Bridging the physical and digital: highlights from our panel at Smart Cities Connect, Tampa

What does it mean to create a bridge between the physical and digital worlds, and how are cities doing this today?

Last week, the Soofa team organized a panel at Smart Cities Connect Tampa to answer these questions. Joining our Head of Partnerships, Ed Krafcik, were Eyal Feder-Levy, CEO and co-founder of ZenCity, and Kayla Patel from the City of Boston Department of Innovation and Technology.

The conversation focused on how the bridge between the physical and digital is created using both hardware and software, the implications creating this bridge has on citizen experience and quality of life, and the ways success is measured.

 

Digital tools help cities understand and measure reactions and responses to physical events, and take action

Eyal described how ZenCity aggregates data from social media and all digital touch points between cities and citizens (i.e. 311, website, and apps) and provides city leaders with insights into citizen sentiment.

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ZenCity recently worked on a project in a neighborhood in Paris where the City was planning to build a bike lane. The neighborhood rallied together to block the project from happening, and after reviewing the data from ZenCity, the City of Paris learned the negative sentiment towards the project came from two main issues: not knowing how the bike lane would impact the already tight sidewalks and not knowing if biking would endanger pedestrians (who were already dodging cars at intersections). The City addressed these issues, the sentiment became positive, and construction of the bike lane is nearly complete.

 

Physical to digital… and digital to physical

A broader conversation emerged about the direction of the bridge technology can create. In the case of ZenCity, the bridge is created from a physical event happening in the real world to understanding the ripple effect by analyzing conversations and sentiment in the digital world.

This theme of directionality (physical to digital, digital to physical) was also evident in Kayla’s work. Kayla shared the City of Boston’s recent integration of maps on Boston.gov and the idea of meeting people where they are. The maps shared simple but highly valuable datasets like the nearest public bathroom and a spatial view of city council districts.

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Hardware and software lets cities meet people where they are

The user experience for the Boston.gov maps is largely about providing people in the real world with information through digital means. The bridge links the digital world to the physical world and is optimized for people to view on their phone, when they are outside and need the information.

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Ed from Soofa described how the the Soofa Signs serve as an important bridge that, like ZenCity and Boston.gov maps, help improve the way cities serve citizens, and how citizens get to know their cities. The Sign gives cities a new communication tool that lets them reach people where they are, in the neighborhoods where they live, work, and play. Creative calls to action on Soofa Signs, like providing feedback on city decisions such as the future development of the Atlanta BeltLine or the design of a new bus shelter, let city leaders get more input from more people.

Soofa Signs make these dialogues possible, not only between city and citizens, but also between citizens and their neighbors and neighborhoods.

 

Measuring citizen engagement is challenging enough, but how do we begin to measure the rate and level of "informed citizens”?

By successfully creating the bridge between the digital and physical, cities can improve citizen engagement in a measurable way. The next challenge to tackle is to determine how many citizens we are informing and outlining the criteria for an “informed citizen.”

Sandra Richter