Year in Review: Web 2.0 Helps Governments Connect to Citizens

Los Angeles, Washington state join Twitter to inform residents.

by / December 27, 2009
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Web 2.0, a cryptic term, has come to define any number of Web-based tools and applications designed to foster discussion and give a voice to users. In 2009, one Web 2.0 application for good or ill, caught the fancy of both the public and private sectors at all levels -- Twitter.

Some of the most practical government applications for Twitter began appearing in public safety and emergency notification. For example, the Los Angeles Fire Department updates its Twitter page with bulletins about structural fires, the number of responding firefighters, and injuries and casualties. A typical post could be something like: "12126 Burbank Bl* No 'formal' evacuations; Firefighters maintaining 500' exclusion zone pending LAFD Hazmat arrival."

Other agencies, like the Washington State Department of Transportation, began using Twitter to alert drivers of traffic conditions and route changes to ferry vessels plying the waters of Puget Sound.

Such stories generated numerous comments to www.govtech.com. Some readers offered their own ideas about how government could best use Twitter. Others cited examples of how their local and state governments, including Hermosa Beach, Calif., and Kansas, have already boarded the Twitter express.

In July, with Twitter-mania at an all-time high, some observers voiced concern that Web 2.0 tools were blurring the lines between our private and professional lives.

"I think what is happening today is our work worlds, social worlds and family worlds are all converging," social media observer and World Wide Rave author David Meerman Scott told Government Technology. "They always have been interlinked, but I think social networking interlinks them even more. It's difficult to keep those separate unless you're prepared to not use social networking."

But Twitter wasn't the only Web 2.0 star in 2009. Last year's Web site du jour, Facebook, continued its meteoric rise while crushing its rivals -- MySpace in particular -- along the way. However, the sudden influx of social media into the workplace raised questions, such as what happens when employees and employers are Facebook "friends." CIOs now have to decide if this new dynamic poses a threat to existing relationships or whether it's simply a modern means for workers and bosses to communicate.

Alaska's Anand Dubey, the state's director of Enterprise Technology Services, weighed in on the Facebook debate. Dubey said Facebook is first and foremost a tool and should be treated as such.

"You need to be very clear-cut about your processes on a manual level," he said. "Once you've optimized those, then pretty much any tool can fit your need -- and that's where this Facebook stuff comes in. People are doing it, but they don't really know why."

Evidence of Facebook's pervasive influence showed up in March, as Government Technology published its annual Top 25: Doers, Dreamers and Drivers. The list highlights 25 people who have had a significant impact in public-sector IT. 2009's list featured Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes. In addition to his indirect contribution by helping create the Facebook juggernaut, Hughes is responsible for www.my.barackobama.com, a Web site that achieved phenomenal success in organizing online grass-roots support for Barack Obama's bid for the White House.

In 2009, government adopted and integrated Web 2.0 like never before. Many of this year's Best of the Web survey winners -- like Utah, California and Louisville, Ky. -- feature home pages that look like a clearing-house for Web 2.0 applications. Citizens of these and other locales have more, easier and faster ways than ever to connect with government, thanks largely to the rapid development and adoption of Web 2.0.

As they are wont to do, people keep discovering new ways to use existing tools. Web 2.0 technology is no different. Agencies across the country have deployed apps, blogs, wikis, social networks and more. In April, Shell Culp, CIO of the California Department of

Toxic Substances Control, told Government Technology how her agency rolled out Web 2.0 applications to improve internal processes and help make the public more aware of potentially harmful substances in consumer goods.

Other organizations experimented with the latest Web 2.0 tools to reach a global audience. Over the summer, the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce used a concept known as "crowdsourcing" -- using the Web to ask the world a question. The chamber's goal was to crowdsource for ideas on how to increase public transit ridership in Chicago, and it received hundreds of thoughtful responses from every continent.

2009 also saw government IT tackle nuts-and-bolts Web 2.0 issues like information security. IT security pros like Mark Weatherford, California's chief information security officer, and Elayne Starkey, chief technology officer (CTO) of Delaware, gave their advice on how to keep sensitive data secure as people grow more comfortable putting anything online.

"Most people don't want to do the wrong thing. They simply don't know what the right thing is in many cases. Laying those things out in policy is really the best way you can reach all of your employees," Weatherford said, echoing the sentiment of Alaska's Dubey.

Even Paul W. Taylor, Government Technology's venerable back-page columnist, found himself discussing Web 2.0 nearly every month. An excerpt from Taylor's June column sums up nicely the present state of Web 2.0 in the public sector.

"People responsible for enterprise technology worry ... Web 2.0 advocacy may be as dangerous to enterprise stability as a toddler with a fork waddling toward an electrical outlet. But the enterprise -- or more properly, the federated state and local government environments -- is resilient. What were once dismissed as toys are becoming platforms and platform extenders."

 

Chad Vander Veen

Chad Vander Veen previously served as the editor of FutureStructure, and the associate editor of Government Technology and Public CIO magazines.