COVID-19 and Cities: Understanding the Challenges

covid-19 and cities - city innovators forum

COVID-19 is hitting communities across the globe and many cities are finding themselves unprepared to deal with this unknown enemy. Dr. David S. Ricketts, Innovation Fellow at Harvard TECH, along with City Possible, powered by Mastercard, brought together hundreds of global government decision-makers and citizens gathered in a digital convening to try to gain a better understanding of the challenges cities face dealing with COVID-19.

Click HERE to watch a replay of the digital convening and download additional resources.

To help assist cities that were not able to join us, we are compiling the information from the digital convening in this article.

COVID-19 and Cities: Understanding the Trajectory

Dr. David Ricketts opened the webinar with an explanation of why social distancing is so vital to society during this global pandemic. Since the outbreak, there have been just over 2,000 confirmed cases in the U.S. As illustrated by a fantastic article in the Washington Post, the trajectory of nationwide infection would result in approximately 16,000 cases within 14 days and if left unchecked, could reach a staggering 90 million cases by May 2020.

Source: The Washington Post

The same article uses simulations to illustrate three scenarios:

  1. If we do nothing, everyone gets sick very quickly.
  2. If we block off certain areas, we slow the spread but over time it still gets to everyone.
  3. If only one in 8 people leave their house or move around, the situation is much more manageable.

Click HERE to watch a replay of the digital convening and download additional resources.

COVID-19 and Cities: Understanding Public Sentiment

Cities can learn a lot about how their citizens are feeling through analysis of online discourse. Two companies who joined the digital convening, Zencity and CulturIntel, are using AI analytics tools to help cities assess public sentiment and make decisions accordingly.

COVID-19 and Cities: Insights from Zencity

Eyal Feder, co-founder and CEO of Zencity, shared information about the main concerns that were observed through analysis and the types and style of messaging that proves most effective during this difficult time.

The analysis looked at over 100 cities in the U.S., observing 1.5 million interactions on social and local media about the coronavirus between the periods of March 1 through the 15th.

covid19 and cities - zencity


Unsurprisingly, discourse on public health has increased 4x from an average of 5% of conversations to 21%. The key concern for people, at 42.7%, was school closures. The second most discussed topic, at just over 25%, was public events – specifically calling for public events to be canceled and showing little patience for delayed decisions.

covid19 and cities - public sentiment

Feder then focused on the type of messaging that works based on the analysis of 92,000 tweets and posts by official channels across 88 cities. Here were the takeaways:

  1. Keep the message short: posts between 30-60 words get twice as much positive traction than <30 or >60.
  2. Use messages inside an image. Posts of this type are getting 3x traction compared to city posts made without an image.
  3. Offer clear guidance. Posts with clear calls to action are eliciting a much better reaction from citizens over general guidance.
  4. Communicate through news outlets. Using official news outlets to relay information can be up to 20x more successful than city official channels alone.

Cities that have followed the guidelines above are receiving overwhelmingly positive feedback and thanks compared to other cities that are experiencing panicked responses.

COVID-19 and Cities: Insights from Culturintel

Lili Gil Valleta, co-founder and CEO of Culturintel, offered additional analysis based on digital discussions happening in New York City. This analysis, she explained, goes beyond sentiment and explores how particular citizens are impacted differently by COVID-19 based on identifiers including gender, ethnicity, generation, family status, geography, and mindset.

This data informs cities how a particular sentiment or situation will impact these citizens in behavioral, social, psychological, and economic ways. In other words, why the pandemic is impacting citizens and not just how they feel about it.

covid19 and cities - nyc social impact


In the past 30 days, there have been over 8.2 million public discussions about coronavirus in NYC. Interestingly, only 19% of these discussions were made on social media, while 54% of these messages were shared on topical sites and message boards.

Culturintel observed that while the economic implications of COVID-19 are of concern to NYC citizens, 80% of discussions expressed concerns about social and mental states.

covid19 and cities - culturintel public sentiment

Specific concerns vary across different demographics, Valleta pointed out. For example, Baby Boomers are more concerned with the behavioral and psychological ramifications of coronavirus compared to other generations and Hispanic and African American ethnicities.

Meanwhile, Millennials and members of Gen Z are feeling catastrophic about the pandemic while Boomers are the most optimistic. Together with Gen X, NYC Boomers lean more towards a realistic, coping attitude. Females are also more panicked overall than males, according to the data.

The type of information as illustrated in Culturintel’s analysis can be used for planning interventions and catering them to applicable citizens, catered to an individual city.

Click HERE to watch a replay of the digital convening and download additional resources.

COVID-19 and Cities: Keeping Our Communities Safe

As we move forward, we will continue to see data on the number of infected and how various methods of reducing the spread, such as social distancing, play a part in taming the spread of coronavirus. For cities, a key to keeping their communities safe and informed is through positive and informative messaging. By using the information provided in this digital convening, you can get a better understanding of how COVID-19 is moving and how the members of your community may be feeling. Armed with this information and data you can make better choices and communicate more effectively with your citizens – all of which helps to keep them safe.

Click HERE to watch a replay of the digital convening and download additional resources.


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