In Our Opinion: Council doesn’t need AI software to tell them people are ticked

People are mad at the Oak Harbor City Council for wasting money on the sewage treatment plant, which was millions over its original price tag.

And what was the council’s response? To waste more money on a software company that will tell them that people are mad at them for wasting their tax dollars.

What’s more ridiculous? To do it, the council is using federal CARES Act funding, money better used elsewhere.

Last week, the council showed tone-deafness by hiring a company called Zencity on a $15,000, one-year contract — and that’s after sizable discounts. The company advertises that it “utilizes AI (artifical intelligence) to analyze resident feedback and deliver actionable insights that help governments prioritize resources.”

In other words, the software combs Facebook to figure out if people are complaining about the city.

To be fair, $15,000 isn’t a large amount of money in terms of city spending, and the reports will undeniably be interesting. People with an interest in local government should be encouraged to speak up and their comments are valuable, but social media posts should be taken with many grains of salt. It shouldn’t cost thousands of dollars to figure it out either.

Studies show that online commenters are predominantly males with a lower level of education and lower incomes, according to studies by Pew Research and several media organizations. All demographics should be considered when deliberating government policy decisions.

Angry keyboard warriors hiding behind computers screens already have too much power in society. They’ve driven away many reasonable people from online spaces who dare to share an opposing viewpoint.

That being said, Whidbey Island is fortunate to have many brave, social-media-literate individuals who educate themselves about local issues and make their opinions known without resorting to insults, name-calling, intimidation, threats and nonsensical memes.

Zencity said it is pre-qualified by the government to receive CARES funding, apparently because its service provides information that can be used to guide the pandemic response.

Perhaps in a larger community this information could point to problems like confusion about rules or misinformation that’s being spread.

But in a small city like Oak Harbor, it doesn’t seem necessary to have a computer algorithm either to explain the obvious to public officials or to provide “actionable” information that only represents an angry few.