Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, seen here enjoying free public Wi-Fi, calls DigiTel part of a "larger digital vision" for the city. Kfir Sivan

DigiTel, a project launched in 2013, is an "e-government" app and a smart card, all in one.

TEL AVIV, Israel—In early 2013, Tel Aviv's local government found itself the object of much outrage after unjustly towing a woman's car.

Hila Ben Baruch had parked perfectly legally outside her apartment building in central Tel Aviv on a Sunday afternoon. But when she returned a couple hours later, her car was gone, a freshly painted handicapped spot in its place. She immediately called Tel Aviv's municipal hotline, where she was told that her car had been parked illegally, and that she owed a hefty fine.

Fuming and determined to prove her innocence, Ben Baruch tracked down a video from a nearby security camera that revealed exactly what had happened: City workers had arrived at the site and, ignoring her parked car, proceeded to paint a handicapped parking spot right underneath it. A short time later, a city tow truck arrived and towed the car away.   

Ben Baruch posted the video on Facebook, accompanied by a long and angry post. To top it all off, she wrote, the person who had answered her call at the city's complaint line had treated her rudely, and called her a liar.

Within hours, the story went viral and was picked up by national news outlets. Confronted with the evidence, city hall had no choice but to apologize profusely, blaming a lack of coordination between departments and promising to change procedures at its hotline. To many, the episode (and others like it) reinforced a popular image of an inept and capricious city government, capable of randomly ensnaring unsuspecting citizens in Kafkaesque situations.

To city officials, however, such incidents underscored an urgent need to change the public's negative perception of its local government. "We wanted to change our public image, from that of yet another problematic public body to a more friendly organization," says Zohar Sharon, Chief Knowledge Officer at the Tel Aviv Municipality.

One-stop shop

So in early 2013, right around the time that Hila Ben Baruch's story went viral, the municipality launched DigiTel, a project designed to change the way citizens interact with municipal departments. "The idea was to put all of the services provided by the municipality in a single place, rather than forcing residents to deal with multiple departments," Sharon says.

The project aims to create a new kind of one-stop shop — a model that combines "e-government" basics such as online bill payment with the worlds of mobile apps and social media. DigiTel strives to keep the city administration in step with Tel Aviv's well-known tech startup culture.

The DigiTel mobile app's location-based functions show things like restaurants, parks and movies showing in a specific area. (Jesse Fox)

One part of the model is a DigiTel smartphone app, through which citizens can pay water and municipal tax bills, order parking permits and send photos of potholes or broken park benches to the municipal complaint line. Many of these services were already available on the municipality's website, but the app also provides location-based services, such as locating nearby bike lanes, parking lots and restaurants. According to the municipality, the app, which is currently available only in Hebrew, has been downloaded by some 30,000 people. (Tel Aviv has a population of around 410,000.)

Another part of the model is the DigiTel "Resident's Card." Essentially, the city digitized the ID cards it issues to residents, turning them into smart cards that provide discounts on all kinds of shows and cultural events. According to Sharon, around 100,000 people now hold DigiTel smart cards—about 40 percent of eligible residents of the city.

Card-holders can access a personalized web page, where they can manage their bills and get personalized notifications for events that might interest them or road-construction alerts, for example. Residents over the age of 13 are eligible to sign up for the card. When they do, they give information on their interests and habits so that the city can proactively notify them of goings on that might interest them. City hall says it does not share this information with advertisers or other third parties.

"DigiTel grew out of an earlier process, started in 2006, of digitizing information, sharing it between departments, and breaking down organizational silos inside the municipality," says Sharon. This, he says, involved a long process of overcoming high levels of skepticism and mistrust among department heads. "There was a view that 'knowledge is power,' so why should I share my knowledge with another department?"

"The major insight that city workers had to internalize was that information belongs to the entire organization—and to the public—not just to a specific department," he says. Getting them to understand this involved a deep change in organizational culture, according to Sharon. "The city's leadership backed the process from the get-go, and that made it much easier."

