Twitter: A Primer for Public CIOs

Twitter is more than just micro-blogging.

by / January 12, 2009

With the growing abundance of Web 2.0 applications and services, it can be difficult for CIOs to decide which technologies are worth exploring. One tool that has begun to take the public sector by storm is Twitter, a free social networking and micro-blogging service launched in March 2006.

Once a small side project developed in San Francisco, Twitter has become a worldwide service that connects more than 4 million users. Although it was created primarily to keep friends, family and co-workers connected, agencies within the public sector have begun to use Twitter for everything from announcing traffic alerts to holding virtual press conferences.

Below are the facts public CIOs must know in order to understand, and innovatively utilize, Twitter.

What Is It? How Does It Work? The Facts

Twitter is a real-time short messaging service through which users provide brief updates regarding themselves and any other relevant information. These updates, or "tweets," are no longer than 140 characters, and can be sent and received by users via the Twitter Web site, text messaging, RSS and applications such as Tweetie and Twinkle. A user's text-based messages appear on his or her profile page, and are sent to other users, or "followers," who have signed up to receive them. Users can choose whose "tweets" they receive, when they receive them, and on what device.

Uses in the Public Sector

One of the most widely used government applications of Twitter is for emergency notification and public safety. Police can post crime updates, fire departments can inform citizens about local fires, and state departments of transportation can announce traffic alerts. The Los Angeles Fire Department provides citizens with updates on structural fires, offering information on the number of responding firefighters as well as the number of injuries and casualties. The Portland, Ore., Police Bureau even uses Twitter to ask citizens for information in cold cases.

Twitter has also been used by the public sector to establish a dialog between citizens and the government. On Dec. 30, 2008, the Consulate General of Israel in New York held a worldwide press conference via Twitter, taking people's questions regarding Hamas and the situation in Gaza.

Twitter has also been used by agencies such as the Peace Corps and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to announce press releases. Various governors' offices, including those of Govs. Jennifer Granholm of Michigan and Arnold Schwarzenegger of California, have created Twitters to distribute news releases to citizens.

Who Is Using Twitter in the Public Sector?

Barack Obama's Twitter account has perhaps the largest following of any government official, with more than 160,000 followers. His twitter provided daily updates on his whereabouts during the campaign, as well as links to video footage and news reports. Joe Biden is also a Twitter user.

In October 2007, the Los Angeles Fire Department used Twitter to provide updates on the California wildfires.

The Washington State Department of Transportation posts traffic alerts and route changes for ferries on Twitter.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration tweets often to provide

updates on foods recently deemed unsafe.

A number of members of Congress are also Twitter users, including Tim Ryan and Roy Blunt. Some congressmen, including Pete Hoekstra, have tweeted on their opinions of various House decisions.


As with all new forms of technology and social networking, safety is an issue. On Jan. 5, for example, hackers compromised 33 Twitter accounts, even posting false tweets on Barack Obama and Bill O'Reilly's profiles. A recent phishing scam also redirected Twitter users to fake links and fraudulent Web sites. Twitter creators claim, however, that they are working to improve the security of user accounts.

While some may find that 140-character limit helps simplify messages and prevent information overload, others may believe that 140 characters isn't always enough. One solution utilized by the Los Angeles Fire Department is to post only the most critical information, and then include a Web address for TinyURL, a service that creates a short address for longer URLs. By clicking on the link, followers can read the rest of the message. Another solution is using applications such as Twitzer, which allow users to post messages longer than 140 characters.

Perhaps the biggest challenge for public-sector tweeting is viewership. With the exception of Barack Obama, most governments have failed to attract a large number of followers. This has been an issue for other Web 2.0 technologies utilized by the government, including YouTube.

Glossary of Terms

Tweets: User updates which are posted on the user's account and sent to anyone who subscribes to the account. These updates are text-based posts up to 140 characters in length.
Tweeting: The action of posting updates, or "tweets."
Followers: Users who subscribe to a fellow user's account, gaining access to their "tweets."


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