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Tel Aviv engages citizens with innovative digital services

By Microsoft on May 30, 2017

Filed under Microsoft CityNext

The city of Tel Aviv has undergone a transformation to become a “smart city” that uses technology to improve the operation of city government and the lives of its citizens. With programs such as the DigiTel Residents Club and the DigiTel mobile app, Tel Aviv is offering innovative electronic services to the public and finding ways to make citizens into stakeholders in the running of the city. Throughout the process, Tel Aviv has worked together with Microsoft to find the best ways to realize its smart city vision.

Tel Aviv is known as Israel’s “Nonstop City” because of its bustling 24-hour-a-day environment of entertainment, dining, culture, sports, and tourism. The city sees its residents as its greatest assets and aims to put their needs at the center of municipal government. “We conducted a poll and discovered that citizens really love the city and its dynamic, vibrant, endless day-by-day events,” says Liora Shechter, Chief Information Officer for the City of Tel Aviv-Jaffa. “But they weren’t so enthusiastic about the government, which they saw as bureaucratic and distant. We wanted to change that impression and engage the residents, bring them more value, and create a new kind of city service approach.”

Tel Aviv learned that its residents, who are used to accessing digital services in many areas of their life, increasingly expect the same kind of digital services from the city. To help meet those expectations, Tel Aviv formulated a “smart city” transformation, designed to make residents’ needs the focus of everything the government does. This smart city strategy aims to make government more transparent and approachable, while encouraging active citizen participation. By involving residents in the decisions that affect their neighborhoods and their lives in the city, Tel Aviv believes it will make better choices and become more sustainable and inclusive for everyone. To make its smart city vision a reality, Tel Aviv has been working with Microsoft through its CityNext initiative, which empowers cities and citizens to turn challenges into opportunities.

The DigiTel platform for citizen engagement

Among the digital services deployed by the city are the DigiTel mobile app and the DigiTel Residents Club. It is the city’s goal to make DigiTel a streamlined, one-stop platform through which citizens can communicate with their government and receive personalized services.

The city already offered many online services through its municipal website, but the DigiTel app puts them into the palms of residents’ hands. The app provides useful information about city attractions and events, but it also serves as an interface to a wide variety of other important functions. For example, citizens can use location-based features to find nearby businesses and restaurants or get transportation information. Additionally, Tel Aviv has a bicycle rental system, called Tel-O-Fun, with bicycle lots across the city hosting more than 2,000 bikes used by more than 9,000 people on an average day. City residents and visitors use the app to see how many bikes are available at a particular station and report malfunctions. The app offers a similar service for municipal parking lots, showing all lots in the vicinity, how many spaces are available, and current rates. “By exposing all the things that are happening in the city and all the resources that are available, we are getting people to come out and consume more of what Tel Aviv has to offer,” says Shechter.

Using the app, people also can report hazards—such as a roadway problem—send the city a picture, and track how it is being resolved. “We want to make it as easy as possible to interact with the city,” says Shechter. “So with every project we develop, we try to go the extra mile and develop the most friendly, intuitive, and useful service for people.”

The city has taken personalized service a step further with the DigiTel Residents Club. The club is an individually customized, location-based web and mobile communications platform that provides residents with personalized information about events and activities around the city, along with advanced e-services.

The club is open to all residents of Tel Aviv age 13 and older. To join, residents visit one of the many registration centers around the city or access the registration website. They provide information about their interests and hobbies, which is combined with data about their age, marital status, children, home and work locations, and contact details to create a profile that the club uses to tailor its communications.

“One important feature of the club is that it is proactive,” explains Shechter. “For example, if a water pipe bursts and causes the closure of a particular street, we can send a text message to all the people living on that street to let them know about the problem and give them an estimate of how long it will take to fix. Instead of residents reaching out to the city to tell us something is wrong, we’re reaching out to alert them and assure them that the situation is under control.”

The Residents Club does a lot more than just alert people to problems, however. It also aggregates data from local businesses to help increase citizens’ entertainment options. “We communicate with Tel Aviv theaters and concert venues and find out what tickets are available the night of the show,” says Shechter. “We then send a message to club members who have indicated an interest in cultural activities, offering the tickets at a significant discount—a ticket that normally costs 200 shekels might be on sale for just 55 shekels.”

