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3 Ways Social Media is Improving Government

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In my last post, I wrote about advanced sharing—basically the idea that the things and the way we share online are becoming as diverse and sophisticated as the things and way we share off-line.  Offline, we donate our time, we lend our friends and neighbors our tools, we check books out of the library, we talk about personal matters with one friend and shopping or style with another, we confide in our spouses exclusively in some areas (our finances, a possible example), and don’t have to talk with them about others (our bunions, a possible example).

But I left the question unanswered: how does this advanced sharing help government agencies in the ways that I laid out at the beginning of this series?  Here’s how:

Real-time data collection and analysis to drive decision-making

One of the critical components in real-time data collection is knowing where to go to find the data.  As people become more adept at how to share various kinds of information and goods online, government agencies can use those tools as well to answer more finely tuned questions.

For example, an application called Park Circa allows urban residents to rent out their parking spaces or drive ways—that is, they can share them in exchange for money.  By seeing where and when commuters are using the app, government managers can better understand real-time parking needs in their cities.

Government managers who are looking for citizen-generated data also have more options than ever to solicit it.  The US Geological Survey, as I’ve written about before, used Twitter to help track earthquake information, for example.  But there are other, more tightly-focused social networks where people share other types of information. 

Patients Like Me is an example of a community in which people share information that they may well be unwilling to discuss in open forums like Twitter or Facebook.  An organization like the NIH, CDC, or FDA might have an interest in seeing how patients are reacting to new medications, treatment regimens, or recall notices.  Seeing, in real-time, how people are responding to new information allows agencies to adapt their own operations quickly.

Efficient use of physical and digital communication networks

What makes advanced sharing so powerful is that instead of sending out the same message through different social media channels, hoping to find the desired audience, agencies can see how their target audience is using social media and tailor both their message and their medium. 

An example I noted recently was how government agencies could use Pinterest in ways that were more efficient than using other social media.  A case in point could be the US Mint putting up a Pinterest board with all of its collectible coins.  Amateur numismatists could scan the page visually, looking for additions to their collections in a way that they cannot do through a text-based interface.  They can also share their collection more easily online, sparking interest in the coins the mint is selling.  The US Postal Service already has many Pinboards dedicated to stamp collections that encourages philatelists in this manner.

Government agencies can also benefit from sharing things as well as information online.  In my post on Products-on-Demand (PonD), I demonstrated how people can share things at a distance by putting their code online, either for free or for a price.  Peer-to-peer car sharing may also appeal to some agencies, for example, if a four-wheel drive vehicle is needed near necessary personnel in the aftermath of a snow emergency.

Managing citizen participation in agency activities

When government managers fully understand how their audiences share online, they will be much better able to manage their activities easily—often with a much lighter touch than was possible even a few years ago.  Communities can become self-organizing and self-managing, as is happening around the Old Weather program, which has a robust community forum. 

Of course, as people become more sophisticated about sharing online, and as the places that we share and the activities we engage in both broaden and deepen, we find ourselves faced with a new, urgent need: to manage our identity.  Do we need to provide our credentials—where we live, our educational history, our professional qualifications, our age, gender, medical conditions—to every community? 

Identity management, which I wrote about here, is the final emerging trend that I’ll write about in this series.

Image via Peshkova/

Gadi Ben-Yehuda is the Director of Innovation and Social Media for the IBM Center for The Business of Government. Previously, he was a Web Strategist for the District of Columbia's Office of the Chief Technology Officer. He has taught creative, expository, and Web writing for more than 10 years to university students, private-sector professionals, and soldiers. He has an MFA in poetry from American University, has taught writing at Howard University, and has worked in Washington, DC, for nonprofits, lobbying organizations, Fleishman-Hillard Global Communications, and Al Gore's 2000 presidential campaign.

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