Oak Harbor spends $15,000 to gauge public opinion

The media monitoring software will hopefully help the city make decisions, staff said.

Oak Harbor City Council decided to spend $15,000 on a media monitoring software that it hopes will help the city figure out what residents think.

Zencity is a software company that helps local governments improve their messaging, address misinformation and tap into the “silent majority,” Jonathan Shafir of Zencity told council members during a workshop on Wednesday.

The money would come from the city’s CARES Act funding. Normally it costs $24,000 per year, but Oak Harbor got a special first-year, COVID-19 discount.

The software can go live within five days, Shafir said.

The software uses artificial intelligence to monitor publicly available channels, like social media pages and other forms of local media, to glean information about public opinion. It generates word clouds, alerts users to popular posts, maps interactions by location and utilizes other methods to figure out what people are talking about.

Users can target the software to gather data about how residents feel about city projects or hot topics in the community.

Shafir assuaged fears that the data collection could somehow be hijacked by someone attempting to influence the public conversation, explaining that the software has “troll patrol” to filter that out.

“Even something as granular as social distancing for Halloween celebrations this weekend” could be targeted, Shafir said.

Sabrina Combs, the city’s public information officer, said she was approached by Zencity and thought it would be a tool to help the city understand what residents are talking about, citing public discussion around rallies, mask mandates, a recent tsunami warning and the city’s utility rate adjustment.

During a previous council meeting in which council members heard public comments about utility rate adjustments, 13 residents expressed intense frustration and anger about the rate increases.

Most of public discourse happens on social media pages not owned by the city, Shafir and Combs explained.

“There are multiple social media pages out there devoted to our communities, and it’s very difficult to garner what the communications strategy is, or how people feel about something, and this would allow us to get a better sense,” Combs said.

Most of the council supported the idea, with the proposal passing 5-1. Councilmember Jim Woessner was the lone nay vote and Councilmember Erica Wasinger was absent.

“This is something that’s very intriguing to me,” said Councilmember Joel Servatius, explaining that he hoped it would help the city stay on top of its public relations.

“It would be nice to get out in front of that rather than have the council discussion, vote on something and then watch it show up in the local news feeds and then we’re dealing with that in the aftermath,” he said.

Councilmember Tara Hizon said a common frustration she’s had during her time on council is the lack of public opinion to inform decisions.

“I’m excited about this. If this product works the way Mr. Shafir has described it, this is an absolute dream come true for me,” she said.

“One of the things that is consistently frustrating is not really hearing anyone’s opinion until after the decision is made when feedback would have been really helpful prior to a decision,” she said.

Councilmember Jeff Mack said he agreed.

“All-in-all it’s a good concept. Lately we’ve been almost on the defensive where I would like to see us get out front and get the proper and correct info out there to the public,” he said, adding that he hoped there was a way to incorporate the older population, who may be more “low-tech,” in the data gathering.

Woessner, on the other hand, said he isn’t sure if the one-year, $15,000 contract with Zencity could truly get the information the city was looking for.

“I’m concerned on the fiscal end,” he said.

“I don’t know if this is necessarily the best expenditure of our money to get us the information from the folks we need information from.”