ADRIAN — Lenawee County has dropped its $48,000 contract with data-mining company Zencity.
Lenawee County Commissioner Ralph Tillotson, R-Adrian Twp., was the vote that tipped the scales to end the contract. The county commission vote Wednesday was 5-4 to end the contract.
A March county commission vote was 5-4 against ending the contract. The understanding at that time was that when the contract came up for renewal, it would be discussed again. The Zencity contract has a 90-day notice of termination clause.
It was only because Lenawee County Commission Chair Jim Van Doren, R-Tipton, had recalled the clause that the issue was resurrected at the commission’s information technology/equalization committee meeting. The committee voted to put the contract on the commission’s personnel/ways and means committee meeting agenda, where the commission voted to exercise its right to end the contract.
“I was glad the commission chairman brought the Zencity contract to the attention of the IT committee this month. If we’d waited until October, the contract would have continued without review. Sending it back to the full commission for reconsideration was the right thing to do. We had another chance to debate it and see if it was worth what the county spent on it. I didn’t think so,” Lenawee County Commissioner Nancy Jenkins-Arno, R-Clayton, also member of the IT/equalization committee, said.
Tillotson, also a member of the IT/equalization committee, had questioned why county administrator Kim Murphy had not brought the contract to the attention of the commission and provided Murphy with a lesson in how many months there are in a year, noting that with the 90-day notice of termination clause the commission would have to take action in September to end the Zencity contract and that October would be too late.
“Keeping the commission informed is an important part of the administrator’s job. That means staying on top of deadlines, and providing information when commissioners need it or request it so that we can make well-informed votes. It’s frustrating when it feels like things are being withheld or there’s more to the story than what we are being told,” Jenkins-Arno said.
With dual headquarters in New York City and Tel Aviv, Zencity provides Lenawee County with its Zencity Organic software, which summarizes data posted on the internet and accessible to the general public, like posts on X, formerly Twitter, and public Facebook pages. Lenawee County also signed on for the Zencity Community Survey for two surveys during the year to track how residents feel about living in Lenawee County and their level of satisfaction with county services.
The county’s purpose for using both platforms was to help inform policy and decision-making, although Lenawee County Commissioners David Stimpson, R-Tecumseh, and Dawn Bales, R-Madison Twp., walked that back last week pointing to the use of the platforms as a tool. Stimpson said it is not the “be all and end all.”
Stimpson and Commissioners Terry Collins, R-Adrian, and K.Z. Bolton, D-Adrian, said that the Zencity platforms are useful in helping the country take the pulse of younger residents who they say turn to social media to get their information.
Commissioners Dustin Krasny, R-Cambridge Twp., and Kevon Martis, R-Riga Twp., questioned the reliability of the Zencity data.
At the March personnel/ways and means committee meeting, Zencity vice president of partnerships Michael Simon was on hand via video to answer commissioner questions. Simon said that with Zencity Organic there is no way of knowing whether the people discussing issues relevant to the county on public social media are Lenawee County residents. Zencity Community Survey responses are voluntary and respondents report their ZIP codes, Simon said.
“Proponents of this surveillance technology say commissioners will be more informed of the opinions of our Lenawee County residents. As someone who has studied political science, the first thing educators teach you is that for polling there must be a representative sample of a group of people,” Krasny said. “I do not believe that any information gathered from the survey portion of the contract could be useful because it is anecdotal and I don’t think the farmer, small-business owner, manufacturer, or working-class family will be represented accurately in this data mining effort.”
The Zencity Organic software automatically sifts through hundreds of thousands of posts and comments per year, targeting comments related to local government responsibilities, categorizing by topic and sentiment, and enabling local governments to manage their own social accounts in one place.
The dashboard which sits with Murphy’s office shows the volume of interactions, the percentage of positive and negative sentiments, popular words, top stories and more.
Results of the first Zencity Community Survey were reported at the county’s human services committee meeting last week rather than its IT/equalization committee meeting where Lenawee County Marketing and Communications Coordinator Jennifer Ambrose had been reporting Zencity data after commissioners seeking to terminate the county’s Zencity contract in March requested the Zencity reports from Murphy.
Ambrose said the survey results were reported at the human services committee meeting because the content was more relevant there.
The survey ran from February through May and had 1,186 respondents who were digitally invited over social media, mobile apps, local websites and survey panels. An additional 327 responses were collected through county distribution efforts.
Overall Lenawee County resident satisfaction was 54% compared to 70% nationwide. Something the county did not expect is that the bulk of respondents were ages 55 and up at 69% of respondents, 35% of respondents in the 35 to 54 age bracket, and 38% of respondents ages 18 to 34.
The 55 and up age group was the most satisfied at 69%, while the least satisfied demographics were Hispanic/Latino at 37%, those ages 35-54 at 47%, and those ages 18-34 at 37%.
In a county where internet access is lacking, Krasny said the results would appear skewed. A recent broadband mapping report of Lenawee County shows there remains significant gaps in broadband coverage throughout the county.
The mapping study revealed that of 41,753 occupied parcels, 2,701 are unserved.
Zencity has seven customers in Michigan, five of them counties: Calhoun, Kalamazoo, Kent, Midland and Lenawee. The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services is also a customer.
Ottawa County had partnered with Zencity for its Organic software as well as its Zencity Community Survey and Zencity Core platforms.
The Ottawa County contract with Zencity expired March 19. There were no discussions by the county board, which consisted of mostly new members, about extending or renewing the contract.