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President Barack Obama participates in a live Twitter question and answer session in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Dec. 3, 2012.

In Twitter We Trust: 6 Unexpected Ways Government Is Experimenting With Social Media

Government officials can use social media for more than just tamping down scandals. Hootsuite CEO Ryan Holmes on how tweets and Facebook posts can save taxpayer dollars, crowdsource legal rulings—and even fight epidemics.

Credit Anthony Weiner with showing governments around the world how not to use social media. Back in 2011, the now 48-year-old former U.S. congressman tweeted suggestive, boxer-clad photos of himself to a young admirer. Bloggers got ahold of the images and Weinergate was born.

Of course, officials and agencies are also turning to social media for more noble purposes, from real-time Q&As with millions of citizens to crowdsourced problem solving. Big Data, plus better tools for processing it, are enabling governments to use social networks in powerful, unexpected, and occasionally odd ways.

Stopping epidemics

In January 2010, in the wake of a tragic earthquake, Haiti suffered through a cholera epidemic. The disease spread throughout devastated neighborhoods faster than health care workers could respond, killing more than 6,500 people. Authorities ultimately turned to Twitter to stop it, notes ZDNet’s Dion Hinchcliffe, who reported on many of these innovations. Using specialized software, they were able to track the number and location of cholera-related tweets, pinpointing outbreaks well in advance of official warnings. The sheer quantity of public data shared on Twitter, Facebook, and other networks makes social media an invaluable listening and tracking tool. With the right software to filter and analyze keyword streams, authorities can identify trends—from outbreaks to traffic problems—in almost real time.

Recruiting tomorrow’s best and brightest

Convincing top prospects to enter the public sector can be a challenge. And few agencies face a greater image problem than the Internal Revenue Service. So to recruit the next generation of all-star auditors, the IRS has turned to social media. Not only do they have active Facebook and LinkedIn pages to interact with applicants, they also share job posts via the @RecruitmentIRS Twitter handle and even have a YouTube playlist offering day-in-the-life vignettes of employees. To coordinate all of these platforms, government agencies are using new social media management software, which can track interactions with candidates across multiple networks, measure engagement, assign follow-ups, and streamline hiring.

Getting the power back on faster

North America’s aging energy grid is notoriously temperamental, averaging 214 minutes' worth of outages per year in the Northeast (versus only four minutes in Japan). Until there’s money for an overhaul, however, at least we have social media. Right now, power companies are using geotagged posts as a real-time source of information on outages. Angry customers left in the dark (literally) tend to flood Twitter and Facebook with complaints sent from their cell phones. Using analytical tools and social media command centers to monitor the volume and origin of posts, municipal and private power companies can assess the severity of the outages and determine where to direct resources.

Sharing presidential beer recipes in order to bond

"Hey everybody—this is Barack." So began U.S. president Barack Obama’s session of AMA (short for Ask Me Anything) last August on social news site Reddit. For the next half hour, Obama fielded a series of unfiltered questions posed by Reddit users, on everything from tax cuts and Internet freedom to the White House beer recipe. 200,000 people tuned in, submitting more than 6,000 comments in 34 minutes. After praising the experiment for "strengthen[ing] our democracy," Obama got back to the business of running the free world. Governments of all levels have also used similar Q&A sessions on Twitter to break down the walls of power. HootSuite and other social media management tools can help monitor keywords and hashtags during these events, letting a conversation of thousands unfold in real time.

Crowdsourcing legal decisions

Last month, the outcome of a court case in Wisconsin was determined in part by Urban Dictionary. The popular website (not strictly a social network) uses crowdsourcing to come up with meanings to new slang words—often well before they appear in traditional dictionaries. When judges in the case needed to understand what "jack" meant in the context of a robbery, they based their decision on the collective wisdom of Urban Dictionary’s millions of users. Other trials have hinged on the site’s definition of iron ("handgun"), catfishing ("the phenomenon of Internet predators that fabricate online identities") and grenade ("the solitary ugly girl always found with a group of hotties"), according to The New York Times.

Actually saving taxpayers money

While tales of $600 Navy toilet seats may be urban legend (or maybe not), government agencies could always stand to tighten belts a bit. And no one knows this better than public workers themselves. So, for the past four years, the White House has crowdsourced a competition to trim wasteful spending. Federal employees submit ideas to SAVE, a social site that compiles proposals and allows people to vote on them (19,000 proposals were posted in a recent year, attracting some 46,000 votes). Among this year’s finalists: A suggestion to replace costly court reporters with digital transcription equipment and software.

Social media gives governments a channel for real-time back and forth with citizens. It’s a massive reserve of public, searchable data and a tool for crowdsourced brainstorming. All it takes is the right tools. And—if you’re a certain ex-congressman from New York—keeping your pants on generally helps, too.

[Image: Flickr user White House | Pete Souza]

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