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 

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.

Alexander B. Howard is a DC-based a technology writer and editor. Previously, he was the Washington Correspondent at O'Reilly Media, where he covered the voices, technologies and issues that matter in the intersection of government, technology and society. If you're feeling social, you can follow him on Twitter, like him on Facebook or circle him on Google Plus In addition to corresponding for the O’Reilly Radar, he has contributed to the Huffington Post, Govfresh, Mashable, ReadWriteWeb, National Journal, The Atlantic, CBS News and Forbes. He graduated from Colby College with a bachelor's degree in biology and sociology. Currently, he is a resident of the District of Columbia, where he lives with his greyhound, wife, power tools, plants and growing collection of cast iron pans, many of which are frequently used to pursue his passion for good cooking.


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