A set of technologies named "Web 2.0" is transforming the Internet. Sites such as YouTube, Myspace and Facebook plus RSS feeds, blogs and wiki's attract hundreds of millions of people. Yet this transformation by Web 2.0 of government is just now beginning. How might it occur?
Web 2.0 and goverment are both about building community and connecting people.
The term "web 2.0" covers a lot of territory and a lot of sins (see footnote). But Web 2.0 services and technologies are transforming the Internet into a set of connected-communities which allow people to interact with each other in new and distinct ways.
Government is, by our very nature, all about "community." All governments have very distinct boundaries - city limits, county lines. The community a government serves is everyone living inside those boundaries. Each government community elects its leaders, has councils or commissions or legislatures to make laws (and who, themselves, are a "community" of sorts), and elected officials are continually trying to connect back to their communities for input and ideas. And re-election, of course!
Government is a group of people - citizens or constituents - doing together what they cannot do as individuals or what they cannot obtain from private business. As specific examples, most of us would not want individuals or private businesses to manage a street network, or to create and maintain parks, or to run police or fire departments. In the end, "government is community."
So Web 2.0 - community building tools - seem (theoretically) tailor-made for government.
Potential Uses of Web 2.0 in Government
How, then, can government use Web 2.0 tools to make better community? Here are some ideas and examples:
1. Social networking. Myspace, Facebook, Linkedin, even Second Life have truly broken new ground. They allow individuals to establish a new, online, presence to interact with other members of their online community. Government also promotes small groups in communities - anti-crime Blockwatches, or SNAP team neighborhood disaster recovery groups, or legislative districts for example. Having (secure) social networking sites for these community groups to interact, to learn from each other and educate themselves has great promise.
2. Blogging. Moderated blogs with interactive comments are, potentially, a good way for elected officials to hear input from constituents and interact with constituents. They might be a supplement to public meetings in the community. We have many kinks to work out with this, because too many blogs (and public meetings) are monopolized by a few, self-anointed citizen-activists. And moderating a blog is a lot of time and effort for a government agency.
3. Video and images. YouTube is the new-ground-breaker in this arena. Governments could use such sites to allow residents and visitors to post video of their favorite places to visit in the jurisdiction, dangerous places (intersections, sidewalks, overgrown vegetation), and special events. It would help build community if, for example, visitor video of the Folklife Festival could be posted on a SeattleTube site for all to share. (Folklife is a popular music and crafts festival held at Seattle Center, at the foot of the Space Needle, each Memorial Day). People could even post "sound off" video bites with their opinions on certain subjects. The Seattle Channel will often video tape people on the street with questions for their elected officials, and then pose those questions online in Ask the Mayor or City Inside-Out: Council Edition.
4. Interactive surveys. Online surveys via Zoomerang and Survey Monkey are ubiquitous. Surveys could help elected officials gauge the mood of a city's residents on any particular topic. Like all online surveys, however, activists and special interest groups can rig the results by "voting early and often". Such surveys won't be statistically valid. It might be possible to combine traditional surveying techniques (calling folks on the phone - itself becoming less valid as people shed their published
phone numbers for cell phones) with online surveys.
5. Wiki's - internal. Wiki's certainly have great promise internal to government. We break government up into departments, each with its own unique functions. Departments tend to be silo'ed groups - cross-department communication is hard. Wiki's or SharePoint could be used to standardize a lot of business processes, functions and terms across an entire government. Just simple processes such as "how to handle a public disclosure request" or "how to pay a vendor invoice" are susceptible to documentation and improvement by Wiki. Certainly such processes can be documented and put on static web-pages on a government intranet today. But the advantage of a Wiki is that many many more employees are involved in creating and editing the content, so the process happens faster and employees actually read it and use it because they are involved in it.
6. Wiki's - external processes. I see a couple fundamental uses for external Wiki's. One is processes for interacting with government. How do you recycle a computer? What do you do if a refrigerator is found in the median of a boulevard? How do you apply for and use food stamps? Again, much of this information can be posted online via public web pages maintained by government employees. But the advantage of using a Wiki is that the "whole story" in questions like this can be much broader than a single government agency. In the computer recycling example, there are many people with many ideas. Some are involved in recycling, others are environmentalists, and there are employees from multiple agencies who might contribute ideas to "recycling a computer". So an interactive wiki will give new dimensions to the ideas.
