ZenCity posted on 17 Mar 2020
As the coronavirus starts to spread across the US, so too has online discourse about the new pandemic, including questions, concerns and misinformation.
Subsequently, local government agencies across the country find themselves on the frontlines of tackling this crisis – shaping social distancing policies, supporting local businesses and more than all providing relevant information to their communities by handling public inquiries, taking service requests and providing responsible, accurate, information to their residents.
One of the key questions these organizations face, as they handle this crisis, make policy decisions, and shape their messaging to their communities – is what are their residents’ main concerns? What are the things they should take into account when taking action and sharing messages?
To support this acute need, we took a deep dive into millions of online public conversations from over 100 US cities to highlight key discourse trends on the coronavirus pandemic.
At Zencity, we help local governments understand their communities needs and priorities by analyzing millions of aggregated, anonymized public online conversations in their communities. We can recognize the topics, clusters and sentiment being discussed and recognize key trends and needs.
Since March 1st, we analyzed over more than 1.5 million online interactions about the coronavirus from over 100 cities and counties across the US. Here is what we found.
((In the context of our reporting, the term ‘interactions’ encompasses all engagements made on social media (posts, tweets, likes, comments, shares, retweets, etc.). The number of interactions, therefore, reflects the volume of discourse and as such – the level of interest.))
While it might feel like the conversation on COVID19 is only happening in the media, our analysis found that city residents are very actively engaged in this conversation. While on average public health related conversations only make up for less than 5% of resident comments, since March 1st we see more than 21% of the comments being about Public Health.
We can also see that the main topics being discussed across communities change significantly as the outbreak started. While normally public safety related topics control community concerns (with 18% of the discussion), since the outbreak we can see that public health, schools and festivals/events are the main topics, all in relation to coronavirus.
Moreover, an analysis of popular terms used shows us that keywords that have to do with coronavirus were much more commonly used than any other terms (the larger the word is the more repetitive it was).
But what were all of these comments about? What are the main things concerning communities across the US? What questions do people have? Using topic modeling and clustering, we were able to identify what people are specifically talking about, and by extension, most interested in or concerned with. This information can help local government officials shape both policy and messaging, focusing on the issues that people care about the most. From our analysis, we were able to conclude that residents primarily express concern about the following issues:
Below we’ve provided an analysis of the above graph and essential takeaways on what residents are saying.
City Services and Operation – Lastly, a very small share of the discourse that we analyzed highlighted community concerns over the ongoing operations of regular city services, such as waste collection and public works. We attest this to the trust people have in their local government, and that they rely on these services to stay operational. Therefore, if any changes are planned in these services, we believe messaging will play a critical role.
As coronavirus impacts specific regions in the USA in different ways, we wanted to examine how the online community discourse varied across multiple states and how it evolved over time. By analyzing the discourse starting on February 1st, 2020 in three of the U.S. states with confirmed cases of coronavirus (California, Florida and Texas), it is possible to detect a clear trend:
The volume of discourse about coronavirus was relatively low throughout February, but picked up in intensely at the end of February-early March, as residents of these states first tested positive for coronavirus and events began to be cancelled.
While the crisis is the same crisis along with the issues that residents are concerned with, we do see differences in priorities and conversations drivers across regions, which might require different action from local governments. While in California school closures were a major driver of discourse, conversation in Florida was centered on the possible impact on the local economy. In Texas, the discourse was driven by proactive measures and preparedness efforts across the state. In addition, mishandling of patients by the official authorities was another central driver of conversation. Later on, a large share of the discourse focused on events being canceled.
Below we’ve zoomed in on key online conversations in California, Florida, and Texas, to examine how conversations vary state by state.
Subsequently, online discourse showed a significant peak after two cases of the coronavirus were confirmed in Florida and following Trump’s visit for a private fundraiser
In all three states, discourse peaked around reports of suspected or confirmed cases of coronavirus in the state.
Considering this, despite the fact that local governments are all facing a similar challenge, they will be required to respond in a way that is tailored to the specific concerns of their residents – providing certainty about essential and non-essential city services, assuaging economic anxiety, instructing residents about the status of services not necessarily provided by the city, and, as the crisis progresses, additional concerns will likely surface.
How can this be useful?
The men and women of local governments, Public Safety, and Public Health organizations are at the frontlines of tackling this crisis. One of their key responsibilities at this time is to share effective and reliable information with their communities, and to take immediate action around the issues that concern their residents. This report, aggregated from real discourse of multiple communities, provides an understanding of what are some of the key issues every city/county needs to be tackling to directly address their communities needs.
We salute these professionals for carrying out their vital tasks at this crucial time.
Originally published in ZenCity
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