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How US cities are using artificial intelligence to boost vaccine uptake

Health | Pandemic | Smart Cities

US President Joe Biden recently announced a goal for 70 per cent of the adult US population to have received at least one COVID-19 vaccine shot by July 4.

Cities are playing a key role in this historic vaccination effort, not only in terms of logistics and administration but also with respect to the critical component of resident engagement.

To maximize vaccine uptake, local governments are working to mitigate any resident concerns; to counter misinformation and distrust; and to clear up confusion about practicalities. To do this effectively they need to understand – in close to real-time and at scale – how citizens are feeling about vaccines.

That’s why nineteen cities and counties in the United States, including Los Angeles, Philadelphia, New Orleans and Newark, are using advanced sentiment analysis to help shape and scale their vaccine programmes.

The initiative is a collaboration between Israeli start-up Zencity and the Harvard Kennedy School‘s Ash Center, with funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and support from Bennet Midland.

Through the programme, the cities and counties are using Zencity’s tools to collect and analyze organic feedback from publicly available sources such as social media posts, online channels and local news sites, alongside proactive resident input from community surveys.

Zencity uses artificial intelligence (AI) to classify and sort the data to identify key topics, trends, anomalies, and sentiment.

Each city will receive a report including insights on how opinions about the vaccine break down across demographic groups; trends and themes in community sentiment toward vaccination; misinformation that might need to be addressed; and recommendations for how to communicate about vaccines. Each city’s results are benchmarked against the average results from the cohort.

Assaf Frances, Director of Urban Policy, Zencity, said: “These results will enable cities to make data-informed decisions as they continue to navigate vaccine rollout. This could mean anything from making the appointment scheduling process more accessible if the results show that logistical hurdles have been a major barrier to mass vaccination, to providing more education around vaccine safety and efficacy to a particular segment of the population where the data is showing more hesitancy.”

Pivotal moment

Deana Gamble, Communications Director, City of Philadelphia, told Cities Today: “We’re currently in a pivotal moment where vaccine supply has never been greater yet there is still a significant amount of vaccine hesitancy, especially among communities of colour. We need to provide accurate and up-to-date information to those who are still unsure about the benefits of getting the vaccine and how to do so.”

With this in mind, Philadelphia has launched the six-month #VaxUpPhilly marketing campaign.

Gamble said one key insight from Zencity was that Philadelphia residents report similar levels of intention to get the vaccine as the cohort average, but they are more likely to wait longer.

“This speaks to intention to get vaccinated yet less urgency – with residents indicating that they require more information or evidence, specifically by seeing more people they know get the vaccine,” Gamble commented. “This shows us that the education efforts of our #VaxUpPhilly campaign – including use of myth busters and trusted, credible messengers – are critical.”

Philadelphia faced controversy early in its vaccine rollout. In January, the city cut ties with Philly Fighting COVID, a young start-up which was running the city’s largest vaccination site, after it emerged the company had cancelled testing efforts and become a for-profit entity, and concerns were raised about its privacy policy. Philly Fighting COVID said it had the best intentions and had not sold or shared any data but the incident was still damaging for the city.

Gamble said: “We certainly acknowledge the mistakes the administration made working with the group which has necessitated rebuilding trust with the public about our vaccination programme. The insights gleaned from Zencity can help us better communicate with residents, which can help us overcome the challenges caused by Philly Fighting COVID.”

Breaking through the plateau

Liana Elliott, Deputy Chief of Staff for New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell, said that although New Orleans’ vaccine rollout is going well, “we also are hitting our plateau a little bit earlier than we thought”.

Understanding nuances around vaccine sentiment can help the city push through this.

“Generally, the hesitancy that we thought we were going to find was not nearly as prevalent in the communities that we expected,” Elliott commented, noting lower levels of concern than anticipated in communities of colour and more of a tendency for conservative white men to have reservations.

Further, as in Philadelphia, while many people are willing to get vaccinated, some don’t want to go first.

Elliott said: “We worked really hard to make sure that we are working with our community partners and getting proactive about talking to people about the vaccine and bringing vaccine events into communities.”

This includes encouraging people to share when they have been vaccinated on social media, urging hospitality businesses to incentivize and support staff vaccinations and making the inoculation process a positive one.

For example, a brass band played to mark the opening of the vaccination site at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center and local bars hosted ‘shots for shots’ events, which Elliott described as “very New Orleans”.

These approaches have “really encouraged people to go check it out and just go get [their vaccination] done,” she said.

The Zencity analysis has also helped New Orleans to shape vaccine messages and understand who are the “trusted ambassadors” best placed to deliver them.

Research published in March by global communications company Edelman found that US residents most trust doctors, scientists and public health officials about vaccine information and are more likely to trust someone like themselves or their organization’s CEO than a government official.

However, Zencity data showed that New Orleans’ Mayor LaToya Cantrell is one of the most trusted messengers for residents.

Feedback also highlighted some ways the city needed to simplify appointment booking. It then analyzed sentiment to check the improvements were working, and this is a continuous process.

“If we start seeing more chatter about [something being] hard or [people not knowing] when or where to go, then that means something is broken in that chain of communication we have got to go back and fix it,” Elliott said.

She added that a key benefit of the programme with Zencity is: “It really helps us confirm that what we are seeing and experiencing anecdotally and locally as staff is in fact holding up across not only our city but across the country and across all the other cohort cities as well.

“Sometimes it’s not necessarily that it informs or changes how we’re doing things but it affirms that we’re going the right way and that what we’re doing is working,” she said.

A national report on getting residents on board with vaccinations will be published by Zencity, Harvard Kennedy School’s Ash Center, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Bennett Midland later this month.


This article first appeared on Cities Today. 

Image credit: Chip Somodevilla via Getty Images

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