Plus, club members have access to special e-services provided by the city, such as kindergarten registration for parents whose child will be going to a new kindergarten. When the registration deadline is approaching, parents receive a text message with a link to the online registration system. Their personal information is already filled in, so they only have to choose the right kindergarten, press Send, and it’s done.

This example reflects the city’s goal to deliver services to the people, instead of making people come to the city for services. “We know when your public parking validation is going to expire, and we’ll send you a text message with a link to our website so you can renew your pass,” says Shechter. “Three days later, someone will come and knock on your door and hand you your new parking validation card. We have a saying in Tel Aviv: ‘It’s a service from your home to your home.’ You complete the registration online at home, and then we deliver the new pass to your home. It’s an idea we are trying to deploy with every new municipal service.”

Tel Aviv is working on making the DigiTel app and the Residents Club interoperable to realize its goal of a single platform, but the city is already seeing a return on its DigiTel investment through citizen satisfaction and program participation. The city has been conducting a survey about life in Tel Aviv, and it has been pleasantly surprised to see the number of citizens who cite the innovative e-services as one of the things they really like about living there. There are currently 160,000 members of the Residents Club, which is approximately 60 percent of the eligible population of citizens 13 and older. And the number continues to climb, with around 3,000 new members joining each month. The initial success of the project garnered Tel Aviv the title “Best Smart City in the World” at the Smart City Expo World Congress in 2014.

Creating citizen stakeholders

Increased civic engagement and public participation are both critical elements of the smart city approach to governance, and Tel Aviv has made great strides in these areas.

In order to make residents into stakeholders in the management and progress of their own neighborhoods, the city solicits their input on construction and renovation projects. “The people who know the needs of a neighborhood the best are those who live there, no one else,” says Shechter. “So we send a public participation offer to those residents and gather their suggestions for what they’d like to see done. We then figure out a price for every suggestion, determine the total available budget, and ask the residents how they would like to see us use the money. When residents see that the city is truly listening to them and cares about their well-being, that’s the best way to raise satisfaction with the municipal government.”

The city also invites citizen input on larger matters, such as the future of education in Tel Aviv. To gather ideas and suggestions, the city hosted a large public participation forum on education. “Involving citizens in decision making is becoming more and more a part of how we operate, and it’s really changing the way we do business on a daily basis,” says Shechter. “The city manager takes into consideration that he needs to talk to the citizens and, when possible, act according to their wishes.”

Tel Aviv understands that great ideas also come from citizens who work in local businesses, so the city has gone to great lengths to help nurture and promote small startups. There are approximately 1,450 startups in Tel Aviv, and the city offers them special services and incentives—such as tax breaks, access to city experts, and incubator workspaces—to help them thrive. The city is also willing to serve as a beta site for testing new products, and it eagerly meets with businesses that are interested in creating products and services that will help Tel Aviv become a better and smarter city.

New technology for new services

In order to become a smart city and deliver on its promise of a new approach to citizen services, Tel Aviv realized that it needed to reassess its IT infrastructure and embrace new technologies that would enable the sort of digital transformation the city had in mind. This included moving assets from the city’s main datacenter to the Microsoft Azure cloud platform.

Moving services from on-premises to the cloud has brought vital benefits for the city. “It saves us money, which is always important,” explains Shechter. “It also gives us flexibility and scalability that we didn’t have before. We can now easily respond to the increasing demand for the new features we continue to make available to citizens. Whenever possible, we use the cloud to deploy new services.”

Partners in progress

Tel Aviv recognizes the importance of having knowledgeable and forward-thinking technology assistance to help realize its smart city vision, and it counts Microsoft as a key member of its team.

One example of this technology partnership in action is an innovative new service called My Place, built on cloud-based Microsoft Dynamics CRM Online. The city is taking inventory of all available space in municipal buildings, which will allow residents to reserve any open space—for a meeting, a youth activity, a birthday party, or whatever they’d like. “We’re excited to give our spaces back to the residents,” says Shechter. “The technology behind My Place—using Dynamics CRM Online as a service—is really new, and we’re working closely with Microsoft to make this project happen. Whenever we are doing something new and innovative, we join forces with the experts at Microsoft and discuss the best way to move forward.”

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