Using Social Media to Curate Information for Feasibility Studies

While I still enjoy books and love going to the library, I have come to favor using the Internet when researching a specific subject. Not only is it easy to find and collect and organize information, but the social media side of it allows me to also get the pulse of the public on that topic. And by using specific tools available online for curating information, it's easy to pull it all together for easy access and reference. I haven't really heard of any firms or agencies using this approach to develop feasibility studies, although I would think some out there are following this process. So I thought I'd lay out below the steps that could be taken to set this up for a specific study in case someone was not doing this and wanted to try it out. Because lately I've been focused on bike planning, design, and management, I will use that topic in my examples:

Collect Your Information

Set up a Twitter Feed

One of the first steps I take to collect information on a specific topic is to set up a Twitter Feed. You can see I added one on bikes to the right sidebar of this blog. Even though not every Tweet out there in the Twitterverse will be what I want, the format allows me to easily scan for what I do need. If you don't initially have a place to embed a widget like you see in the sidebar on this page, you can just visit the Twitter site and type #bikes in the search window at the top of the page. Here is the link to a search for the #bikes hashtag on Twitter.

Google Drive

Once you start getting information, you'll want a place to store links and ideas you have found. There are several tools out there to help you with this task. You might want to try a couple at first as a test until you settle on which one works best for you. One of the easiest is to just set up a Google document on Google Drive. Anyone with a Google account can access Google Drive by signing into their account and clicking the word "Drive" at the top of the screen. Once there, you can click the "create" button and choose what type of document you would like to use to store your information. I chose a "Document" which on Google is like a word processing page. The benefit of using Google Drive is it also lets you embed your documents on other sites. And you can share your document with others so everyone can work on it together. Here is what I have so far in my document about bicycle resources:


Shelfari is a site where you can collect books related to your topic into a digital bookshelf. Here is one I set up with a few books related to bicyle infrastructure:


Livebinders is another popular site for collecting and organizing links related to a specific topic. I created one to collect links to sites with information about bicycle infrastructure. You can access it by clicking the icon below:


Mind Maps are useful to display related information in a visual manner. There are several different Mind Map tools out there. For this example I used the free version of The beginning of a Bicycle Infrastructure MindMap is below:

Display Your Collections on a Website

You can also use a free website creation tool to set up your own site for collecting and displaying information about your topic. The benefit of actually setting up a site rather than just collecting links in a document or specific tool is that you can embed all tools used in one place. One example of a free website creation tool is Wix. I did not set up a site as an example because this blog serves this purpose for me. This option is best if you could not display everything you found in one of the tools above and you wanted to use different tools for different types of links and resources.

Analyze and discuss your information

Once you have collected and organized your research you can begin analyzing it and discussing it with others. If you are working as part of a team, having everything linked allows for easy access and sharing between members of the group. Social media tools can also support this part of the process.

The articles and comments on blogs are particularly useful for analyzing public opinion, experiences, and feedback. For example, if you follow the link to the article on the Seattle Bike Blog, you'll find a wealth of feedback related to protected bike lanes. In the original article, there is information shared from a traffic engineer. Then in the comments, bikers share their knowledge, experience, and information about the use of a specific type of protection for bike lanes. It would be difficult to get this amount of feedback at this level from any other source. Someone studying this type of bike lane protection could document the number of people commenting who had accidents because of this specific element. Ideas for improving on the design of this type of practice can also be found on the site.




Using Social Media to Communicate Emergency Response


Yesterday Dave Lawry and I presented Using Social Media to Communicate Emergency Response at the 2013 APWA North Amercian Snow Conference in Charlotte, North Carolina. It was fun to give the presentation with Dave because he had some interesting first-hand experiences with implementing social media as a communication tool, particularly during snow operations. His stories came from when he was serving as the Director of Public Works for the city of Elgin in Ill. – some of what they had done has been covered by this blog over the years.

APWA North American Snow Conference Session

About a year or so ago, Dave moved on to take a position with Chastain and Associates. But even though he is no longer with a city, he continues to encourage and help others in local government with figuring out how best to implement the use of social media. Today Dave led a roundtable discussion at the conference to further explore the topic and share thoughts. He sent me an email and said, "The followup round table was well attended today with two from the class yesterday wishing to continue the discussion. My table was full." Even though I would have liked to attend, I had to return to Illinois because of other commitments so missed the discussion, but I am sure based on the questions we got yesterday it was helpful and informative.

