Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Monitoring social media feeds is a common practice for major brands and companies trying to keep up with consumer sentiment and tastes. City governments are now tapping into those data streams to keep tabs on residents' chatter and complaints about what's happening around town.

Why it matters: Twitter and Facebook posts, when combined with other city tip lines and data collection tools, can be a gold mine of information about what citizens really think.

The big picture: Social media creates a wide-ranging sensor network of sorts that helps cities direct resources to what residents actually care about. But it can also be surprising for users who don't expect city staff to be paying attention.

What's happening: Zencity, a Tel Aviv-based Microsoft-backed startup, sells an AI-powered sentiment analysis tool designed to track citizen opinions so cities can gauge how they are performing. Zencity works with 75 communities and collects more than 1.5 million social media interactions each month.

  • "Cities need to know if they're doing a good job, but they don't have a feedback loop," said CEO Eyal Feder-Levy, citing low response rates to city surveys and low attendance at traditional town hall meetings. "This is the basic concept of meeting people where they are."

How it works: Zencity provides a dashboard that aggregates data points including social media posts, local news stories, messages received by cities' 311 portals, and online feedback forms. Zencity collects more than 1.5 million interactions each month, Feder-Levy said. AI is used to identify and sort trends, anomalies and public sentiment.

For example: Houston works with Zencity to gauge how residents are responding to changes in city services, such as a recent garbage pickup schedule change and a project equipping free WiFi on public buses and trains.

  • "A lot of the products and services we're rolling out don't have measurements attached," said Jesse Bounds, Houston's chief information officer. "We can look at usage for a metric for success, but what we wouldn't have is whether customers care, whether they're excited about it. We need to prove out the value of all these investments in our smart city infrastructure."
  • In Cary, North Carolina, a town of about 160,000, local officials used Zencity data to monitor how residents felt about the fleet of electric scooters that quickly appeared on sidewalks. Mixed feelings from residents led the city council to allow e-scooters but reserved the right to change the ordinance if needed.

The big picture: Cities naturally want to take advantage of the troves of information citizens are sharing on social media, but some people may not expect city administrators to "listen to" them when blowing off steam about a traffic jam or venting about a snow plow.

Privacy tensions bubbled up when law enforcement agencies were found to be using social media to monitor protesters and activists in 2016. After criticism, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram changed their policies to prohibit using their data for police surveillance.

That's where the distinction between passive monitoring and personal tracking is key, says Kelsey Finch, senior policy counsel at the Future of Privacy Forum.

  • "When we think of public monitoring, people jump to tracking individuals, which feels more targeted than tracking aggregate sentiment," she said. "It feels very different when people can put you in jail versus coming out to fix your pothole. People for the most part like to be lost in the crowd and the sense of security that comes along with it."

Many social media monitoring services, including ZenCity, aggregate data to show broad trends, heat maps and topics without singling out specific users. If city staff wants to drill down to an individual comment or comment thread, names are whited out.

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