Solving your neighbor’s possum problem in the dark? There’s an app for that.

One of the most common aphorisms heard around the Gov 2.0 world is that “potholes are the gateway drugs to civic engagement.”

After a recent report in Boston, maybe Hub pundits can add a new phrase to the lexicon: “possums are the gateway animal to citizens connecting.

As the indefatigable Adam Gaffin reported at Universal Hub, the wonderful hyperlocal blog in Beantown, the Citizens Connect app has now been deployed as Boston’s high tech possum saver.

According to Gaffin’s post, Susan Landibar of South Boston saw a possum report:

“Possum in my trash can. Can’t tell if it’s dead. Barrel in back of 168 west 9th. How do I get this removed?”

And acted upon it:

Labandibar reports:
11:15PM Walked over to West Ninth Street. It’s about three blocks from my house. Locate trash can behind house. Possum? Check. Living? Yep.

Turned the trash can on its side. Walked home. Good night, sweet possum.

When the city of Boston released the Citizens Connect application, which works on Android phones and iPhones, officials no doubt expected it to help constituents report potholes, graffiti, unplowed snow and trash removal.

And indeed, if you look through the list of reported issues, that’s the bulk of it.

After today, however, the city can add “possum problems” to the list of resolved issues. Crucially, however, it wasn’t the city that fixed it: it was a fellow citizen who saw an issue using the app and then went and took care of it herself.

For good or ill, this example of “do it ourselves” government is a data point that may be increasingly relevant. Plummeting city budgets mean smarter cities will need citizen sensors to detect issues and take civic pride into their own hands. As Gov 2.0 goes local, applications that connect citizens to one another in crises may become as important as technologies that connect citizens to government, like Citizens Connect.

As the role of the Internet as a platform for collective action grows, Clay Shirky may be proven prescient: “We have historically overestimated the value of access to information and underestimated the value of access to one another.”

Why does government social media use matter to citizens?

An important role of technology journalists in the 21st century is to explain how broader trends that are changing technology, government and civic society relate to average citizens. Some have called this broader trend towards smarter, more agile government that leverage technology “Gov 2.0.” (Readers of this blog are no doubt familiar with the term.) When you dig into the topic, you can get stuck in a lot of buzzwords and jargon quickly. Most people don’t care about how a satellite gets into orbit, the release of community health data or the standards of an API for product recalls. They care quite a bit, however, about whether their GPS receiver enables them to get to a job interview, if a search engine can show them ER waiting room times and quality statistics, or if a cradle for their baby is safe. Those wonky policies can lead to better outcomes for citizens.

If you follow Mashable, you might have read about the ways that social media promotes good health or how government works better with social media.

The following stories have little to do with technology buzzwords and everything to do with impact. Following are five stories about government 2.0 that matter to citizens, with issues that literally come home to everyone.

1) The Consumer Product Safety Commission has launched a public complaints database at SaferProducts.gov. You could think of it as a Yelp for government, or simply as a place where consumers could go to see what was safe. Add that to the mobile recalls application that people can already use to see whether a product has been recalled.

2) The new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau will use technology to listen to citizens online to detect fraud. If you haven’t heard, DC has a new startup agency. That hasn’t happened in a long time. Your could think of it as Mint.gov mashed up with HealthCare.gov. The CFPB plans to use technology in a number of unprecedented ways for fraud detection, including crowdsourcing consumer complaints and trends analysis. Given how much financial fraud has affected citizens in recent years,and how much of the anger that the public holds for the bailouts of banks remains, whether this agency leveraging technology well will matter to many citizens.

3) Social data and geospatial mapping join the crisis response toolset. Historic floods in Australia caused serious damage and deaths. Government workers used next-generation technology that pulled in social media in Australia and mapped the instances using geospatial tools so that first responders could help citizens faster, more efficiently and more effectively. It’s an excellent example of how an enterprise software provider (ESRI) partnered with an open source platform (Ushahidi) to help government workers use social media to help people.

4) New geolocation app connects first responders to heart attack victims.The average citizen will never need to know what Web 2.0 or Gov 2.0 means. Tens of thousands, however, will have heart attacks every year. With a new geolocation mobile application that connects citizen first responders to heart attack victims, connected citizens trained in CPR now have a new tool to help them save lives.

Better access to information about food safety, product recalls and financial fraud will help citizens around the country. Improvements to the ability of government workers to direct help in a disastrous flood or for citizens to receive immediate help from a trained first responder in an emergency are important developments. As 2011 takes shape, the need for government to use social media well has become more important than ever. That’s why the perspective of government officials like FEMA administrator Craig Fugate matter.

“We work for the people, so why can’t they be part of the solution? “
said Fugate, speaking to delegates from the distributed chapters of Crisis Commons assembled at FEMA headquarters. “The public is a resource, not a 
liability.”

For example, Fugate said that FEMA used reporters’ tweets during Hurricane Ike for
 situational awareness. “We’ve seen mashups providing better info than
 the government.” Listening and acting upon those digital cries for help on social media during crisis could literally be a matter of life and death.

Whether government can adapt to a disrupted media landscape and the new realities of information consumption is of substantial interest to many observers, both inside and out of government. Whether government can be smarter, agile and more effective is a great interest to all.

New iPhone app connects trained citizens to others in cardiac distress

In 2011, there needs to be a better way to empower citizens trained in CPR to receive alerts about nearby cardiac arrest victims with geolocated maps and the location of electronic defribrillators to help them.

