The December attack in San Bernardino prompted people to ask whether the government should be more active in using social media data to anticipate violent behavior. Certainly, social data can be highly valuable, but it has limitations, and agencies should be aware of how best to use it.
Here are some areas where social media can provide valuable insight:
Determining sentiment. It is very useful to understand how citizens feel about certain issues such as a new a policy. Many programs will try to determine sentiment by categorizing certain words as positive or negative, but there are limitations. Something can be said with sarcasm or irony and mean the opposite of what outsiders take at face value. True sentiment analysis must take context into consideration. As humans, we understand things that simple algorithms do not. Short of manually assessing sentiment, agencies should look for programs that incorporate natural language processing, network and demographic mapping, and additional content related to conversations.
Predicting outcomes. What can social media tell us about the future? The USGS has found that real-time tweet data was able to predict earthquakes, often faster than even seismic tools could. Social media has also helped to track epidemics and provide early warnings in cases like Ebola. All of this is done through a process of identifying patterns, assessing trends, and understanding networks. However, it’s worth noting that these predictions are often of near-future events. Predicting how many earthquakes will happen or the strain of next year’s flu is much more difficult. Predicting future outcomes requires strong patterns—the more random or rare the outcome, the less likely we are able to predict it. In addition, agencies shouldn’t expect social media data alone to provide all the answers, but should look to combine it with other data sources as well.
Improving service delivery. Where social data is not exactly a crystal ball with every answer, it is absolutely an opportunity to improve the citizen experience. As pointed out in DigitalGov’s Federal Social Media Analytics Toolkit, benefits include:
- More effective distribution of critical information
- More responsive public programs
- Better-informed strategies
- Increased use of innovative tools and services
Through analyses of social interactions, organizations can determine what’s working and what’s not, what citizens need, and how best to respond. For example, an agency may find that citizens are repeatedly asking the same question, mention difficulty with a particular service, use a hashtag related to a common issue, or seem to be unaware of a new campaign. Each piece of data provides insight to an agency on how to better serve its constituents.
Organizations should look to combine a variety of metrics to get the best picture.
Social data may not have all the answers; alone, it cannot predict every possible outcome, but it is an important piece of the puzzle. Understanding there are limitations to the data as well as privacy issues, there are still many ways social media metrics can help agencies better achieve their missions. Platforms’ built-in analytics, such as Twitter Analytics, Facebook Insights, or Google Analytics, are typically free and a good place to start. For more details on social media analytics, please see DigitalGov Social Media Analytics Toolkit and A Manager's Guide to Assessing the Impact of Social Media Interactions.
Darcie Piechowski is the social media and innovation fellow at the IBM Center for the Business of Government.