This Is How We Find the Best Data to Improve Cities




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Jul 18, 2019
by Martin Silva Rey
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This Is How We Find the Best Data to Improve Cities

Director of urban policy for Zencity, Assaf Frances, wants to make measurement simpler Assaf Frances (pictured) in conversation at Salzburg Global Seminar

At the age of 18, Assaf Frances discovered the discipline that caught his interest until today – urban planning. “I just picked up the book Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs. I read it and realized ‘this is the field I want to go into – thinking about how to make cities better for people, and specifically how to engage citizens in making those cities better,’” he remembers. With the same enthusiasm he had back then, Frances now is the director of urban policy at Zencity.

After studying geography and political science, the young Israeli jumped into the field when he enrolled in The Bartlett, UCL’s Faculty of The Built Environment for his Master’s. Right after, Nesta saw him emerge in the sector of government innovation and social impact. But it wasn’t until he joined the Bloomberg i-team for Tel Aviv he noticed there was something he wanted badly to change.

As a project manager, he was involved in a strategic in-house consultancy for the mayor. The challenge was chiefly to improve cleanliness and quality of life for the elderly, as well as reduce the cost of living for young families.

“We still had a really difficult time to measure and say ‘This is what we’ve done; this is the impact that we’ve created,’” Frances says. “I’ve always been fascinated with how can we use data to show the impact that’s done or the change over time, but never really had the idea of how to do it the easiest. Because it has to be… Measurement could be super tricky, but if you want it to work, it has to be super easy. Otherwise, nobody would ever continue to measure.”

A couple of years had passed since he had first been in contact with Zencity. Committed to making measurement easier and faster, he realized the company was the place to achieve his goal, and finally became part of their team earlier this year. Frances is already working with about 60 cities around the world, helping them make better decisions based on residents’ feedback. What makes the difference is the techniques he prioritizes.

“Rather than the cities going actively seeking feedback in many different ways – like town hall meetings, public participation processes, surveys, phone calls – that never really get the majority of the citizens – we’re saying: the feedback is already out there, you just need to tap into it, and it’s out there in many different forms,” he says.

Social media is their primary source of information. He says, “A lot of citizens already are sharing incredible amounts of information about their city and with their city in many unofficial ways.” Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram are some. The team relies as well on data from 3-1-1 call centers or city hotlines, and news articles.

Since there is “a ton of information” circulating, as Frances points out, cities can’t handle it all by themselves. “What we do is consolidate all that information through our platform using [an] AI algorithm to make sense of it. So, categorizing it according to either departments, or projects, or workflows that the city is handling. Or through sentiments, which is a very interesting...  part of our algorithm, which is saying ‘Is that piece of information [or] piece of data… positive, is it negative, or is it neutral?’  

“[Through] geolocation, we are able to geolocate over 30 percent of the information that we’re collecting – meaning what residents are talking about. Also, anomaly detection. If there is a spike in conversation let’s say in traffic, the city gets a notification,knowing ‘OK, there is something going with traffic in this specific place in this specific type of sentiment. Let’s solve it quicker before it becomes… something big that we can’t really handle,’” he adds.

Frances’s role comes at the end of the chain. First, data is collected. Second, analysts go over the information, produce reports, and cities can see through those reports what residents are talking about. Frances’s role is to come up with possible solutions. How does he find them? Comparative studies with other cities, ethnographic-based research, and utilizing social media are just some of the avenues he explores.

Surveys on social media, in the form of Facebook ads, is another of the projects he is leading at the company. Frances claims they get relatively high responses compared to more formal surveys in a concise period. “We’re not saying they’re scientifically accurate. But they’re definitely a way for the city to get a quick kind of understanding [of] what residents are talking about when you’re asking them specific questions,” he stresses.

“My passion,” Frances says, “is working for and with and in urban environments. “But it’s always about… looking at it – trying to look at it, at least – from a different angle, from outside the box, and solving things that people struggle with, or working together with teams to bring new solutions to the table that can be can really have an impact.”

The Salzburg Global Seminar program, Partnerships for Urban Wellbeing and Resilience: Harnessing Nature and Protected Areas for the Sustainable Development Goals, is part of the Parks for the Planet Forum. This program is supported by Future Cities Forum, ICLEI CBC, IUCN Urban Alliance, Learning Economy, National Park City Foundation, The Centre for Conscious Design, World Urban Parks, and 21st Century Trust.