Now, there’s an app for that too: firedepartment.mobi. The new new geolocation app connects citizen first responders to heart attack victims in San Ramon. FireDepartment can be downloaded directly from iTunes.

Today the San Ramon Valley Fire Protection District (SRVFPD) in California launched a iPhone app that will dispatch trained citizens to help others in cardiac emergencies. This new application is the latest evolution of the role of citizens as sensors, where resources and information are connected to those who need it most in the moment. This FireDepartment app is also an important example of Gov 2.0, where a forward looking organization created a platform for citizens to help each another in crises and planned to make the underlying code available for civic developers to improve on. Given context and information, trained citizens in San Ramone will now be able to do more than alert authorities and share information: they can act to save lives. Here’s a demo of the app:

iPhone Demo from Fire Department on Vimeo.

Adriel Hampton called FireDepartment the perfect blend of technology, government and volunteers. Can an everyday citizen become a hero? As Joe Hackman observed, “Today it just got a lot easier.”


Open Government in California: Connecting Citizens To eServices with Social Media

Can state governments deliver more services with constrained budgets? How can social media and collaborative software be used to engage citizens and lead to better policy decisions or investments? Can open government lead to better e-government?

Open government, e-government and We government

That’s a reciprocal relationship I wondered about earlier this year, when I visited the Social Security Administration.

My central analysis after the visit was that open government is a mindset.

Thinking about that topic brought me back to the a day earlier this year when I interviewed Carolyn Lawson about precisely these issues. Lawson is the Deputy Director, Technology Services Governance Division, Director of the eServices Office of the state of California.

Our interview is embedded below. Following is a longer discussion into the ways that California government agencies are using social media to connect citizens to e-services.

Earlier in the day, I’d reported on her talk at the Gov 2.0 Expo.

“What we have to do is open up the conversation about what it means to be a public servant,” said Lawson, kicking off the Expo’s first session. In “Navigating the Maze, Lawson offered guidance, perspective, case studies and, appropriate to the topic of social media in government, lively give and take between the audience and presenter. Lawson explored the many ways that the state of California has employed e-services and online engagement strategies, along with a simple driver: cost.

“Our workforce is furloughed three times a month,” said Lawson. “It’s really painful. Our exploding population really needs services.”

The reality of California’s budget woes come at a time when the expectation for government to be responsive online has never been higher. “Immediate access to data has become a cultural expectation,” she said.“The expectation is there now that government will be open, honest and will communicate.”

Lawson described how both the California Unemployment Office and the Department of Motor Vehicles have used social media and online platforms to deliver better services without additional cost.

“You can tweet @CA_EDD and get answers like how long until you get a check, where to go on the website or job fairs,” said Lawson. “I don’t think the creators of Twitter thought it would be a helpdesk for EDD.” That social response is paired by e-government services that enable workers to file for unemployment online. Lawson said that online applications for unemployment went up by about 1.8 million from the previous year. “What would have happened if we’d blocked that?”

California is using other online platforms and technologies to deliver services that have been affected by budget woes. California couldn’t afford to offer driver training in schools, explained Lawson. “Something had to be cut. What the DMV did, since they already had YouTube videos, is to create an entire curriculum.” The California DMV YouTube channel provides the means for every high school to watch training videos like the one below without additional cost:

“We were thinking of this a culturally relevant tool, not as a forum for expression” said Lawson. “These videos have more than nine million views. If we weren’t government, they’d be calling that viral. It’s all about being where people are.”

And, on that count, the @CA_DMV has developed an iPhone app, DMV Now.

Lawson strongly defended both the importance of the role that social media engagement plays for the California state government and its utility. “Technology is not driving Web 2.0, Twitter or Facebook.,” she said. “People are driving these services. And blocking Web 2.0 isn’t going to solve your problems.”

She made the analogy to the conversations about the telephone in the workplace in the early 20th century, or email in the 1990s. “What we do as a government when we cut off the ability to communicate through the Web 2.0 world is to remove our ability to be culturally relevant,” she said.

Adopting social software or connection technology usage that emphasize protocol over common sense can be problematic as well.

“One of the things that kills government’s ability to use social media is speaking to employees in terms of thou shalt, thou shalt not,” said Lawson. She shared a public available wiki of government social media resource that offers some best practices and frameworks for discussion or practice.

Lawson observed that California itself is still evolving in how it uses social media. “We still have many departments blocking the governor’s Twitter,” she said, alluding to Governor @Schwarzenegger’s massively popular account. The challenge, as Lawson posed it, is to show how government use of social media combines with open data initiatives. “What are we afraid of? The consequences of transparent. We were really afraid of crowdsourcing ideas to improve California IT with Ideasalce. We got beat up – but we also got ideas. We’re the government: we’re going to get beat up. You can’t take it personally.”

Lawson broadly described a cultural shift going towards open government brought about by the Obama admin, though she recognized that many efforts had gone on before. “This is being pushed through by Obama’s transparency initiatives,” she said. “It used to be revolutionary for public documents to be available in a municipal building to people walking in. No more.”

So how should an organization tackle objections that put social media age into a technology issue, rather than a management challenge? “That’s where I have my ‘activity or accomplish’ conversation,” said Lawson. “Is this that conversation about the telephone in 1920s? Or is it something that we need to do to protect our data and information? You have to get people engaged in the conversation. That took us more than a year. If you can relate behavior to behavior to technology, that’s where you have a win.”

The bottom line is that nobody has this all figured out yet, said Lawson. “You just have to work your way through it.”