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Will Washington, D.C., Make the Grade?

Mayor Vincent Gray’s office is harnessing citizen feedback using social media analytics, and plans to assign grades to agencies.

by / June 26, 2012
Don Baxter/Media Images International/Flickr CC

District of Columbia Mayor Vincent Gray and members of his economic development staff participated in a meeting early this year with a homegrown technology startup that provides customer intelligence by scraping and analyzing comments submitted via social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook. With a client list made up primarily of restaurants and hotels, newBrandAnalytics had found a successful niche with its proprietary software that turns customer experience data into actionable information that businesses can use to improve their service and operations.

How It Works

NewBrandAnalytics uses a proprietary algorithm to generate actionable data analytics from social media activity, using this four-step process:

Data acquisition – All relevant online commentary is captured on a location-specific basis.

Processing –Every word of every post is read to extract each and every insight.

Analysis – Algorithms appropriate to each industry organize insights into appropriate categories.

Dashboards – Several layers of analysis are presented in an easy-to-read dashboard style.

Source: newBrandAnalytics

The Washington D.C. based-company was rapidly outgrowing its office space and was considering an out-of-state move to house its growing workforce. Like many civic leaders, Gray wanted to keep the flourishing company in the community. But he took this tech retention strategy one step further.

Pedro Ribeiro, the mayor’s director of communications, explained to Government Technology that Gray posed a pivotal question during that meeting that foretold the start of a successful partnership between his office and the social media analytics firm. He wondered simply, why wasn’t government using a tool like this?

In June, Gray’s office launched a new initiative aimed at capturing feedback from D.C. residents on public-facing government services. Using Grade.DC.Gov, citizens are encouraged to submit feedback on their experiences, in order to provide officials with information that can help improve customer service.

The Grade.DC.Gov project is actively tracking feedback on five of Washington, D.C.’s most visible agencies. A Web-based feedback form is now available to record detailed feedback about the departments of Motor Vehicles, Transportation, Public Works, Parks and Recreation, and Consumer and Regulatory Affairs. D.C. residents also are encouraged to weigh in via their social network of choice, such as Twitter and Facebook.

Susan Ganeshan, newBrandAnalytics’ chief marketing officer, explained the company’s philosophy that makes it a natural fit for the private and public sectors alike. “We believe that every voice deserves to be heard, and that there's tons of information that people are willing to supply you if there's an avenue for it — and if they know that as they supply that data, somebody is listening.”

Why Does DMV ‘Suck’?

The idea is that the more specific the feedback, the likelier the agency will be able to act upon it and make strides to improve. A communications effort is now in progress to encourage detailed comments from the public. Ribeiro explained that the act of relaying information about the public’s general distaste for the DMV will weigh into the overall agency evaluation, but it doesn’t help administrators make things better.

The mayor’s office intends to publish in July an initial set of grades for each department. In the fall, 10 additional departments will be added to the platform. Future plans also include a mechanism for providing a real-time view for the public into each agency’s current grade. As of now, designated users in the mayor’s office and from each agency have access to the customer data.

City staff log into a website offering a real-time view of feedback to date. Users can see where comments are coming from, as well as general and specific views of the nature of the feedback. Employees can also access individual comments in order to respond. In the first 11 days of the program, nearly 250 comments were received.

“The key for us is to take that data and make it actionable,” Ribeiro said. “We're not really so much concerned about what the initial grades are. We're concerned about the trajectory of the grades.”
D.C. officials believe their program is the first of its kind in the nation. They are working closely with newBrandAnalytics to establish exactly how the software’s algorithm will generate the grades it seeks for its departments.

“Because we're the first government to ever do this, there's no benchmark for us to start with,” Ribeiro explained.

Image: A sample screen shot shows the kind of data restaurant customers receive. Courtesy of newBrandAnalytics.

Ganeshan reported that the District of Columbia is newBrandAnalytics’ first public-sector client, but Ganeshan said the software can effectively monitor customer insights across many different kinds of industries.

“These organizations that use our software care about customer feedback, they care about their brand and the appearance of their brand in the marketplace, and they take it very seriously,” Ganeshan said.

While the terminology may differ, it’s easy to see how these goals translate to the public sector. With the move toward increased transparency and open government, other government agencies may follow suit.

“We are thrilled to work with an innovative, District-based company that is part of our fast-growing tech-business sector on this groundbreaking project,” said Gray, in a statement released when launched on June 13. “We are excited about applying cutting-edge technology from the private sector to the task of ensuring that D.C. residents receive the best customer service possible from their government.”

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Noelle Knell Editor

Government Technology editor Noelle Knell has more than 15 years of writing and editing experience, covering public projects, transportation, business and technology. A California native, she has worked in both state and local government, and is a graduate of the University of California, Davis, with majors in political science and American history. She can be reached via email and on Twitter.

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