets reiterate the message of the mayor. And that message both exists on the official, you know, social media account plus gets reshared, reported on, for the local media, then, at that point, the local government is controlling the message of, you know, what is the narrative around the vaccines, and I think that that could be really meaningful to get to get a lot of support for this important effort to get, you know, people to rally behind the facts and not behind misinformation. And that could be very, very effective.
Toney Thompson 21:30
Absolutely. So at Eyal, I just, I just kind of want to see if you can, you know, summarize for our listeners. So if I’m a local government out there, and I’m starting to get my, you know, first distributions of the vaccine, and I want to make sure that my my citizens are going to take the vaccine in large numbers, what would you recommend, you know, my local government do to make sure that I am generating that kind of positive sentiment? What strategies should I be implementing right now.
Eyal Feder-Levy 21:59
So I think the first message is probably, to all local governments, we have to think about this vaccine operation in a holistic approach, right? The responsibility here is not to deliver the vaccines from point A to point B or to store them in the, you know, super refrigerators that you need to store them in or to announce the dates in which you can come and get your shot. The responsibility is eventually to get our communities vaccinated in large enough numbers so that we can start to pull out of this crisis and look ahead and have a better 2021, than, than a 2020. And with that holistic approach, one of the things that we have to make sure we’re not leaving behind is people’s willingness to cooperate, people’s willingness to be a part of this effort, people’s willingness to literally show up and get the vaccine shot. And in that sense, when we’re building a vaccine operation, thinking about the public perception of it, public opinion, how to get people to cooperate with different messaging, and different policies and actions. All those things are as important to the success of this operation. As you know, the trucks and the refrigerators and actual doses of the vaccine. And the way we’ve seen that to be the most effective, at least from our initial research is A to take action, right? We we are raising the flag and we’re sounding the alarm that the situation right now is bad out there. There is a lot of negative sentiment, a lot of skepticism, a lot of unwillingness to be a part of this to higher levels than we’ve seen on almost any other topic in you know, in relation to COVID. So A, we need to take action, because if we don’t then conversation is left to unofficial sources that are not necessarily generating their cooperation. B, taking action, meaning, B, taking action means that you need to put information out there, need to share facts about the vaccine, share information about it, and share things that will generate more trust from the community, actively dispel misinformation that’s popular in your specific community, actively share the relevant information that will get people to believe in the safety and importance of this vaccine. And probably last but not least, we see that specifically elected official accounts, specifically Mayer’s accounts, tend to play a huge role in turning the conversation from negative to positive. Being active, posting, posting You know, personal example, committing to taking the vaccine, talking about why you’re excited about it. All those things drive a significant impact a significant shift in public sentiment, at least from the initial data that we’ve analyzed in, you know, 200 communities.
Toney Thompson 25:20
Yeah, thank you, thank you for providing those recommendations. I think they’re really good. And I think all local governments across the country can follow them to ensure that we have, you know, ppsitive sentiment in our communities. One of the recommendations that you said that I thought was was very interesting was, you know, you said, actively disputing or combating misinformation. And I wanted to touch on that a little bit more, because I think sometimes local governments, we will, we will put out information like this is this is our information. And we don’t always necessarily actively dispute, other information that we see on social media that may contradict or try to contradict what we’re saying, Are you seeing in your, in the communities that you work with, that they are also actively disputing misinformation that they’re seeing on social media?
Eyal Feder-Levy 26:13
Definitely. And you’re right, that it’s a delicate issue, because sometimes if we reiterate a misinformation message, we’re actually just giving it a bigger floor than it had before. Right? Sometimes by commenting about something you, you give it more presence than it had. So one of the things that are really important, in our perspective, and from what we’re seeing, is to recognize the specific things that are popular in your community or the levels of misinformation in your community. Because if there aren’t a lot, no need to create them by, you know, disputing misinformation that people maybe weren’t aware of before. But on the other hand, if you’re seeing significant amounts of discussion, collaboration, corroboration of misinformation, then it’s really important to tackle that specifically, meaning, you know, dispute that piece of misinformation and give a fight back to a narrative or a message that could be resonating and spreading within your community and could really impact what people are, are thinking and how much they’re willing to cooperate with this important effort.
Toney Thompson 27:30
You know, Eyal, one of the, what you just said made me think about, you know, are you are you hearing about what’s going on at some of the, like, public affairs offices and the communities that you work with, across the country, you know, sometimes in local government, you know, you know, local governments range in size, obviously, and, you know, sometimes local governments have large public affairs offices, some have, you know, it’s just one or two people, and the the level of of information that each of these, you know, departments or divisions would have to do in order to make sure that they’re generating the kind of positive sentiment that that you’re talking about could be, you know, a pretty significant lift for them, especially in it, you know, since COVID has happened. I’m sure they’ve been kind of working overtime already. What are you hearing from, from the communities that you’re working with?