Fortunately I'll be able to work again with Dave in the Fall when we discuss Social Media and Public Works at the 12th Annual Public Service Institute on Oct. 8, 2013, in Effingham, Ill. Our presentation will be given as part of IPSI – a leadership and management program held each year for one week in Illinois. The entire program, which focuses primarily on public works, spans a three-year time period. Last year was my first year of training, and I plan to return this year not only to help Dave with the social media session, but also to go for my second year as a student. As anyone who has attended will tell you, the highlights of the program are Lewis and Mary Bender – the two incredible people who are responsible for organizing and hosting the whole event. Lew also teaches most of the sessions. If you haven't gone yet, I highly recommend you consider going. Just meeting Lew and being able to learn from his years of wisdom makes it all worth it by itself. But the added benefit is you'll also be able to network with and learn from other public works people from all over Illinois. It's really one of the few training opportunities we have for learning how to manage in the unique setting in which we all work. And I'm sure as part of our session at IPSI, Dave and I will be able to further explore the use of social media as a communication tool during emergencies. (Note that I am no longer with the employer shown on the schedule – I've since accepted a position with another governmental agency.)

But for now, you can view the presentation we gave yesterday here:



A Quick Look Back – Public Works Group Blogging Statistics

This month marks the sixth anniversary of the start of this blog. With so many new readers visiting each year, I realize many might not know why this blog was started. So I thought I'd take a few moments to revisit the original reason the Public Works Group was formed and how it has evolved.

In Dec. 2006, I attended Autodesk University. At one of the main sessions of that event, an architect, Jon Brouchoud, demonstrated how he was using Second Life, a 3D virtual world, to design homes for people. His presentation was an impressive display of technology. Excited by the potential I saw in those few short minutes, I joined Second Life myself and soon began my own exploration of that virtual space.

Because the main reason I had joined was to promote my profession and the city where I worked, I took advantage of Second Life's group feature to set up groups for these interests. However, I noticed by watching other groups in that space that they often used a website and other emerging social media tools to interact with and provide information for their group. So by Feb. 2007, the Public Works Group was established online for the purpose of supporting the groups in Second Life and to offer information about public works, government, social media, and virtual worlds to people who were there and others who were not yet in that virtual space. Since that time, we've expanded the range of topics covered here to include other online tools and technology. And we've branched out to reach all people whether or not they are involved in virtual worlds.

Today we have a site that explores many topics ranging from online technology like social media and virtual worlds to age-old topics like planning, design, construction, regulation, community, and governance. Throughout the years, my husband, who is also a civil engineer working in government, has been my primary partner. But we've also had others contribute and post on the site.

So with six years of information and over 300 posts, I also wanted to take a quick look back at a few of the statistics for the site before moving into our seventh year:

Number of Posts

For me, one of the most interesting statistics to see is how many posts were created each year. Below is a graph I made showing how many posts were published for each year:

The first year was slow probably because things were just getting started – we were learning the technology and spent a lot of time just exploring online technologies. Since then, we've posted on a more regular basis. However, there were considerable more posts made in 2011. This is due to the "A Day in the Life" series in which I shared typical tasks that a City Engineer would work on each day.

Visits to the Blog

The number of visitors to the blog has increased steadily since 2007. Over the last three years, the number of visitors doubled each year from the year before to a total of almost 21,000 unique visitors reading our blog just last year.

Most Popular Posts

Following is the most popular post each year (we only started using Google Analytics in 2009 so do not have this information for 2007 and 2008):

2009: Trench Backfill: Is it best to compact, jet, fill, or dump?

2010: Conferences, World of Warcraft, and Professional Achievement

2011: Free Highway Design Software!

2012: Public Schools Coercing Kids to Share Facebook Details

What is interesting is that all but the last were written in 2008, yet each year those topics are still relevant enough to beat out all the other posts published that year. Even today, some of these posts receive the most views.

Finally, we really want to thank you for taking the time to stop by and for reading the Public Works Group Blog! We look forward to another full year of blogging and contributing to the spread of information, ideas, and resources.




Engineers Leverage YouTube to Spread Christmas Cheer

Today I noticed in my Facebook feed a post by the Illinois Section AWWA account highlighting a holiday greeting from the Baxter and Woodman Engineering Consulting Firm. Because it was such a great example of how firms are leveraging social media tools like YouTube, I thought I would post it here and share it with all of you. While it is nice to get Christmas cards, it is even nicer and more entertaining for me to watch a Christmas greeting on a video. And I can easily share it with other professionals.




Create Your Own Bridge While the WashDOT Builds Theirs

There's a reason I bring up the Washington DOT every time I give a presentation about using social media in public works. They were early on the scene to realize how much social media could assist them in public relations, and they've done a great job figuring out how best to engage the public. And just when I thought they couldn't possibly get any cooler, they come up with an innovative bridge building initative to help people understand and take part in the process. 