7. Wiki's - external - deciphering. A second class of uses is deciphering government. For example, most of us who work in government have at least some idea of how to build a budget and what our own budget contains. But for constituents and residents government budgets are just that much more gobbledygook. A budget wiki could not only foster voter understanding of the budget, but might provide meaningful input to it, rather than having a series of special interest groups coming to the table demanding funding of their unique programs. Individuals inside and outside government could contribute to editing such wiki's.
8. Mashups. Governments are fundamentally about geography - the city limits or county lines I mentioned earlier. Much of what government does is geographically based - providing water or solving crimes or parks. Mashups of data against maps or mashups of any sort of information against other information can give new insights. One specific example of this is mapping of 911 calls (fire, medical emergencies) in Seattle on My Neighborhood Map.
9. Next generation 911. While this isn't technically Web 2.0, NG911 has many interesting possibilities. Essentially, now, if you need 911 for police, fire or emergency medical services, you telephone 911. But with cell phone cameras, cheap video cameras, text messages and many other ways of connecting and interacting technologically, 911 has the potential to do much more. The day will come when someone will witness a crime, snap a photo of the criminal, transmit it to the 911 center, who will, in turn, transmit it to police officers in the field who will make an arrest while speeding to the scene of the crime.
10. Customer service and customer feedback via blogs and Wiki's. While this isn't technically a separate technology, I believe it merits special mention. As the ability of government to interact with constituents and customers improves with Web 2.0 tools, government agencies and employees will get a LOT more feedback. About things we are doing right, and things we are doing wrong and things which we've chosen to do but are not ... ah .. "universally loved". Do we really want to be that transparent?
Common Challenges for Web 2.0 and Government
Many of these Web 2.0 technologies pose special challenges for government. We'll have to work through these challenges. I'll mention a few of them here.
1. The "frequent flyer" or "citizen activist". Every elected official knows these folks - they are the ones who grab your arm at a public meeting to rant about that crosswalk in their neighborhood or the lack of affordable housing. They monopolize public meetings and rally their supporters with mass e-mail campaigns. Most of the technologies above are also susceptible to such techniques. About all I can say is that, with these Web 2.0 tools, the "normal" constituent has additional paths to interact with elected officials.
2. Digital divide. Many people - especially those of limited income who are often immigrants and people of color - still don't have access to computers and the Internet. Web 2.0 may very well give others even more of a voice in their government.
3. Overload. While extra feedback and input is "good", it also will require even more legislative assistants and other government employees to moderate blogs, dispatch requests for service, and respond to constituents.
4. Offensive Content. There is a specific minority of people who feel compelled to use offensive four-letter words to express their ideas or characterize elected officials and government in general. This means that blogs, social networking sites and video/photo submissions will all need to be monitored and moderated. That, in turn, may lead to charges of censorship of ideas.
5. Censorship and public disclosure. Most jurisdictions have FOIA or public disclosure laws which require archiving of public records. All these Web 2.0 technologies will increase the volume of material to be archived and potentially turned over to the public with FOIA requests. This, in turn, will require better and more expensive archival and search technologies.
6. A balanced picture. Elected officials, overwhelming, seek input from constituents on all matter of public issues. And the response is - overwhelmingly - apathy. Obtaining a true picture of what constituents think, even with Web 2.0, will be difficult. And I hasten to add that all techniques - including traditional ones such as public meetings and e-mail (yes, I guess it is "traditional" now) have this problem. There are only so many issues an individual or government official can pay attention to!
While governments grapple with the possibilities and implications of Web 2.0, it is worth noting that Web 3.0 is hot on our heels. Web 3.0 is a subject for another time, but I'll tantalize you with this tidbit: truly high speed broadband is coming with fiber-to-the-premise, 100 megabit per second symmetric networks. Such networks allow a whole host of new tools and techniques such as two-way HDTV and high-quality interactive gaming. Ah, what a wonderful world the 21st Century is becoming!
Footnote: Web 2.0 Sins
A "sin" in this context is using a fancy new term to either (1) misrepresent something that is actually pretty old, or (2) hype some vaporware or non-existent or largely useless technology, or (3) promote something unethical or immoral or borderline legal by encasing it in the glitter of new technology. Examples of these sins are (1) "blogging" when really you are just posting content on a web page and expecting folks to "comment" via e-mail; or (2) Facebook's failed 2007 attempt, with "Beacon" to allow users to track their friends' activities on the new while at the same time trying to sell more "stuff" to these same users
Bill Shrier is Chief Technology Officer for the City of Seattle.
Illustration by Daniel F. Pigatto. Creative Common License Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic