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Government 2.0 and Howard County/Columbia

This morning I went to a very good beta presentation by Ken Fisher from clickforhelp.com about how Government can make it's way into the social media space. What was going to be a simple run through of his presentation became a quite active discussion concerning not only how he can improve his presentation for Wednesday, but also about government communications in general. This being a local oriented blog (although sparse so far -- sorry guys and gals new job and the need to learn new rules that apply to me and lobbying), the question then becomes how to apply these concepts to the local government.

Let me step back for a while to give some background for why this event was going on in the first place.

With the new administration in the White House, the directive to the departments was that government will be transparent to the public. There are a phethora of software applications available to enable communication both within a department and to those outside of a department. But unfortunately, the mechanism of communication tends to get more debate than the actual content. Too often Government and other organizations see a new technology and say, "We really need to get into this so we look hip, cool and relevant." The only problem with this is that if the focus is on the medium, then little thought gets put into what is actually communicated.

I've been a netizen since the days before the web browser. I was also in the BBS world before the Internet was really public. So I've seen a lot of good content and a ton of crappy content. Most gov sites are pretty bad. Unless you know what it is that you are looking for, it's pretty confusing to get to real data. Usually you just get to some sorry excuses for a message. A lot of fluff and not a lot of depth. Zzzzz...

The good news is that there's a lot of great content out there. Even from government agencies. Blogger Bob and the TSA is a great example of this. Bob has a great personality and he's got a great way of delivering a message: Short, precise and to the point. The sheer force of his personality and willingness to show how new technology impacts the TSA and the public has made him semi-famous within the blogosphere on the whole. In fact, that was one of Ken's points today. Putting a face to the message improves it's reception. This is in contrast to other sites that are just a bunch of anonymous people that do not have a personal relationship with their audience.

Howard County also has the Snowplow Tracking site, which is a pure bundle of awesome that can use some improvement, but is basically done. More on that later.

On the other hand, more traditional reports and other authoritative communications should be from the department as a whole. These would be the dry, wonky reports that I personally get a kick out of, but a personality on top of it explaining what it means helps put some of that data into a digestible format.

The question becomes, how does government communicate with themselves and the public. More importantly, how do the people communicate back?

I can go on and on about methods of communication without getting down to actual content. The main point of my argument that was beginning to form this morning, but is beginning to gel into a more cohesive argument as I'm writing this, is that in order for a technology that is used to communicate to the public, needs to be used within an internal silo first.

Twitter? Build a Laconica server first for internal office communications. Let people use it within a department first. The benefit is that co-workers can post questions and get answers back from others in the department. This can be really useful for groups that are spread out over the country. And people absorb information differently, so someone can ask, "does anyone know about ..." and someone can post a set of links to that very topic. If they're the author of a particular document, they can also get some instant feedback and corrections. The point is that it's easy to build and push out. It's also a way to enable communication within the organization. The most important thing is it allows people to get used to a new technology within a familiar environment. That's what pretty much happened with email. It starts locally then goes global. Once the mindset is established, then the PR folks can start disseminating info in a meaningful way because they worked out the bugs in communication within the org first.

Then there's the idea of mashable content. Government is very good at collecting a ton of raw data and putting it into a manageable format. However, the raw data streams are often hard to get for those outside of that particular project. Transparency also means making that raw data available for people to create other views. This can be as simple as developing a common API so third parties can develop applications to display that data in new ways. With enough ingenuity, someone can create an app that correlates census data with unemployment rates for instance. And better yet, government workers can use those other apps to do their own work.

So how does this translate to the local government? Well let's take my previous example of the HoCo Snowplow Tracker. The page uses it's API internally and is not publicly accessible. If the API was released, not really knowing how the data is formatted, I can still surmise that a number of apps can be developed that takes in just the text data stream and use it's own mapping software to display that data. I can then take that data and make an iPhone app, or one for the Nokia, or Google maps, or Yahoo! Maps. I could also overlay weather data within that map. Or I can also set up links to the traffic cameras and know when to watch te plow going past my local intersection. I can also send feedback to the crews with geotagged data and report icy conditions and other problem spots. It would also take off some of the load to the server when it comes to processing this data and pushing it off to the local client to make sense of the data.

Phew, that's enough for today... I'm going to take a break and let more of this stuff digest in my mind. Stay tuned!

--Chris