Imagine being able to ask a ChatGPT-like program any stats about Newton and getting an instant, accurate, up-to-date answer.
Dan Gaynor, who ran unsuccessfully for a City Council seat last year, has been developing a program that could allow residents, officials and policymakers access to a sea of artificial intelligence focused on the city, the city’s history, demographic changes and more.
Gaynor started Kelp, a data-driven AI company, in his basement during the COVID-19 pandemic and later sold it to Signal AI, which kept Gaynor in charge of Kelp.
How it works
There are two basic kind of artificial intelligence. Generative AI creates things by predicting the next word, the next pixel, audio, etc. Discriminative AI is more like a search, asking the program to grab the right data.
“I work in discriminative, but I was testing out a custom GPT, which is generative AI, where you can upload documents to create your own proprietary knowledge source that your GPT then searches,” Gaynor explained. “Imagine a chatbot that you could actually trust.”
For a NewtonGPT, Gaynor uploaded thousands of pages of data including every Newton City Council packet for 2023, the city budget documents and PDFs from the city government local advocacy organizations. He also uploaded the transcripts from every City Council meeting from 2023, every Zoning and Planning Committee meeting, every School Committee meeting, every Area Council debate and every NewTV election video.
“So instead of it searching the internet, the context of every single one of my questions is in the frame of Newton,” Gaynor said.
If someone asks Google to explain zoning, for example, Google will bring up thousands of pages about zoning. Asking NewtonGPT about zoning would explain the city’s zoning ordinances, zoning history, and even which Newton City Council candidates favored the push to rezone the village centers last year.
“You can ask general questions, like: What happened with Zoning?’” he continued. “And instead of asking if it’s in Tuscaloosa or Singapore and over what time range, it just says—and I didn’t write this—it says ‘Passed historic zoning reform… key six village centers… including Auburndale,’ so it’s up to date.”
The NewtonGPT also can’t be manipulated by humans to lie because the program gets information from thousands of documents, videos and other records.
And that’s how AI can help fight misinformation.
“If I say ‘Tell me about the Newton budget,’ it breaks out the budget numbers, and I would want to check that the budget numbers are correct,” Gaynor said. “Or ‘How do I report a pothole?’ And it tells me to go on the city website.”
It acts like a local encyclopedia and a local visitor’s center, in one program, which keeps learning so it’s never outdated.
“Imagine you upload all the Newton Beacon stories, and this is where I think it gets interesting. I can say ‘summarize the latest Newton Beacon story on teacher stuff,’ and it theoretically should know to go to the Newton Beacon…” he continued.
And it did. The program highlighted the latest Newton Beacon story about the teacher contract battle, even including changes made to the story a few moments before.
Gaynor is still working on the program and fine-tuning it, but he’d like to get it to a point where it can be trusted and used by communities anywhere. And as someone who has run to serve in local office and who works in information technology, Gaynor said he sees a lot of good a truly accurate data-powered AI program could be for the city.
“Newton, despite having the Newton Beacon and Fig City News, still operates—at least from a civics discourse perspective—largely in an information vacuum, one filled with a lot of misinformation,” Gaynor said. “And if we can focus entirely on the facts and make fact-based decisions here, whether it’s on teacher salaries or roads to repave or the amount of housing to build, I think we could get to a lower temperature and more productivity as adults here governing the city.”