New Orleans is using sentiment analysis on federal relief funding

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New Orleans is using data and social-media analysis to gauge how residents want the city to spend $375 million in federal stimulus funding, while quelling concerns of corruption or misuse that still exist from the city’s Hurricane Katrina recovery, officials told StateScoop on Tuesday.

The city government is working with ZenCity, an Israeli data-analysis firm that trawls social media to better understand how residents feel about various issues, to research American Rescue Plan funding. New Orleans is set to receive $375 million in relief funding to stabilize its finances and, “directly address” the economic impact that the COVID-19 pandemic had on the city, said Liana Elliot, the city’s deputy chief of staff. But many residents of the city are still wary of how the city squandered its Federal Emergency Management Agency funding following the natural disaster in 2005.

That caution became apparent almost immediately in online discourse, said Eyal Feder-Levy, ZenCity’s chief executive.

“We saw within the data that conversations about city budgets online in New Orleans were five-times more frequent than normal following the ARPA stimulus funding announcement,” Feder-Levy told StateScoop.

Elliot said what she heard about the budget in public didn’t match the conversations she was having with her colleagues in city government. Residents, she said, had an expectation that the money would help them, rather than go to city agencies.

“The direct allocation was basically our bailout,” Elliot said. “So we would not have to furlow people and lay people off and continue to provide city services. The direct allocation money was beautiful in that it’s very flexible and you can do a lot with it.”

Analyzing the online discourse, Feder-Levy said, revealed a distinct list of priorities that New Orleans residents have in mind for the new funding, including supporting small businesses, improving infrastructure, enhancing public safety and providing housing. The analysis that ZenCity conducted on the sentiment around stimulus funding was similar to the work it did with New Orleans earlier this year in gauging how to best promote COVID-19 vaccinations, he said.

But this time the company also produced online surveys asking residents what they thought of the funding, which showed whether people were excited or skeptical, or both, about the funding. That helped confirm city hall’s approach to public outreach, Elliot said, because it’s more informative to show how money is being used — to provide rent assistance or fund food programs, for example — than only to publicize the dollar amount the city received.

“A lot of what I found ZenCity to be really helpful with is proving the common knowledge,” Elliot said. “So we all know that there’s an expectation we’re all corrupt, selfish, lazy jerks, and we know that’s a narrative we’re going to have to manage.”

Because city officials are already aware of the challenges they face in gaining residents’ trust, she said, they can prepare to be accountable and transparent with the funding, often through online dashboards or detailed reports.

“Let’s be all those things we wanted the city to be a decade ago with all that FEMA money,” Elliot said.

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American Rescue Plan, New Orleans, sentiment analysis, ZenCity
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