Today, more than 2 billion people use social media. These are friends connecting with each other, empowered consumers engaging with their favorite (or least favorite) brands, and most recently, these are citizens reaching out to their local and even federal governments.

As increasingly digital and social populations meet a lingering global economic recession, citizens have greater expectations of their government leaders than ever before — expectations centered on “open” principles such as accessibility, transparency, collaboration and participation. Tapping into this hunger for public engagement — and the voluminous data that results — can help governments in anything from city planning, fraud prevention, public safety, combating traffic jams and event seeking new voters.

These 2 billion social media users are generating huge amounts of data. Finding ways to make sense of it all and to glean insights is a challenge for advertisers, let alone for governments. Big data analytics can give savvy public-sector leaders the ability to tap into public sentiment in real time, and open up public participation in governance, motivating and empowering citizens through a dialogue not previously possible.

Big data analytics makes it possible to measure public sentiment in real time. And combining data from social networks with existing, structured data — including internal documents, phone requests, emails and letters — will lead to even better decision-making that puts citizens first.

For instance, the city of Dubuque, Iowa, combined smart meters and powerful analytics to give its citizens the insights they need to adjust their energy and water consumption. The results are impressive: Up to an 11 percent reduction in electricity usage and a 7 percent reduction in water usage. What’s more impressive is that city council leaders have abundant evidence that its progressive policies and programs are attracting new citizens to put down roots in the city, boosting economic vitality.

When coupled with the increase of mobile technology and the utility that it presents, citizens can oftentimes be inserted directly into the service delivery and decision-making process. In Boston, an app called Street Bump taps into the motion sensors in volunteers’ iPhones to sense and report potholes along roadways. The process is helping route city repair crews to problem spots faster than ever before.

At the same time, with the global economic recession still lingering, government leaders are under pressure by newly engaged citizens to make better choices, deliver results and demonstrate greater accountability.

Take, for instance, the data produced and utilized by government taxation departments, where the management of that data is one of the most important aspects of their operations. The reputation of an entire government can be compromised if the public questions the credibility of the data produced or processed by this department.

The Finance & Local Taxation Bureau of Ningbo, a seaport city in northeast of Zhejiang province in China, was drowning in data that was mostly unreliable and varied. The bureau leaders chose clarity over chaos, and instituted a new system that structures and extracts data in real time.

The bureau is now able to source data from other government departments, such as the central bank, and align it to internal data, such as taxpayer compliance analysis. Its leaders can then recommend providing more services to taxpayers with better tax compliance, stricter management and more limited services to the taxpayer with a history of delinquency. This results in a more appropriate service delivery to citizens, while garnering monetary efficiencies — about RMB$10 million in data file management fees alone — to the government.

But for every success there is also a doubt, a worry and a hesitant civic leader. A new study from IBM is highlighting how big data can be daunting, showcasing that as less traditional, unstructured and other newly sourced data from citizens, businesses and the environment increase — like social media, geospatial location data, voice and video — government leaders' confidence in their competitive advantage waivers.

While the types of big data change, what does not change is the need for governments to be citizen-centric. Big data that borrows on the direct perceptions of citizens is more valuable and more real than an approval poll, and more timely than a census statistic.

Citizen engagement is a big part of big data, so analyzing, sharing and engaging with that data should come naturally to governments. It’s what they have always done, and now’s not the time to stop.