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Zencity Goes Proactive With Buyout of Startup Civil Space

While Zencity has traditionally given local governments a way to listen to constituents, Civil Space offers tools to open a two-way dialogue between them — pushing Zencity down the continuum of engagement.

Assorted microphones
With its second acquisition, the civic engagement startup Zencity is shifting from reactive to proactive.

The company, which has thus far focused on software to help local government understand its constituents’ opinions, has bought out the Canadian startup Civil Space — and with it, capabilities to begin speaking to those constituents rather than just listening. Founded in 2018 in Vancouver, Civil Space offers a variety of tools for agencies to host dialogues with the public, guiding discussions and gathering input that is — hopefully — better informed and more helpful in influencing decision-making.

“The goal there is that where there’s key issues — policies, programs, projects that government is engaging in — to be able to really understand and hear from a broad, diverse segment of population, so that that way, the decisions that get made are going to be really sustainable for everyone,” said Civil Space CEO Tim Booker.

Zencity’s history began with social listening; that is, tapping into social media and other sources to give public officials an idea of residents’ opinions and how they change over time. Then, with its acquisition of New York-based Elucd in March, it expanded into polling.

The idea with the Civil Space acquisition, according to Zencity CEO Eyal Feder-Levy, is to complete the continuum of civic engagement. The company can now give public servants a way to identify topics of concern to their constituents, delve into why it matters and then work with them directly on solutions.

“We strongly believe that with this acquisition, we now own not just tools in the toolbox, but the toolbox itself,” Feder-Levy said.

Civil Space belongs to a broader class of similar companies — think Peak Democracy, acquired by OpenGov in 2017 — but seeks to differentiate itself by its methods and capabilities. The startup offers, for example, hybrid moderation performed both by AI and by humans that seeks to give governments cover to host conversations with boundaries that it hopes won’t be too restrictive.

That’s an important consideration in the modern world, where people on different parts of the political spectrum are becoming more hostile toward each other and failing to even agree on fundamental truths. At the same time, COVID-19 has made it more important for government to find ways to quickly and effectively engage with constituents to find footholds as its leaders navigate new ground.

“People don’t want to feel censored out. They don’t want to feel like they’re not understanding why they’re not part of the conversation,” Booker said. “So we really try to consider all sides of what (a) collaborative civic process looks like.”

Civil Space also gives a range of options for user authentication. The company leans toward lower barriers to participation, but the types of controls it recommends will change based on the type of activity an agency is looking to run.

“We try to make it so that for the citizen-facing experiences, many people can jump in and participate without having unnecessary barriers to participate, like if you’re just answering a mapping question and all that data is just going to the government, not adding the need for an account login — but still tracking stuff that may identify them geographically so that if they need to, they can go through people that were outside of the geography,” he said. “Whereas with our collaborative experiences, it’s very important for us actually to identify and authenticate participants, because in that case we find that since that participation is going to be in the public arena, and since other citizens can be affected by it, we do want to understand what someone’s contributions are over time.”

The software is also mobile-first, since Booker said nearly three-quarters of its users are on mobile devices anyway. That, too, serves to broaden the pool of participants.

Civil Space has about 40 customers and seven employees, all of whom are joining Zencity. The move will expand Zencity’s presence in Canada — the company has an international presence but has focused heavily on the U.S.

“(Zencity) started out as a couple of ex-government employees in Tel Aviv, trying to look at different approaches to build trust between communities and their government,” Feder-Levy. “And today, after this acquisition, … we’re serving over 300 governments, including seven of the 10 largest cities in the U.S., we are in six different countries, we are by far the fastest growing company in our space, and already the biggest in terms of revenue and the number of customers, etc. And the exciting part, for me, is that this is just the beginning. We very much are feeling in the early days of our momentum, in the early days of what we can offer to our customers.”
Ben Miller is the associate editor of data and business for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.