It will soon be nearly four years since then San Francisco mayor, Gavin Newsom visited Twitter headquarters. He told Biz Stone (one of the Twitter founders) about how someone from the city had sent him a Twitter message about a pothole. A discussion about "how we can get Twitter to be involved in advancing, streamlining, and supporting the governance of cities," led to the creation of @SF311 on Twitter that would allow live reporting by citizens of service needs, feedback, and other communication. Perhaps the most innovative aspect at that time was that citizens would be able to communicate directly and transparently with the Government. San Francisco was the first US city to roll out a major service such as this on Twitter.
Twitter offers several advantages over phonecalls or written requests made by citizens, some of which I have mentioned before:
- City services can become more transparent: Technically you are able comment on a tweet, and this should be encouraged although you can send a direct message (DM) which is private once @SF311 follows you. With a public tweet, if you request a road to be cleaned up and no one has done it, you can comment back in, and hundreds of others who are following the tweet will see that it has not been done. This is exactly the kind of transparency that is needed.
- Information is instant: You don't have to go to a website, you don't have to call, you don't have to wait in line. You can get the information instantly on your cell phone or email and if you have a comment to make you can do it right away.
- Creation of virtual communities can improve governance: San Francisco is, already a community, but not all residents are able to communicate with each other on issues of mutual interest. The use of Twitter and Social Networking tools can help strengthen the community by creating additional virtual communities based on interests, and energizing existing networks. The success of these communities will be helped by the fact that Twitter works well with mobile technology. Not everyone has a computer but most people have cell phones.
- Transparency can lead to improved accountability: If Twitter based service requests take off, and by the looks of it, this is already happening, we will have increased accountability of public officials. Information will be collected on the services that were requested, and what the city officials did about it. This could spark increased community involvement, and incentivize public officials to make good on their promises.
- Participation can improve governance: Citizens can be involved in the running of the city. When you have a chance to be a participant in the governance process, it makes a difference in how you view the city. It becomes "your" city, and you take better care of it. This improves governance.
Users find Twitter particularly useful to report service needs, and the instantaneous nature of the response and transparency appeals to them. Andy Maimoni, Deputy Director, 311 Customer Service Center says, “We do hear a lot that the Twitter process is simple for the end user as they can send a picture and a few comments to us and get a response back quickly”.
This open data report is showing consistent use of Twitter as a favored point of entry to City Services:
The service has grown increasingly popular and is starting to become more inclusive as well, by targeting non English speaking residents. Other local governments have also started using Twitter for government services. This move of local governments towards Twitter will help improve transparency, accountability and participation. Government in turn will get the much needed feedback on their services, and they will be able to provide information about the city in a much more efficient way to a larger section of the populace.