March 22, 2009 By Bill Schrier
"Web 2.0" is taking the Internet by storm. Use of Facebook (and similar sites) has exploded and may even have become passé for some people. Even that notorious bastion of anti-change troglodytes, the U.S. Congress, apparently loves Twitter.
But, amazingly enough, social networking tools may not be of much use to local government, unless there are significant improvements or new applications.
This subject of this blog is basically: how do social media companies and local governments need to change to really bring social networking "to the people"?
Why do local governments (cities and counties) even exist? The answer to this question is easy: these are the governments most visible and directly involved in the daily lives of most people (although you certainly wouldn't know that by looking at newspaper headlines, the evening TV news and the blogosphere where the fedgov gets a lot more square inches of newspaper or computer monitor space).
Local governments take care of streets and parks, provide water and dispose of solid waste/wastewater. When you call 911 your local police or fire department responds, not the FBI or the Army. Local governments are very much connected to neighborhoods and individual communities. Almost everyone can walk into their county courthouse or city hall and ask for help or complain about a service. People can actually attend City Council meetings and make comments, or even - most cases - talk directly to the officials they've elected to run their city/county government.
In contrast, finding the right state or the federal government agency to address an issue - much less contacting them - is more difficult. Try walking into the U.S. Capitol to talk to your Congressperson!
But the bottom line is that local governments are very much in the "call and we'll respond" mode.
It would seem that the "social media" - which are built for enhancing interaction and communications among individual people - are tailor made to work for local government. These tools, however, need some significant enhancements to be really useful. Here are some specific suggestions.
Use of Facebook has really exploded, especially among folks my age, which I'll just say is the "over 50" set. Local government should really want to use this sort of social networking tool. We set up blockwatches, so people can let each other know about suspicious activities and crime in their neighborhoods. In Seattle, we have "SNAP" teams ("Seattle Neighbors Actively Prepare") / try to train blocks of residents to be self-reliant and help each other after a disaster such as an earthquake when it may take days for help to arrive.
Facebook should be a natural application to allow neighbors to build stronger blockwatches or SNAP teams. But that's not really the case. First, as a individual, I don't necessarily want to share the same kind of information about myself with my neighbors as I do with my "friends" or relatives. That's a serious deficiency of Facebook today, where my boss or co-workers as well as my "friends" and "relatives" - and now "neighbors" all might be Facebook "friends". When I think about posting "25 things about myself", I keep all those "relationships" in mind.
Next, there needs to be some relatively easy yet not overwhelming way for groups of neighbors on Facebook to communicate with their local government, and their government to communicate back. We (the City) want to hear about suspicious activities and get tips about crime. But clearly no police department can investigate the hundreds or thousands of such reports which might flow in daily from a thousand blockwatches which could be established in the City of Seattle. A really useful Facebook-like application would have an easy way to correlate these reports and allow neighbors to verify issues and support each other or at least sort out the "wheat" (real problems) from the "chaff" of perceived problems.
This is an issue on a daily basis but is ten times more important during an emergency situation or a disaster, when first responders are overwhelmed and reports of problems multiply.
On the other hand, a Facebook-like social networking tool might allow local government to quickly dispel rumors and calm out-of-control fears during those same situations. And, if structured correctly, the tool could allow the police to educate residents about keeping themselves safe. A Facebook-like application might allow the Fire Department/Public Health to be aware of health problems in neighborhoods, for example (with privacy controls) help neighbors check on and support the elderly or infirm in our neighborhood.
There are dozens of other uses I'm not mentioning - encouraging people to form and manage Parks Department sports teams, or find out about recreation opportunities or to join their neighborhood council for graffiti reduction or a neighborhood clean-up campaign. All these activities build community.
A second great service with similar application is Twitter. Twitter's great strength is its short, 140 character statements, and the fact that one can tweet from cell phones and i-phones as well as computers. The applications for local government are legion, ranging from reporting public safety hazards - streetlights out, traffic accidents, potholes - to gaining a rapid, accurate assessment of what is happening during a major incident such as a gas line explosion, earthquake, power outage, the rantings of a CTO, or a plane crash-landing in the Hudson River.
Similarly, the city or county might be able to "tweet" the status of streets or traffic or snow emergencies, thereby informing people of emergent situations. Government twitterers could also be definitive sources of information, helping to quell rumors. But I think that tweets from on-the-scene "civilians" can play a major role in rumor-quelling and information gathering in and of themselves.
The problem with Twitter is just that it is so overwhelming. Mayor Gavin Newsom started to tweet a few weeks ago, and rapidly gained over 100,000 followers. Hey folks, there's no way he can adequately respond to the @replies of 100,000 people!
We need some good way to link official twitter streams and @replies to City government service request systems or 311 services so duplicate reports are managed and government adequately acknowledges and responds to reports and requests. While you're at it, Twitter could become GPS-enabled. Basically, that means your "tweet" about a pothole would automatically carry your present location along with it. In turn, if that pothole is scheduled for an asphalt bath, local government could immediately respond "that will be handled next Tuesday by noon". Fedex delivery promises meet the local transportation department.
As a subset of Twitter and Facebook, I should also mention YouTube and Flickr services, which could allow people to post video of crimes or public safety issues or problems (or, god-forbid, the beauty and "what's right") of their neighborhoods as feedback to their governments.
Finally, I need to mention social networking and improving constituent input for the policy and legislative process. As I said above, one advantage of cities/counties is that people and walk right in and talk to elected officials or speak at Council meetings. But rarely do most people actually talk to their local council members, unless there is an issue of overwhelming concern. Usually special interest groups and gadflies provide feedback, while the interests and opinions of the vast majority of constituents are unknown. Every City has a "gang of 50" (or 10 or 100) who loudly give their opinions on almost any topic, while the ideas of the "silent majority of 500,000" (in Seattle's case) are largely unknown.
Facebook, Twitter, LimeSurvey, Google Moderator and similar tools might provide a way to receive and better rank such input. Google Moderator was used by the Obama administration to allow people to post ideas, and then vote on them. Because a userid/password was required, a single individual could not overwhelm the voting process. Tools like Delicious can also be used for ranking. Visualization tools like Microsoft Virtual Earth or Flickr could be used in mashups to build visuals and gain comments on neighborhood plans, capital projects or parks improvements.
All these tools are in their infancy. They are not statistically valid measures, or even voter-valid measures (voter-valid means "elections") for use by officials in formulating policy. These tools can produce a tremendous amount of data and opinions, but sifting that data and analyzing it into useful information is far beyond the current state of these tools. And the sheer amount of feedback and requests which people can generate to their government will rapidly overwhelm our ability to respond or even acknowledge it.
As almost an afterthought, I should mention the crying need for a working verison of audio and video search as key tools required to sift through data and make it into more useful information for government action.
As a final note, these tools could deepen the "digital divide" - the chasm between those people who have access to computers and Facebook and Twitter, and those who do not (although - as a bright spot in this - almost everyone has a cell phone, and you can tweet from a cell phone).
I'm convinced these new social media tools will make stronger neighborhoods and communities. They will improve the social fabric and cohesiveness of our society. But these tools need a lot of improvements and enhancements.
I hereby challenge the Facebooks and Googles and Twitters of the world to make those improvements happen.
"Yes you can."