The way it seems to work is that as pontoons for the actual bridge are constructed, the Washington DOT posts materials people can use to construct their own representative pontoons. They also have videos showing the transport of the actual pontoons to the jobsite. The activity offers the public an interesting and interactive way to better understand the bridge and what is actually taking place on the jobsite. Here's the description of how it works from their site along with a photo of one of the templates that can be used to construct a pontoon.

"As we complete the construction of each pontoon and bring them to Lake Washington, we will post new templates here. Each pontoon is individually named according to its location within the final bridge structure. Simply print, cut along the indicated lines and then fold your pontoon for final construction."

Washington DOT Pontoon Template


Public Schools Coercing Kids to Share Facebook Details

Apple by Shokunin -

I am not sure what it is about Facebook that causes professionals to lose all their judgement and ability to reason and act as an adult particularly when it concerns personnel matters. One outcome of this is that employers are allowing themselves to get caught up in their employees' personal, non-work related use of this online communication platform. And this is happening even though normally what employees do when they are on their own time is not really a matter for concern for employers unless the employee gets involved in criminal activities. And in that case, it usually becomes public knowledge, and the employer need not worry about doing their own investigation. So, this shift to focus on one specific non-work activity does not really make sense or seem right. But what has been more disturbing is that education professionals in the public school system, specifically adminstrators, are practicing this same type of intrusion into the private lives of their students.

When this violation of privacy into a student's private Facebook account occurs, there are several critical differences from the violation of privacy of an adult employee:

  • The chances that a student under 18 fully understands their rights is minimal while an adult usually has a better chance of understanding their rights.
  • The administrator has a position of authority at a school so the student is more likely to be hesitant to disobey or not go along with requests to share their private, online account. An employee usually respects the employer's authority, but not usually to the point that abuse of their rights is tolerated.
  • The administration at a school can, if not monitored or managed well by a superintendent or board, can cause a student problems or harass them if the student does not go along with this violation of privacy. If this happens to an employee they can seek another job; the only way a student can realistically "quit" that school is to have their family relocate their home. This could be a major disruption to a family relying on jobs or having other kids in that school system. 
  • A student might be worried that if he does not go along with the administrator's request, his or her parents could be called increasing their chances in their mind for getting into trouble or being embarrassed by having their parents read their private messages. I don't think too many employees have to worry about their employer calling their mother to share secrets lurking in their Facebook messages.
  • For education to successfully occur, there needs to be some level of trust by the student in the adults at their school. And once this trust is broken by a violation of the student's privacy, the environment is no longer conducive for education or participation in other school-related activities to occur. A breakdown in trust between employer and employee might be tolerated for a while, and if it cannot be, the employee has the right and choice to quit.

Wake Up Call to Public Schools

Why is all this important or critical for a school to acknowledge and understand? Based on the social media education we have had at our city, it seems that this practice opens up an employer, or in this case the school, to legal liabilities. If they are regularly monitoring or requiring students to share private account information and messages, we learned they can risk liabilities based on what they read. And what is also critical is if this practice is preventing education from occuring, then schools risk not carrying out their primary mission.

Violation of a Student's Privacy is a Violation of a Family's Privacy

While abuse of privacy by employers and even colleges has become public knowledge and legislators are beginning to consider passing laws to prevent this, there seems to be little information about the abuse occurring at the public school level. Parents are probably not aware this is going on because few teens are going to run home and tell their mom or dad they were called into their counselor's or principal's office to allow full access to their Facebook account. It's embarrassing, and what teen wants to risk having to share their private messages with their mom or dad. But I can't imagine most parents would be happy to know their child is being forced to open up a window not only into their own private life, but potentially the lives of all of their friends and relatives. This intrusion ends up not only violating the privacy of the child, but also that of their whole family and the lives of their friends. Would most people be ok with their child's principal or counselor reading all about every matter that goes on in their family? 

The other issue in all this is if the school is doing something so risky as forcing kids to share private Facebook accounts and messages, they probably have not developed a policy for dealing with it all. So what is to stop the principal from printing out a child's message about the fight their parents had last night or how they found out they have a serious disease or illness or how they lost their job and are worried about making ends meet. And then what is to stop that principal from sharing that with anyone else? If there are no policies, how can this practice be regulated and how can parents be assured their own privacy has not been violated?

I only became aware of all this myself and the problems it introduces because one of my children was the victim of coercion and eventually violation into her private account by school officials. When it occurred, it created tremendous stress and problems for my family because of its effect on my daughter. Her trust in and the respect of the adults at her school has been shattered to the point that she is struggling to look beyond this abuse and allow for the education process to occur. And because I also can no longer trust them to perform their duties with good judgement, I have trouble knowing how to counsel her on how to handle situations at school.

