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.




MuniGovCon09 – A Virtual Conference for Government

Yesterday the MuniGov group held the first virtual conference for government in Second Life. This event was the result of about five months of planning and hours of volunteer work by members of the group. Registrations for the event totaled 166 people representing all levels of government from the U.S., Canada, and other countries along with some vendors. In the end, the number of people who actually attended and stayed throughout the day averaged about 77.

Panelists also represented local, state, and federal levels. Their presentations covered government use of wikis, virtual worlds, Facebook, Twitter, and other social media tools. Discussion and questions touched on implementation, policy, and legal challenges. One of the MuniGov members taped the conference so the entire video will eventually be online for anyone interested in viewing the event.

Because people will be able to view the conference for themselves, I wanted to highlight some of the observations and issues not covered by the actual presentations. By doing so, I hope to give people a better idea of what to expect from a virtual conference along with hopefully encouraging others to try attending one in the future.

One exciting aspect of this event was the fact that the majority of the people attending were either learning to use Second Life for the first time or had only visited this virtual space a limited number of times. Because of this, several MuniGov members dedicated time to offer orientations for newer members during the months leading up to the conference. These orientations focused on the initial skills needed to move and communicate in a virtual world. Topics covered walking, flying, teleporting, talking, chatting, using IM, and altering their avatar’s appearance.

Another decision that had to be made early on was where to hold the actual conference. Our normal meeting area can only comfortably accommodate about 60 people or so. Fortunately Paulette Robinson with the National Defense University offered us the use of her agency’s island in Second Life. This center could hold about 200 avatars.

Because everyone was so new, there were some issues at the beginning with making sure everyone could hear and that their own speakers were muted or turned off during presentations. This took some time and for future events, someone advised setting aside time prior to the event for troubleshooting communication issues.

After the conference, people were encouraged to visit the MuniGov area where we regularly meet on Wednesday nights. There we had vendors exhibiting in virtual booths representing the first virtual trade show for government. We had also set up typical Second Life type amenities such as water slides and games to showcase how avatars can interact with virtual objects and how these objects can emulate real life. People could also visit the “govpods” or virtual offices members have set up to represent their agencies.

Overall, everyone seemed pleased with the conference. The cost savings to offer this event virtually rather than in a more traditional venue was about $1500 per person. People could attend from their offices or homes, and many had others in the room with them so actual attendance was probably more than the average 77 avatars in the Second Life space. And most importantly everyone attending had the opportunity to interact with other government professionals from all levels of government. They could also meet with representatives from companies serving government. CDWG, Microsoft, ActiveGovernment, Municibid and Earth911, all had virtual booths at the MuniGov Center.

Of course, because the event was held in Second Life, there were the typical amusing extras that you just don’t get at a regular conference. From Alan parachuting into the MuniGov area at the end to his sitting on the rotating trade show sign while we all networked. And I don’t think I will ever forget one presenter who paused during her presentation to “put us on hold” to take a call from her boss. That could only have been done within this type of venue.

Thanks to everyone – it truly was a monumental and memorable experience that I hope is just the beginning. Below is a scrapbook I made of the event:


Government 2.0 Camp – Pillars of Strategy

(Because I could not get an Internet signal during this presentation, I took notes and have posted them below. The post is in the format of a live feed of comments and information rather than a typical blog post.)

The Pillars of Strategy to Consider When Implementing Social Media:

• Policy
• Content
• Channel Integration
• Strategy
• Experimenting
• Legal/Political/compliance
• Leadership
• Stakeholders
• Applications
• Technology
• Listening
• Audience – knowing who
• Empowering
• Acting
• Respect
• Budget
• Two way conversations (TSA has case studies on collaboration with their stakeholders)

These pillars were decided upon based on the following input:

• 1.5M Federal regulations
• What is social government? Sounds like a misnomer but there are a lot of ideas out there on the net about this. Is there a way to define what is the space of social media and government?
• What are you trying to get at it? Engagment?
• There is a lot we can do to distribute relevant and good information.
• This needs to be successful and useful.
• The Myth of Digital Democracy – book.
• Collective action – example of how people gamed the Obama town hall and just wanted to talk about “weed.”
• There has to be an authoritative source.
• How to listen or how to define the value.
• Do most people not understand that this is more interactive? Do people understand they can get online and engage with government? The difference between 1.0 and 2.0.
• Who is using it? There has to be other channels to get the other information. Twitter is a little bit to the left. Echo chambers. How do you engage those who are exclusive of social media?
• Multiple avenues to engage – public forums, traditional media, Web sites. Social media is only one avenue, not the only one. But it is important to be part of it and use it as one of the avenues.
• We need to tie Social media together with the other avenues.
• Example used of is only voluntary participation by agencies.
• Information gets stuck in agencies in the middle. If leadership really wants it but doesn’t have access does this represent an opportunity of how to implement social media?
• Bureaucracy is sometimes needed for some agencies to allow for decision making. A hierarchy always exists – there is always one person who finally makes the decision. This is the leadership element to ultimate government decision making.
• Challenge is trying to take it all in at once. Myriad of possibilities and opportunities. Look at your external audience and how they use media then look at your internal group. Then look at how they consume media. We are still using the telegraph process to issue press releases. Strategically plan your external and your internal channels and try not to do it all at once.
• What is our degree of comfort with allowing citizens to change regulations and policy?
• Can apply social media in many ways to change government: how to optimize interagency processes, in the past many would never have left their mark because they were buried in the structure. Change the relationship to stakeholders.
• Creation of policy is also a target to hit using social media. Use the tools to help you develop policy. You have a hierarchy of decision making and you have a process. But our society is in a transitional period. You can exclude a large segment if you are not careful. Don’t lose sight that your customer might not be comfortable with the tools. But is this their problem?
• Integrate all the channels. Determine task then how we are going to accomplish that. Identify the multiple channels to use. A lot of times the message is not well coordinated between all the channels.
• Try it and see what happens. But concern remains about the legal ramifications. When did it become not acceptable to fail?


