Courtesy of ZenCity.

Courtesy of ZenCity.

Renton uses AI tech to listen in

A program called ZenCity is helping city officials respond to feedback

Have something to say about your city council? Artificial Intelligence may be listening.

To supplement the formats of public engagement the city is doing, including open houses, surveys and public meetings, Renton is testing out a company that uses Artificial Intelligence (AI) to gather online feedback.

“It’s a newer technology that will hopefully make some of the work we do more efficient,” Organizational Development Manager Kristi Rowland said.

Renton chose the provider Zencity because it’s easy, captures data anonymously and is specifically created for local government. Cities like Pasco, Washington; Scottsdale, Arizona; and West Palm Beach, Florida already use this tool. Zencity is not accessible online to the public, but follows the same rules as other information through public records requests. It costs Renton about $2,000 a month and began in April.

Right now staff don’t have a lot of time to do data gathering from social media, Rowland told council at the Sept. 16 Committee of the Whole meeting, but AI will never take a day off, flipping through information on media websites and public social media posts. The information gathered is all freely available, and doesn’t access private social media accounts, closed Facebook groups or Nextdoor.

The AI is an algorithm that pulls the information the city is interested in, categorizes it and also labels it as positive, negative or neutral feedback.

Councilmembers mentioned the importance of equity in gathering feedback, at the Sept. 16 Committee of the Whole meeting, and to not use this as the main tool for city feedback considering some of the language and digital barriers folks in Renton might have to offering feedback online. Council also discussed how a few voices can end up louder than others. Rowland said they are talking to the company about pulling in other languages and using other tools as well. Staff will continue to use other forms of gathering feedback, she said.

Staff from different departments came together to filter the responses to certain websites or social media pages where they know folks talked about Renton. They also can create different “projects” that can be selected so they only see online feedback related to, for example, an event like Multicultural Festival.

Rowland said they’ve also actively filtered out any political/election posts so that Zencity cannot be analyzed for those purposes.

Zencity doesn’t show city employees the names of posters or locations, it geo-locates posts on a map related to where users are talking about, not where they’re talking from.

Already departments are using this data to interpret what folks understand about city business and used it to change their messaging. One example at the meeting was from Renton Police Chief Ed VanValey.

He said after the arrest of an officer back in August, he took to Zencity to see what people were saying that Saturday morning the news broke. Rowland said Zencity sent an email out to those with the account information saying there was a new popular post, and the AI showed it was 32 percent negative, 1 percent positive discussion the first couple days. VanValey said being able to easily look at what people were saying about the arrest online helped the department frame their response.

After the statement released by Deputy Chief Jon Schuldt, the AI showed sentiment changed to more positive discussion. VanValey said he always go to Zencity now to see how to respond to an incident or crime.

In another example, Renton Recreation and Neighborhoods Director Maryjane VanCleave said she was able to see that recreation is not a universal term used when folks put out feedback about activities, parks and trails online. She said it’s been invaluable to also staying informed with groups like the Park Run Facebook page to see how other organizations are using the parks.

Connecting Zencity with the new city application Renton Responds is also in the works, Rowland said.

The city is at the same time going through a data refresh, and retooling how it evaluates employees and community engagement with departments. Rowland said this tool will help support those evaluations but not be a final determining factor in that work.

More information on the AI provider is available at zencity.io.

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