Legislation Desperately Needed

When I read about the push to pass legislation to prevent employers and colleges from requiring access to social media accounts, I realized this needed to be extended to include public schools. And I realized many school officials might not realize these practices are going on. Fortunately I have been able to discuss this with Bradley Shear, an attorney championing this legislation throughout the country. And hopefully if others become aware that abuse in public schools is a real issue, he will be able to convince legislators to also regulate those institutions with these laws. So I decided to go ahead and write this blog to let others know this is going on and to indicate support in adding public schools to these laws. If you want to read the general details of our own, personal experience, I've shared them below.

Our Experience

Normally I don't like sharing the nitty gritty details of my family's life, particularly on my blog. But I'm doing so because it brings to light an issue government agencies need to be made aware of and only by sharing can we convince legislators there is a real problem. In our particular case, the abuses and actions by the administrators at my daughter's school have been appalling. It started because a teacher heard another student spreading rumors about my daughter – all of it unrelated to school and nothing against the law. So the school called in my daughter to demand to know if the rumors were true. This went on for some days, without my knowledge, and culminated in them asking her to open her Facebook account to them which she did. Then the vice principal called me to demand I come to the school immediately to read through her private messages. At the time I was out of town for work and could not make it back until later that night. She had obviously kept the account open long after my daughter had left and told me she would keep it open until I got there. She was almost hysterical about the whole situation also demanding I punish my daughter for what she had supposedly done. I tried to explain I could not come in and did not feel comfortable punishing my daughter for something I could never prove to have occurred. Finally at the end of our conversation, I told her to close the account, and I would contact her the next day.

But after I hung up, I began to realize what a violation of my daughter's privacy this whole episode was. It did not appear that my daughter had done anything wrong at school yet they had subjected her to an investigation as if she was a criminal and then read through all her messages which would have been equivalent to my teachers going through my diary when I was in grade school. Of course I found out when I got home that this had taken a huge toll on my daughter who ended up crying through most of the rest of the day and therefore missed most of her classes. She was embarrassed and very upset. Particularly so because their line of questioning had also been sexual in nature with them demanding she share with them everything she had done sexually. In this day and age, I just cannot imagine how a school administrator could confront a 13-year old girl and demand to know the extent of her sexual experience.

So the next day, I spoke with the principal thinking he would set things straight. But instead I learned about even more disturbing practices. He explained that the reason they had to interrogate my daughter was because the punishment for spreading rumors is different depending on if the rumor is true or not. So he insisted of his need to conduct an investigation into the truth each time they hear a rumor about a child. And obviously he did not see a problem with not contacting a parent first. I tried to point out that by not contacting a parent first, particularly with questioning related to the sexuality of a student, they risk many issues. I asked him if he ever considered they might be interrogating a child who had been a victim of sexual abuse and without first consulting a parent they would risk further causing pain for that child? Fortunately in our case, my daughter does not have that background, but how would they have known if they had not first called a parent? He said he cannot call parents until he has the truth. I told him not to pry into the private lives of my children. And he said he cannot do that – it is his obligation to look out for the morals and ethics of the children at his school. And if he feels they are not leading a moral life (obviously according to his standards), he is going to launch an investigation. And only if he finds they are in fact exhibiting poor behavior will he contact parents. And even then he said he doesn't like contacting parents because most kids don't want their parents to know anything and would rather just talk to him. Of course, I ended the conversation by making it clear he did not have my permission to interrogate or invade the privacy of any of my children without first discussing it with me unless they were violating some school rule. I also indicated I felt he was depriving me of my right to parent my own child and that his staff desperately needed some education in how to handle these matters. His response was, "Fine, for the Broviak children, I will call you first."

I struggled with legally pursuing this matter because it was so stressful and disruptive to my family. It definitely affected my daughter's grades and her relationship with the school. But because we have other children who will or are attending that school and did not want to risk having their education jeopardized, we chose not to pursue litigation even though I was advised we would have a case. Also, I thought it was more important that the school realize they need to change their practices and stop any other child from going through this. 

When I learned a few months after this that the counselor had told another mother not to allow her daughter, who was one of my daughter's best friends, to spend time with mine, I finally called a meeting with the principal and school superintendent. Again I tried to emphasize how wrong these practices were, that they were violating our rights by doing these things, and that they desperately needed to educate their staff. But both men disagreed with my assessment and even went so far as to deny a lot of this happened. Even though I talked to the other mother myself, they said that never occurred. So the only outcome was to change the counselor that my daughter would report to.

For now, they have not again approached my daughter for her private information. We are trying to get through the last part of 7th and hope to make it through 8th with no more problems. But my daughter says they are still regularly taking kids into the counselor's office and telling them they cannot leave until they open up their Facebook accounts to their scrutiny. I asked her what the kids do and she said, "they let them see the accounts because otherwise, they are not allowed to leave the room." And that is just wrong, and something tells me the school's attorney would not be too happy to find out this was happening on a regular basis.