How one city trawls social media to inform policy and make decisions

The CIO for Aurora, Illinois, says an AI-powered platform crawls Facebook, Twitter and other sources to help officials understand sentiment and spot problems as they arise.
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An AI-powered data-gathering platform used by the city of Aurora, Illinois, has helped officials make better decisions, the city’s chief information officer said at a conference in Denver last week. But he also conceded that the platform’s reliance on social media like Twitter and Facebook leaves open the possibility that it’s using great deal of information from unverified sources.

Michael Pegues, the top IT official for the Chicago suburb of about 210,000, said at the Smart Cities Connect conference that public safety leaders and other officials in his city often look to ZenCity — an analytics tool that blends official information, news sources and social media — to guide law-enforcement operations and other big policy actions.

“We’re learning to be the smartest city in America,” Pegues said, aspiring for an ideal bandied about by many local governments pursuing a “smart city” agenda.

Pegues said the ZenCity platform came in handy on Feb. 15 when an employee of a manufacturing business fatally shot five people and wounded six — including five police officers — inside the company’s plant in Aurora.


“In those cases, the first thing is for the mayor to get his finger on the pulse and control the message,” he said. “With the proliferation of social media it’s hard to do that. [The shooting] started at 1:30. Within one hour, we had 300 law enforcement there — city, county, state, even federal.”

While ZenCity can’t claim credit for the police response, Pegues said it did give Aurora officials a grasp on how the city’s residents were handling the situation. The software uses what Rachel Rembrandt, the company’s director of customer success, called “topic clustering.”

“ZenCity aggregates feedback and comments from multiple sources, including social networks, news websites and municipal hotlines,” she said.

Rembrandt said the software analyzes that information in four ways: categorization, sentiment, location and real-time trends.

“Many people were talking [on social media] about the shooting, or volunteering afterward,” she said. “Sentiment. We’ll show you positive and negative reactions.”


ZenCity, developed by an Israeli firm of the same name, is used by about 45 local governments in Israel, Europe and the United States, including major cities like Tel Aviv, Paris, San Antonio and San Francisco.

In Aurora, the platform has been helpful in less harrowing situations than the February shooting, Pegues said. He described instances of downed trees not being reported to city’s 311 hotline, but instead being discovered on ZenCity thanks to enough social-media mentions from users in physical proximity to one another.

“It allows the city to be more proactive instead of reactive,” he said.

But Pegues said there are potential drawbacks to reading deeply into social-media traffic, specifically that it might not show a representative sample of a city’s population.

“It’s just a gauge, and a lot of it depends on your demographics,” he said. “A large portion are millennials, and we can safely assume most of these individuals are on social media. Those older generations, those are people attending city council meetings.”


That might be a generational assumption, though. Recent research shows that Facebook use is growing fastest among U.S. adults age 65 or older.

And Rembrandt played down the risk that an AI platform that sifts through social media content could be thrown off by deliberate misinformation.

“Because there’s so much data, it’s extremely difficult to manipulate,” she said. “Let’s say there’s 100 comments on something. That’s nothing.”

Going forward, Pegues said Aurora will continue using ZenCity to measure opinion on official city business, like Mayor Richard Irvin’s recent state-of-the-city address laying out his agenda for year.

“We wanted to see what the feedback was, and it gave the mayor’s office feedback on the sentiment of the community and central points of interest,” Pegues said. “The mayor can take that back and look at policies. It is a very powerful tool in the decision-making process.”

Benjamin Freed

Written by Benjamin Freed

Benjamin Freed was the managing editor of StateScoop and EdScoop, covering cybersecurity issues affecting state and local governments across the country. He wrote extensively about ransomware, election security and the federal government’s role in assisting states and cities with information security.

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