Eyal Feder-Levy 28:21
So I think that’s a great question, because, honestly, I feel like local government communication staff are, in many ways, the unsung heroes of, of this crisis, the comms teams in local government, the PIOs, the social media managers, the PR and media people. They’ve been working around the clock over this past year, taking a real first responder role, by sharing information, sharing reliable information, with the community answering questions, answering concerns, being the one that’s out there on the front line, interacting with the community and being that first line of response. And I feel like you know, in many cases, we don’t know this. But even for pretty big cities, it’s sometimes a one person show or, you know, somebody who does this for all the departments in the city, or really teams that are surprisingly understaffed. And what more is we’ve seen many of these teams actually get downsized throughout this crisis. While you would expect that, you know, in a time like this, digital communication needs to see more investment we actually saw, unfortunately, some people that we work with get laid off or lose their jobs. And I think that, you know, so I first and foremost, want to take a moment to acknowledge the incredible work that all of you comms professionals are doing. You’re really literally saving lives with important work that you’re doing. In relation to what we’re talking about right now, I think that we don’t necessarily see a difference between big teams and small teams. And one of the best ways that we see small teams be effective is by doing two things. A, being very focused, meaning, you know, focusing on the right things to do, as we said here, focusing on on using the mayor as a good channel for messaging, focusing on what are the specific concerns that you want to answer, focusing on, on where, what messages would resonate with the community. So that’s one, one important part. And then the other part is peer learning. One of the great things about communications that you can borrow ideas and thoughts, and in many cases in the, you know, non competitive world, which is local government, can actually take materials that were created by bigger comms teams, and use them to share with your community, whether it’s videos or infographics, or things like that. And we’ve seen in many cases throughout our network of about 200 communities where we shared with our, our network, some best practices and said, Hey, here’s a post or a video or things that we saw work really well in this great community and the users just reached out to one another and learned from that and actually use some of those resources in their own communications. So I think that’s definitely a resource that we see smart comms teams using these days. And it’s definitely something that, you know, you need to be creative about when you’re one person show running comms for 10 different agencies in the middle of this kind of crisis.
Toney Thompson 31:35
Yeah, thank you so much for sharing that you’re absolutely right. It’s the people in the public affairs offices across the country, and the PIOs have been doing herculean work. And, you know, we at ELGL just want to thank them for for all the work that they continue to do, especially getting out what you’re talking about positive information, getting, generating positive sentiment about, you know, the vaccine as it’s being rolled out. Eyal, so those are really kind of all the questions I have for you. If people want to find your work that you’ve been doing around this, where could they, where can they go?
Eyal Feder-Levy 32:11
Hey, we’d love to support and help any local government throughout this super important effort, so anyway we can be helpful. To us, this has always been our top mission, we’re a company that only serves local governments. And if there’s any way we can be helpful, would be thrilled to do that. You can find all this information on our website, once you go on, nice pop up about the vaccines will come up and direct you to both the report and some examples of our work with different communities. So you’re welcome to do that. And if you’re interested, you’re very welcome to email me at [email protected], or find me on LinkedIn and I’ll be very, very happy to share any more information with you.
Toney Thompson 32:55
Excellent. And if you could be the Gov Love DJ for a day, what song would you pick as your exit music for this episode?
Eyal Feder-Levy 33:05
Yes. So this is a dream come true. I’ve been preparing for this moment for the last three years. But I think you know, this year has been a really, really tough year on a lot of us. And it’s hard to find positive things about it. But if I really make an effort, one of the positive impacts of this year had on me, is that I got to see Hamilton for the first time. I don’t know, hopefully, some people share that with me, you know, every time I was in New York, I couldn’t spend $700, or it was just sold out. So I didn’t get a chance to see it. And this year, it finally came out on a TV version. So I was able to see Hamilton for the first time and I was, let’s say I got embarrassingly addicted. It’s everything I’ve been listening to. So I’ll have to go with the very relevant song to the topic of vaccines, and say they’ll play My Shot.
Toney Thompson 34:02
Yeah, I like it! Thank you so much. I hope our producers can can can put that in the episode, but that’s it, that’s a good one. Thank you.
Eyal Feder-Levy 34:13
Go listen to it. Great musical.
Toney Thompson 34:16
Absolutely. Thank you. So that ends our episode for today. Thanks for coming on and talk with me Eyal. For our listeners, you can reach us at ELGL.org/GovLove or on Twitter @GovLovePodcast, and we’re on all of your favorite podcast subscription services. Please subscribe to Gov Love through your favorite podcast service and leave us review so more people know that Gov Love is the podcast for all local government topics. And if you have a story for Gov Love, we want to hear it. Send us a message on Twitter @GovLovePodcast. Thanks for listening. This has been GovLove, a podcast about Local Government.