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Several Minnesota Cities Using AI Tool To Monitor Residents' Social Media

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- Nearly 200 cities across the country, including six in Minnesota and western Wisconsin, are using a tech tool to keep an eye on what you say online.

Brooklyn Park and Woodbury have contracts with the company Zencity, which, according to its website, uses artificial intelligence to aggregate social media posts and comments about things happening in the community.

Matt Rabe is a community engagement officer with the Brooklyn Park Police Department who oversees the Zencity deal.

"One of the things we wanted to focus on was … how can we augment our messaging to increase that trust, increase that legitimacy and raise that positive sentiment," Rabe said.

BPPD contracted with Zencity in December 2020. The company says everything it gathers is public. It then produces reports for its clients that analyze the discourse on a given topic. No one is individually identified in the reports.

"Someone who says, 'I hate the Brooklyn Park Police Department,' we'd be able to see [that] negative sentiment," Rabe said.

A typical analysis includes the total number of interactions on a topic, and it breaks down opinions. The city of St. Paul is using Zencity on a free, six-month trial basis.

Don Gemberling, a St. Paul resident and privacy advocate, says what Zencity does is like hearing every conversation at a cocktail party all night -- and he doesn't think that's right.

Woodbury has used Zencity since January, according to city communications manager Jason Egerstrom.

"I think it's been a very useful tool for us," Egerstrom said. "I think it helps us communicate with the public better."

Woodbury didn't communicate to the public that it started using Zencity's services. Neither did St. Paul nor Brooklyn Park.

"The people who sell the message, 'We shouldn't worry about this,' part of their message is always transparency," Gemberling said. "But if you don't do transparency, then how do you mitigate the issues?"

A St. Paul spokesperson says the city won't be renewing the trial when it expires at the end of next month. Woodbury's city council approved paying $16,000 for its yearlong contract. Brooklyn Park is paying $18,000 for a yearlong contract. Rabe says the money comes from the police and communications budget, and the contract did not require city council approval.

According to its website, Zencity also counts Rochester, North Mankato and Eau Claire, Wisconsin as customers.

A Zencity spokesperson told WCCO in a statement, "Community feedback is vital to local government leaders, and Zencity and our partner cities believe that the ability to show up at a meeting should not prevent anyone's voice being heard in the halls of power."

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