Engaging the public

Later, in 2009, the project shifted from internal knowledge-sharing to sharing information with the public. Sharon's department was given responsibility for the municipality's website, previously managed by the city's PR department, as well as all other forms of electronic communications with the public.

Today, he says, the project is considered a huge success, with officials from other city governments in Israel approaching him seeking to learn how to launch similar projects in their cities. The project also earned Tel Aviv the title of "Best Smart City" at the Smart City Expo conference in Barcelona last year, where city officials emphasized the potential of the project as a tool for citizen participation and engagement in urban policy.

Zohar Sharon, Tel Aviv's Chief Knowledge Officer says the idea behind DigiTel was to "put all of the services provided by the municipality in a single place." (Tel Aviv municipality)

Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai has also been a big proponent of DigiTel. In a 2014 meeting, he described the project to Tel Aviv's city council as "part of a larger digital vision, which we have been leading in recent years, which includes innovation in general, and the adoption of new technologies by the municipality for provision of services to and contact with the residents."

Ronit Sarid, a bank teller who lives in an affluent north Tel Aviv neighborhood, was an early adopter of DigiTel. "I think it's a great initiative, and I tell all my friends about it," she says. Sarid uses both the smart card and the app, and regularly accesses her DigiTel account page online, where she takes care of tasks like renewing her municipal parking permit.

"DigiTel sends me monthly emails and text-message updates about things like street closures and last-minute discounts for shows," she says. Her only complaint is that the system didn't send her an alert about a discount for a hard-rock concert. "I think it was because of my age," Sarid, who is 58, says with a laugh. "The system must have decided I'm too old to be interested in something like that."

'A good start'

Tel Aviv's tech community would seem to be a natural audience for projects like DigiTel. Yet, while my conversations with several local tech entrepreneurs found much support for the idea in principle, few of them actually use the app.

Sagi Shamam, an app developer who founded and runs a startup called Where, called the DigiTel app "a good start, and the kind of thing that Israeli municipalities should be doing." But he says he's not sure he would actually use it, adding that its graphic interface and content could be improved.

A developer named Ido, who did not want to give his last name because his startup works with local governments, says DigiTel is a far better app than similar ones created by Israeli municipalities, but mediocre in comparison to similar projects in places like New York and Chicago.

"The right thing to do is to make all of the city's information available to developers, and let them make their own apps," Ido says. "That way you get more apps, and better ones." While the municipality has released several data sets in recent years—part of a growing movement toward "open data"—he says these were "embarrassingly limited" in their scope and often contain outdated information.

About 40 percent of Tel Aviv residents carry the DigiTel smart card, offering them discounts to shows and cultural events. (Tel Aviv municipality)

Dr. Noah Efron, a former Tel Aviv city council member and university professor, has been a member of DigiTel since the project began. "I'm all for the city using the Internet to make all of our lives easier," he says. "But, with DigiTel, city hall is using technology to sell and promote this and that, rather than connect and empower people politically."

"Consider all the things the project doesn't do," Efron continues. "It doesn't allow citizens to band together. It doesn't facilitate, say, petitions. It doesn't pass on decisions the city is making and allow folks to take part. It doesn't enable people to influence policy. Instead it mostly gives out discounts on events and consumer goods, and shares 'lifestyle' information."

"There's nothing wrong with that," Efron says, "but it reflects a corporate, not a civic, imagination."

Zohar Sharon, the Chief Knowledge Officer, does not dispute the fact that the city could do more to empower citizens to take more of an active role in shaping city policy. "We're not there yet, but we're headed there," he says. "The city's management is very interested in facilitating public participation and input, and digital is the way to do it. I think it'll happen over the next few years."

As for any future parking fiascos like the one that went viral in 2013, the municipality says it has learned from past mistakes. Today, says city hall spokesperson Hannah Confino, "In circumstances where a parking ticket is issued, residents can see a picture online of their car parked illegally."

"This is an example," Confino says, "of how the municipality uses digital technology to reinforce trust and open communication with its residents."

Top image courtesy of Kfir Sivan.

This story originally appeared on Citiscope, an Atlantic partner site.

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