ZenCity translating 'Likes,' 'Shares' and 'Emojis' from web sites into 'insights' for Bettendorf officials

A week after Bettendorf Mayor Bob Gallagher made his annual state-of-the-city speech, online surveillance firm ZenCity gave city officials its analysis headlined – "The State of the City address was well received, yet attracted low interest."

ZenCity is being paid $18,000 a year by the city to use its online algorithm to scoop up all manner of Comments, Likes, Shares, Emojis from more than 100 local web sites – mostly Facebook pages and Twitter feeds – that mention the city's name in conjunction with issues or events the city wants to track.

To arrive at its conclusion the mayor's address was well-received, ZenCity noted there were 153 "interactions" between Feb. 12-21 with "very few" written comments, some 120 "Likes" and "Shares," which were called "neutral sentiment."

Only 3 percent (5) of the interactions ZenCity recorded were "negative," and the remaining 28 interactions were included as "positive" sentiment even though all, in fact, were official city online posts.

The ZenCity email report – provided bettendorf.com as part of a Freedom of Information request – didn't specify who in the city posted the positive online feedback to the mayor's speech. Nor were any actual positive or negative comments included in the material.

The following week, the ZenCity "analyst team" advised city officials that the proposed tax increase to add firefighters to staff the Surrey Heights Fire Station received "limited resident engagement but moderate support online."

That positive spin on the tax increase from ZenCity to city officials came despite the issue receiving "limited engagement" with "comments trended negative" on online articles posted by The Quad City Times and KWQC-TV.

"Most of the neutral interactions, particularly the 43 'Likes' to the posted articles, suggest there may be moderate yet less vocal support for the measure," the ZenCity analysis optimistically concluded.

After a snow event in mid-January, ZenCity weighed in on the city's handling of the snowstorm. "Residents express gratitude online for official city engagement regarding winter storm safety precautions and maintenance operations" was how ZenCity summarized 804 "interactions" its online surveillance had gathered.

Much of that online "interactions"came from an article posted by the police traffic division on the city's Facebook page. That article advised residents that speeding is never a good idea and "speeding on snow-covered roadway is never a good idea."

That bit of advice resulted in 211 "interactions," including 93 "Surprised" emojis," 67 "Thumbs Up" emojis, 24 "Shares," 16 "comments," 7 "Angry" and one "Worried" emoji.

So what are residents saying about the Interstate 74 bridge construction, city officials asked ZenCity algorithm?

"Online engagement indicates that while residents eagerly await the opening of the new I-74 Mississippi River Bridge, they still have serious concerns," ZenCity's reported back Feb. 5 to city officials.

For the month of January, ZenCity reported it had captured 26,807 "conversations" online with a resulting "sentiment analysis" showing 18 percent were positive, 17 negative and the rest neutral.

Public safety was said to be the top "trending topic" with more than 11,000 of those "conversations," followed by education (4,990 conversations), human relations and services (2,461), local economy (1,622) and transportation (1,618).

Even though emails indicate ZenCity was planning to map those comments according to political ward boundaries in the city, officials said no such "heat maps" identifying the various "interactions" by ward were provided the city during the period covered by the FOI request made by bettendorf.com.

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