When Zohar Sharon came up with the idea for DigiTel, Tel Aviv, Israel's groundbreaking digital resident card program, city officials weren't excited.
"There were a lot of managers and important people in the municipality, and they said, 'It won't work,'" recalls Sharon, Chief Knowledge Officer for the Tel Aviv-Yafo municipality. "'Nobody will register, or give you their mobile phone or habits or permission to use their info.' [But] I knew that everybody would give me (their data) because of the benefits."
Since its 2013 launch, the DigiTel platform has registered 200,000 Tel Avivians (out of 350,000 eligible) and been hailed as one of the world's great "smart city" projects. It earned the "World's Smartest City" award at Barcelona's 2014 Smart City Expo. Here's a cheesy-cute promo video. Sharon will be sharing his insights, along with others, as part of the Smart Cities track at TechfestNW this April.
Citizens of Tel Aviv now receive real-time information about public works projects or street closures; a digital forum to apply for permits and licenses; and targeted information they receive as part of subpopulations. There's "Digi-Dog," for dog owners, and "Digi-Taf" (taf means young children in Hebrew) for parents of children under three—subclubs that dangle customized, highly-targeted perks, like a text message that tells a parent about a baby yoga class nearby, or a birth certificate sent to a dog owner with the name of the dog and birthdate.
After a successful 2017 partnership with the city of Thane, India, "DigiThane," and a visit by Indian Prime Minister Narenda Modi to Israel, the partnership with DigiTel expanded to the entire state of Maharashtra—some 120 million people. Tallin, Estonia has also "expressed great interest," Sharon says.
A former social worker, Sharon's inspired tech evangelism teeters towards hyperbole at times, but his inspiration is infectious. During a Whatsapp call to Tel Aviv—cost, zero—his laugh gurgles through the line. No, he's not the blind Israeli golfer with the same name. Yes, he's aware of the coincidence.
He emphasizes something one rarely hears much about in tech: emotional intelligence. What makes DigiTel successful, Sharon says, isn't its sophisticated architecture, the $5 million spent on development or several hundred "knowledge champions" in city government who donate their time.
It's trust. Created by the project's high emotional intelligence, or "E.Q."
"Tech guys, their E.Q. is not so high sometimes," Sharon says. "Not because they are bad people, but because that's the way the world is running."
How does DigiTel do it? It connects with residents on human levels, sends frequent surveys for feedback, and carefully guards their info.
"The most important thing in DigiTel is the way we make emotional connections with people," Sharon says. "To lead people, you have to have E.Q."
Proof is in the pudding: the 200,000 registrants, or the e-newsletter's open rate of 70 percent.
"It's amazing, because citizens are getting exactly the right information for them," Sharon says. "They know that we won't send them spam."
Sharon insists concerns about government misuse of data are minimal. "The Big Brother is not the government," he says. "The Big Brother is Google."
DigiTel, Sharon says, safeguards citizens' privacy. "We are not following citizens," he says. "We are believing that we shouldn't do it."
The platform also benefits from the trust citizens have in local government.
"In a local government," Sharon notes, "you can see the white in the eyes of the people."