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Buda council passes on new A.I.-driven tool, for now

A better way of gauging public opinion or the intrusion of Big Brother?

Members of the Buda City Council are grappling with that question in the wake of a presentation last week on Zencity, an Artificial Intelligence-driven platform that cities can use to gather and analyze data across social media, web and news platforms.

No action was taken, and the city’s Public Information Officer David Marino said he wasn’t too surprised.

“My job is to bring things forward to council that are possibly helpful in the future,” he said, adding that more and more people are commenting in online public forums. While people still attend public meetings, he noted, it’s on social media where they are more likely to share their opinions.

Based in Tel Aviv, Israel, Zencity is a pioneer in its field and specializes in municipal governments. Its clients in Texas include Houston and Seguin. Houston used data that Zencity gathered to assess concerns about trains blocking vital intersections, while in Seguin, people weighed in on a new mural dedicated to the Texas Rangers.

Zencity tracks city-managed social media sites as well as others like neighborhood groups, other web sources and news sites, aggregating the data while maintaining the anonymity of posters. “It can take a deeper look at conversations and where they might be going.”

Should Buda decide to sign on, the city would get a discounted initial rate of $12,000 per year. Some council members objected to that expense, which would increase in subsequent years, and others felt it made for a “Big Brother” type encroachment on privacy.

“I totally understand the concept,” of intrusion, Marino said, “but the fact is, this is information that is public … the reason I brought it before council in the first place was to gauge their reaction. It was good hearing that feedback.”

Even though they didn’t immediately bite, the council left the door open for the issue to come back and Marino said opinions could change.

“Maybe in the future, as more of these organizations come into play – where there’s more competition – those sentiments will change.” For example, more cities might begin using Zencity or a similar progra. “I think you’re going to see more of this in the future,” he said.

Although he makes a point to track social media far beyond the city’s 16 official channels, new social media sites are always popping up and it’s increasingly difficult for Marino to keep up.

“Social media has really changed the communications world in a way you wouldn’t have seen even 10 years go,” he said. “It does come down to how do you sit there and monitor that all the time.”

Marino said he became aware of Zencity when the company was a vendor at a recent municipal convention. “They are really one of the only ones that are doing it in that way – city government. They are the only one in the game doing it the way they’re doing it.”

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