Your Social Media Journey Begins Here

So how many times have you tried to convince your friends and colleagues that they should be on Twitter or LinkedIn? Are you the person making the rounds in your office showing everyone Second Life and trying to convince them of the benefits of virtual worlds. I know I am one of those people shouting the benefits of Web 2.0 from the rooftops. And I share in everyone’s frustration because even though people seem to understand and “get it,” they never make that final step to actually join.

One day, I showed a vendor some social media tools, and he seemed very interested in using them. But I sensed some hesitation, so I asked, “If everyone understands these tools and is interested in using them, why don’t they?” And his response was, “I just don’t know how.”

Your Social Media Journey Begins Here

That simple response said a lot. So I changed my plan of attack from demonstrating the tools to establishing a road map of how to get started. The result of that was this document: Your Social Media Journey Begins Here. I am releasing it in Beta form since I am sure there are still some mistakes in it, and I am sure it could use some tweaking. So if you want, take it, give it to your friends, test it out. Let me know how it goes. I probably should mention that it is targeted at people working in government, engineering, and public works.

(For those of you who would rather read the document in digital book form, click here.)


Who’s Leading the Charge to Web 2.0?

Today I read a recently released white paper, Government 2.0: Building Communities with Web 2.0 and Social Networking. Overall, I thought the paper did a good job summarizing much of the ongoing, online discussions and research on this topic. However, I sensed an underlying attitude that concerned me as a government employee. This unspoken, read-between-the-lines belief by the author was finally put to words in the conclusion when he stated: “Ultimately CIOs must decide for themselves if Web 2.0 technology makes sense for their community and if this is the time to invest in it.”

Now, I don’t know about the rest of you working in government, but I can’t begin to tell you how many times our city attorney has lectured me that we are only employed to give advice; it it the job of the elected officials to make the final decisions. I realize we are left to make some decisions on a daily basis without having to run to the mayor or city manager each time, so I take his comment as meaning the “big” decisions. As the city engineer, I can make recommendations about what roads need to be repaired, but in the end, the mayor and the aldermen make the final choice. And I make the repairs based on their decision.

So making the statement that ultimately it will be up to the CIO to decide if his community should embrace Web 2.0 is like saying it is up to our city attorney to decide if he should begin legal proceedings to condemn and demolish someone’s home that doesn’t meet local ordinances. All of us would think that is ridiculous. Those types of community-wide decisions that have the chance to impact our citizens and expend funds must be made by the elected officials. CIOs can recommend and present implementation of Web 2.0, but ultimately, the elected officials will be the ones to accept or deny its use.

The role of the CIO is something I have been thinking about for some time and even more so since meeting Bill Greeves, Director of Information Technology for Roanoke County, Virginia. He and I co-founded the MuniGov 2.0 group to serve as a resource for local government folks looking at Web 2.0 implementation. Not one of the members of this group, who are primarily people working in the information technology or computer fields, have ever expressed an attitude or opinion similar to that put forth by this report. In fact, all have viewed their role in this as a professional who has recognized the need to develop the skills necessary to face the future Web 2.0-related demands of their agency. They all have approached implementation of Web 2.0 as that of a person who will most likely lead the charge, but primarily as a facilitator, collaborator, and mentor to others in their workforce.

Their approach has restored an image I had of that profession that was obviously undeserving but brought about by years of hearing others in government complain about the IT department. The complaints I have heard are that IT prevents them from being able to do their work by restricting access to programs. Talking with Bill about this, I realize that IT has an important responsibility to protect the security of the network, and most likely, these restrictions have been set in place by IT to accomplish that task. But Bill takes a very practical approach to this by indicating that while security is vital, that goal should not keep an IT professional from working with others in the agency to investigate implementing needed software. (See his article on this – published by the same entity that published the report above – addressing this topic from an IT professional’s perspective: Can’t We All Just Get Along?)

As we move into the future and acceptance of Web 2.0, I do believe that IT professionals will be moved out of the basement (as so humorously depicted in the British television show, the IT Crowd) and take a well-deserved place on the upper floors. And I believe that instead of complaining about how IT keeps everyone from being able to do what they want to do, people need to realize how much IT does to make sure they can keep working. We need to “friend an IT person,” find out what their job really entails, and realize that as computers increase in importance, it will be these folks who most likely will be leading the charge. But the charge will not be successful if they do not obtain the trust and buy-in from other departments (and comments like those in this report do not facilitate that type of cooperation with people who already look upon the IT department with distrust and consternation). And no one will be charging at all without the green light from elected officials.