With all new things, there comes a time when the novelty has worn off, but people aren’t ready to move onto something else. Like the coin collector who finally completes his penny collection, no matter how beloved, every project reaches a time when even the most emotionally invested are forced to stop and think, “OK, now what?”
Social media have provided government with free platforms populated with millions of sprightly users. As a means to open new lines of communication with the public and meet the seemingly universal goal of increased transparency, social media delivered a solution unrivaled in its convenience, low cost and efficacy. In these early days of social media, the value to government is both obvious and severely limited.
No one talks about the flops, but they’re out there. Twitter accounts with just a few followers. Facebook pages with almost no activity and that don’t seem to serve a practical purpose. It could be that in those instances the fault lies with the craftsman and not with the tools, but those disenchanted with the notion that social media will somehow transform their organizations are somewhat justified.
Even those who appear to be winning in social media should be dubious of the impact. California runs a dashboard that allows citizens and government officials alike to revel in the glory of the state’s social media presence. The dashboard shows that California has 433 social media accounts and a combined 38 million Facebook likes, Twitter followers and YouTube views. Those sound like big numbers, but exactly what they mean is unclear.
On the heels of hype, 2014 feels like something of a social media impasse. The good news is that big change is imminent. The Gen Y Facebook exodus isn’t social media’s death knell, but an indicator that people are tiring with what the first generation of social media offered and are clamoring for new possibilities. A future of integrated digital technologies that will transform the world is being built right now.
The initial step of joining social platforms is for some governments accompanied by an array of basic social media tools. The Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH) uses a Twitter monitoring tool to find possible cases of food poisoning and inspectors use that data to make restaurants safer. The city calls it Foodborne Chicago.
The program accesses the Twitter API to scan for instances of the phrase “food poisoning” tweeted within the geographic bounds of the city. Tweets caught by the software are manually sorted for legitimacy and relevance, and any users identified as possible victims of food poisoning are tweeted a message to visit the Foodborne Chicago website, where they can report their illness to the CDPH via the city’s Open311 system. The health department then examines those cases the same as it does those received from all other channels.
The Foodborne Chicago Twitter software has a limited, narrow function, but it does its job well. “It’s been hugely successful,” said city spokesman Brian Richardson. “In about 30 to 40 percent of the inspections that take place that come via Twitter, they find a serious or critical violation at that food establishment, which is the same ratio as inspections reported by traditional means. But we’re capturing different people in different reports that we may not otherwise.”
The software has made a quantitative and qualitative impact. Since March 2013, Foodborne Chicago has identified 3,419 tweets referring to food poisoning in Chicago, replied to 392 of those tweets, and 443 reports of food poisoning have been made through the website, which equates to at least 126 violations. The service has also helped the city to build a stronger relationship with some of its residents. Twitter user @hesco182 tweeted, “Who knew that tweeting the word ‘food poisoning’ in Chicago could actually get you a response. Awesome.”
There are limitless opportunities for similar applications around the nation, but there’s reluctance by government to adopt social media beyond simply building a presence on the platforms. Smart Chicago, a civic tech organization connected to the city Department of Innovation and Technology, only succeeded in building Foodborne Chicago after encountering a series of agencies that weren’t interested.
“We’ve tried things like this for other departments, but they never really got traction,” said Cory Nissen, one of the developers of Foodborne Chicago. “But the health department was interested in working with us, and so that’s why it went forward as it did. It’s a combination of sticking it out and trying to find a city department that would work with us.”
An organization like Smart Chicago provides a city with a special opportunity to work on projects that might otherwise be impossible for legal or logistical reasons, said Dan O’Neil, executive director of the group. Smart Chicago was founded by the city, along with the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and The Chicago Community Trust. Its mission is to bring together municipal, philanthropic and corporate investment in civic technology.
“I think it’s a good model for really light collaboration between a government department and civic developers,” O’Neil said. “Smart Chicago is a unique organization that sits in the middle, so we just help facilitate the interaction.”
The future doesn’t come easily in government. Foodborne Chicago is an open source project, so any organization interested in replicating it could do so with minimal work, but few have. New York may have used the code in a similar project, O’Neil said, but he’s not sure any others have. Basic though they are, the foundational processes of archiving, monitoring and analyzing social media data are considered innovations in 2014.
