How One Small Town Is Using Twitter And Other Social Media - InformationWeek

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Commentary
3/27/2009
06:09 PM
Mitch Wagner
Mitch Wagner
Commentary
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How One Small Town Is Using Twitter And Other Social Media

Following my post earlier this week about why local governments aren't making use of Twitter, Facebook, and other social media, I found myself in Second Life with the city engineer of the town of LaSalle, Ill, talking about how the government of her little town uses Twitter, blogs, Facebook, Skype and Second Life to better serve their citizens and stay in touch with other small-town officials across the United States and Canada.

Following my post earlier this week about why local governments aren't making use of Twitter, Facebook, and other social media, I found myself in Second Life with the city engineer of the town of LaSalle, Ill, talking about how the government of her little town uses Twitter, blogs, Facebook, Skype and Second Life to better serve their citizens and stay in touch with other small-town officials across the United States and Canada."We're a pretty small community," said Pamela Broviak, city engineer and director of public works for LaSalle, which counted a population of about 10,000 people in the 2000 census. It's located just off the intersection of Route 80 and Route 39. Chicago is about an hour and a half away by highway. City government has about 75 employees, with about 27 working in Broviak's Public Works department.

"Our community isn't full of a lot of big computer users," she said in a conversation over Second Life voice. Nonetheless, the city government has successfully used social media to connect.

The town uses Twitter for its public works program; it posted updates several times a week on a recent road-repair project, to let people in the neighborhood know how it was going. The city itself also has a Twitter account, in which it posts activity at city council meetings. And Broviak has her own Twitter account. Town departments have blogs, and the town has an online community calendar.

Broviak said she goes slow to avoid overwhelming citizens with new features and social media services. "I try to keep adding a little bit at a time, because we're an older and smaller community. But people are taking to it well," she said.

The town also finds Skype useful for internal communications. "The way we used to handle notifications is that the secretary would get a call about a problem in town, the secretary would write a note on a piece of paper, and hand it to the right person. I'd get the note and put it in my pocket -- but then I'd have to go out and inspect a sewer, and the note would fall into the sewer and that would be that," she said. Now, the secretary simply sends a text instant-message over Skype to the appropriate person. Skype keeps a log of text IM conversations, so a city employee can refer to the log later. Some of the city aldermen use Skype to contact Broviak with problems and questions.

LaSalle also has a Facebook page. It's pretty small, with about 20 fans. "Right now we just have a page where we encourage 'fans' to join - the idea is to nurture and promote community - we also post information - but have really just started using it. I also use it occasionally to interact with other employees on there," she said in a Skype text chat.

She encourages local towns to start their own fan pages and monitor Facebook usage, even if they don't make aggressive use of Facebook themselves. She cites a cautionary tale about a city -- not her own -- where some of the summer employees, mainly college kids hired to cut grass and do other miscellaneous jobs, started their own Facebook page for the city, using the city logo, and began using that page for wildly inappropriate conversations under the auspices of the town seal.

I asked Broviak whether enough people are using social media today to make local government use of those technologies worthwhile. That's a question that's been on my mind since I posted my earlier blog on the subject this week, where I encouraged local governments to step up and start making better use of Facebook, Twitter, and other social media. I realized after posting that my comments contained an underlying assumption: That social media has sufficient penetration into the population to make using it a good way to communicate with a broad cross-section of the population.

Sure, it makes sense for business to use social media -- at least some business. For example, online shoe retailer Zappos is on Twitter. That makes sense for them, because people who are digitally connected enough to buy shoes online are more likely to use Twitter. Unlike businesses, governments don't have the luxury of segmenting the market and going after a small segment -- governments, by their nature, have to serve everybody in the population.

But Broviak said that social media can, indeed, be an effective way of reaching at least some of the population. "If you are in a large community, where there is definitely going to be large population on the computer, you definitely want to use social media," Broviak.

Still, LaSalle is not a large community and doesn't have a big computer-using population. Social media is nonetheless working out for them. How?

"For the construction project it was well worth it - we had a targeted audience," she said in text IM on Skype. "With council minutes and other SM [social media] efforts - the effort and cost is not that much, so even if it only reaches a few for now, it is more than worth it." Also, she said, as word of LaSalle's social media projects spreads, more people will sign up to them.

She added, "And as we keep hearing, the use of SM by all age groups is growing exponentially. I would rather start now and build than try to catch up later."

Pamela Broviak, city engineer and director of public works for LaSalle, Ill., in Second Life
Pamela Broviak in Second Life Broviak said she uses Second Life as a tool for connecting. She is part of a group in Second Life for public works officials, which holds a weekly meeting of about a dozen people from the U.S. and Canada. Broviak owns an island called Public Works (Second Life users can teleport to it from this link; she lets other government officials use it, letting them borrow small offices, called "GovPods," to give their local governments a presence in-world. Broviard also has islands in Reaction Grid, which is a virtual world based on an open source version of Second Life called OpenSim.

Virtual worlds allow government officials to network, visualize design, data and operations in three dimensions, collaborate on designs, and engage with and train the public and members of the industry. For example, Broviard said she is working on a model house in Second Life which will illustrate local building codes.

What do you think? Is social media a good investment for local governments? Is it a good use of taxes and government officials' time?

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