How cities are using tech to encourage COVID-19 vaccination

The mayors of New Orleans and Newark, New Jersey, said they're using livestreams and sentiment analysis to bolster their vaccination marketing efforts.
New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell
New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell speaks at a COVID-19 memorial service outside the gates of Gallier Hall on January 19, 2021 in New Orleans. (Erika Goldring / Getty Images)

What do Facebook livestreams, door-to-door volunteers with laptops and data-analysis companies have in common? They’re part of a growing toolkit that mayors across the country are using to reduce community hesitancy around the COVID-19 vaccine and other government services.

A pair of mayors shared details of their efforts to get more people vaccinated on Thursday during an online event hosted by Harvard University and ZenCity, a software company.

To energize and educate their residents about the COVID-19 vaccine, New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell and Newark, New Jersey, Mayor Ras Baraka each said during the event that they’ve taken advantage of the expanded audience, as well as the targeted messaging, of social media platforms over the past five months.

Baraka said he’s used Facebook’s livestreams to schedule live question-and-answer sessions for the community three times a week for the past year. On those streams, he said, doctors and nurses address concerns that residents have about COVID-19 or the vaccine in real time.


Cantrell said New Orleans equipped volunteers with laptops to go door-to-door, asking residents if they have any questions about COVID-19 vaccines, or, more recently, if they need help help finding a job or applying for government services, such as unemployment insurance.

“The ‘meet people where they are’ concept is something that we’ve embraced 100%,” Cantrell said. “And it is through these [neighborhood volunteers] that we’re now scaling up and that will be a part of our recovery. So it’s getting us to herd immunity, but also getting people back to work, getting their kids back to school and providing them with the tools that they need.”

Both mayors allowed their cities to be part of a recent study conducted by ZenCity, an Israeli data-analysis firm that combs social media to inform local governments about the community sentiment on different initiatives, like the census count or COVID-19 vaccines. ZenCity’s founder Eyal Feder-Levy said during the event that COVID-19 messaging was clearly more effective in cities that prioritized marketing the vaccine from official government channels than in cities that chose not to.

“There was a clear correlation between extensive official communications, like updates about rollout and information about how to access vaccines, and high positive sentiment among residents,” a report summarizing the study said. “By contrast, residents in cities that were below the cohort average in terms of their official communication levels—measured by what percentage of overall online discourse was driven by posts or statements issued by local government—tended to express lower levels of positive sentiment.”

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