In a decade, those moves will look archaic. The future will consist largely of people cleverly connecting systems to form a tightly integrated network of services. When Chicago monitors Twitter and then manually directs users to a reporting website, the value is evident, but the implementation is inefficient compared to what it could be. A more evolved system could integrate Twitter monitoring software and image recognition systems connected to city street cameras to find and verify potholes, and those systems could be connected to an artificially intelligent personal assistant like x.ai that could schedule repairs through human teams, autonomous drones or even outsource the project through services like TaskRabbit or MuniRent. It may sound overly complex today, but once the connections between those services are made, such automatic functionality will be taken for granted.
Today’s transition from a physical world to a virtual one bears similarity to the changes made when modern banking was first introduced during the Renaissance, said Jonathan Reichental, CIO of Palo Alto, Calif., and such change requires a shift in thinking. Banking introduced people to the idea of credit and then virtual currency. In a world where cloud services are becoming the norm, more pieces of the physical world become trivialized. The winners are determined by their ability to manipulate virtual assets, and it happens in near real time, as evidenced by the speed with which any celebrity can fire out a thoughtless tweet and lose millions in work and endorsements before the sun sets.
“It’s not like the old days where you write a press release and it has to be vetted by 25 people, and then finally it was released,” Reichental said. “The distance between the message and publishing it now is so tight. Here in Silicon Valley, if you’re going to spin up a business, you’re going to do it with a credit card and a computer. That’s it. You’re not going to build anything. Everything’s going to be in the cloud.” For organizations, social media data streams like Twitter represent an almost direct channel to what people are doing, saying and thinking.
Gathering and integrating data from many different sources will enable a new way of operating in every sector. Asthmapolis was launched in 2010 to turn asthma inhalers into data collection devices that can inform health-care organizations, health departments and policymakers. Ted Smith, chief of civic innovation in Louisville, Ky., is now running an air quality monitor project with a similar goal of gathering data to improve public health. Through collaboration of his office and the Institute for Healthy Air, Water and Soil, Smith is combining the public sector’s experience with private-sector innovation to change how decisions are made in government. Social media can fulfill that same function.
Most cities don’t have an office of new urban mechanics and are poorly positioned to innovate, Smith said — government’s strength is in knowing what its challenges are. The private sector and a government’s constituents are the ones who innovate well and have the infrastructure to fuel that innovation. Devices connected to the Internet of Things and social media share a common trait in that they provide a constant stream of fresh data. “If you’re a CIO of a city,” Smith said, “it may not be good enough to work with 60-day-old data on something.”
Boston, with its Office of New Urban Mechanics, is a paragon of today’s transformation from basic to integrated social media functionality. Boston’s now at a turning point in its social media strategy, said Lindsay Crudele, community and social technology strategist at the city’s Department of Innovation and Technology.
“Early on, it was very important for us to build our internal aptitude and think about taking what was before a very decentralized siloed program across the enterprise and really pull that together and integrate it into an internal strategy,” Crudele said. “Now I think the next step involves de-siloing social from the rest of the operations.”
Just as technology in general has experienced an integration into business processes, social media is experiencing an integration into business but is also becoming a vein that runs through all other technologies. Facilitating that change will require a change in mindset, Crudele said. Tech agencies will soon not view social media as one of many projects, but an opportunity to become an integral component of each new project.
Boston recently completed a social media campaign called Boston 101 that targeted new students in the city and engaged an estimated 1.5 million distinct users. “That translated into action by turning over reports of improper living conditions in the college housing community and things we wouldn’t necessarily ordinarily have access to,” Crudele said. Engaging in social media isn’t a virtue in itself, she said — there needs to be some connection to outside processes or systems.
Boston also uses social media to crowdsource the hold music people hear when they call City Hall. It’s an interesting concept, Crudele said, but the next step will be finding a way to make processes like that more automatic so that they’re not just innovative and enriching, but also make the city’s job easier. Just as Chicago uses Twitter to enable a manual notification process, the ultimate value will be derived from automation and deeper integration.
“The most compelling campaigns deliver some kind of result,” Crudele said. “They’re participatory in nature. There are a lot of opportunities to engage with brands and organizations in social, but the most compelling ones are meaningful and the meaning is the end goal, not the fact you’re using a certain tool.”
Colin wrote for Government Technology from 2010 through most of 2016.