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.

How GIS technology and social media helped crisis response in Australia

As a new article at the O’Reilly Radar showed today, social data and geospatial mapping have joined the crisis response toolset. A new online application from geospatial mapping giant ESRI applies trend analysis to help responders to Australia’s recent floods create relevance and context from social media reporting. The Australian flood trends map shows how crowdsourced social intelligence provided by Ushahidi enables emergency social data to be integrated into crisis response in a meaningful way.

The combination of Ushahidi and ESRI in Australia shows that “formal and innovative approaches to information collection and analysis during disasters is possible,” said Patrick Meier, “and that there is an interface that can be crafted between official and non-official responses.” Meier is a research fellow at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative and director of crisis mapping at Ushahidi and was reached via email.

Russ Johnson, ESRI’s global director for emergency response, recently spoke with the correspondent at the ESRI federal user conference in Washington, D.C. Johnson spent 32 years as a federal employee in southern California, predominantly working in the U.S. Forest Service. He was one of the pioneers who built up the FEMA incident response system, and he commanded one of the 18 teams around the nation that deploy assets in the wake of floods, fires and other disasters. At ESRI, Johnson helps the company understand the workflow and relevance of GIS for first-response operations. Our full interview is embedded below in the following video.

The world of crisis response has changed dramatically in the past several years, said Johnson. The beauty of the present historic moment is that “everybody can be a sensor,” said Johnson. “Everybody is potentially part of the network. The struggle that operators have is taking all of that free form data and trying to put into some sort of framework that makes it accurate.”

Emergency and crisis responders are faced with significant cultural barriers that have nothing to do with logging on to a website or configuring a new account, explained Johnson. “Public safety organizations are really, really resistant to change,” he said. “Technology has frightened a lot of people before social media was a new data source. It’s a new challenge that’s threatening to a lot of people. The question I pose is simple. Let’s use the first responder scenario, where you have 4-6 minutes from the time you get the call. the expectation is you’ll be on scene. Think about the possibility that before you arrive, thousands of people will have video on YouTube. They may have more situation awareness. When you arrive, you’ll be videoed, watched, and critiqued. Shouldn’t you consider that data if it can help you deploy more safely or effectively?”

Johnson said that he really likes FEMA director Fugate’s philosophy and operational mentality in that context. Fugate has emphasized that he believes the public can be a resource in crises, instead of a hindrance. The current FEMA chief is tapping social media’s potential for aiding disaster response. “There are times when agencies can’t get good intelligence,” said Johnson. “I cannot tell you how many times where we had televisions and the best information we were getting was from CNN or helicopters. There are times when it may be wrong but I’d rather have it be part of our mashup of data to help validate and inform responders.”

The technology itself has also evolved recently, said Johnson. “We used to have to have a specific person to support mission, which meant we had to drag a person trained in GIS everywhere. As the technology has evolved, and data has evolved, the tools have reached the operator and first responder level. We can now match persona, mission and task to GIS tech so that it fits them. You can get complex answers that can be generated by an operator, not a GIS geek.”

How did Haiti change the conversation?

“Everyone thought Haiti would be completely dark,” said Johnson, with all information provided by boots on the ground. In fact, social media played an important role, he said, highlighted by the efforts of Crisis Congress and others who heard those digital cries for help. Social media “brought the light on,” said Johnson, providing not just something to act on but perhaps the only thing to act on, at least initially. In subsequent crises, responders have found that crisis data, particularly when added to maps for context, can provide valuable insight long before official reports emerge.

This trend is a key issue for communities as more citizen engagement platforms emerge. “When you have a large emergency, who are the first responders? Who can get to you the most quickly? Your neighbors,” says Johnson. “if you can have a universal way to communicate to the people who can help you, that may have the only help you have. Conventionally, you think of the guys in uniforms and helmets.”

In 2011, citizens have the opportunity to shoulder more of that shared responsibility than ever.