A former local newspaper reporter, Tanveer is a student at the Medill School of Journalism learning all things digital and entrepreneurial. He also writes about political figures for WhoRunsGov.com and hopes to own the high score on multiple Ms. Pac-Man machines one day.
While many government agencies still tend to employ the “broadcast” model when using social media, some are engaging through hashtags, community building initiatives, and geo-location analysis. These efforts are helping to better inform the public and alert them to public safety emergencies in real-time.
Here are ways other government agencies, from local law enforcement to the National Weather Service, are seizing on these tools to improve their services.
Building a Transparent Community
At the most basic level, social media is about community building. Government agencies have adopted this mindset to varying degrees as a way to foster trust and dialogue with people. “It is truly a national town hall that has never been attempted during a disaster,” said Commander James Hoeft of the U.S. Navy, who oversees the cleanup effort’s social media team.
The idea has been implemented in parts of the U.S. government to varying degrees. In 2008, Admiral Thad Allen of the U.S. Coast Guard sent out a service-wide message saying, “[To] modernize the Coast Guard we must learn how to effectively use social media tools to enhance our ability to perform as a more transparent, change-centric organization.”
The Coast Guard has since deployed a series of Flickr, YouTube and Twitter accounts, both at the headquarters and regional levels, as a part of The Coast Guard Compass. Some are better than others, with many serving simply as multimedia RSS feeds. But there are stars, like the Twitter feed for the Portsmouth, VA-based District Five, which discusses their latest coastal rescue operations.
Much like the Coast Guard, the Federal Emergency Management Agency also has a multichannel scheme in social media. Its FEMA in Focus Twitter feed serves as a way to disseminate information in a timely way. The agency has a series of regional accounts, as well.
At the local law enforcement level, Web 2.0 technology has been implemented in some departments to give people details about what officers have been up to. At the Bellevue Police Department in Nebraska, Twitter is used to solicit help from the public and Facebook is used as a comment and complaint board for residents. In Great Britain, the Merseyside Police website personalizes information according to neighborhood, also appealing to the public for help as needed.
Social Media as a Real-Time Investigation and Response Tool
While the more traditional means of sharing information with people, such as press conferences or releases, will always be necessary to brief the public in detail about events, agencies are turning to social media to keep the public informed in real-time.
On April 3rd, Detective Chief Inspector Mark Payne of the West Midlands Police in the United Kingdom used Tweetdeck to keep an eye on demonstrations involving two controversial and politically opposed groups; the English Defence League and Unite Against Fascism. He checked out Facebook rumors of stabbings and vandalism, and posted on Twitter when the information was found to be false — potentially quelling violent backlash. “This is groundbreaking stuff for policing in the UK. We have used social media as a broadcast platform during protests in the past, but we have not had immediate updates from officers on the ground, enabling two-way conversations,” Payne wrote after the event.
Lauri Stevens, a Massachusetts-based social media consultant for law enforcement, said that such tools have been key in enhancing the reputation of agencies. “Cops are just getting the interactive engagement thing,” Stevens said. “I think the law enforcement’s policy should state you have to be competent with this stuff.”
Tracking and Creating Hashtags
Law enforcement and emergency response agencies alike are also becoming more sophisticated in how they use Twitter. While monitoring hashtags is commonplace, some agencies are creating them to denote specific social media priorities — particularly, getting users to document certain events.
The National Weather Service is enlisting the help of Twitter users, asking them to use the hashtag #wxreport to share significant weather reports. The website gives precise instructions for how to report damaging winds, snow, hail, tornadoes and other potentially serious weather events. As the website notes, the project is “experimental.”
Spot Trends Before Science Can
Researchers at government agencies are experimenting with social media to try and spot possible issues and trends before more scientific measurements can be taken.
During last year’s H1N1 outbreak, the Internet famously took a starring role in illustrating how the swine flu epidemic was spreading across the globe. Now, a group including researchers from City University London, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) and Britain’s National Health Service are teaming up ahead of the 2012 London Olympics to develop ways to detect and respond to epidemics via Twitter.
Funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the U.S. Geological Survey’s Twitter Earthquake Detector (@USGSTed) is a prototype that gathers real-time Twitter updates during seismic activities faster than scientific equipment can be tapped for more precise measurements and alerts. It examines earthquakes at an anecdotal level, and complements scientific analysis, according to the project’s overseer, Paul Earle.
“The skepticism comes when they think we are trying to provide public alerts that an earthquake has happened based on Twitter information,” Earle said. “We’re not doing that, we are augmenting our current tools.”
For government agencies, social media not only sends and gathers information instantaneously — it fosters relationships and trust, while encouraging users to share important information. While not all social media use needs to be creative, agency engagement with these platforms can help show people that government organizations are listening.