‘The Internet is the new Town Hall’

‘The Internet is the new Town Hall’

By Juan Perez Jr. September 13, 2012 11:01 am Comments

Here’s how the question is posed on The Atlantic’s “Cities” blog: “What if you never even had to contact City Hall about that needed road repair on Main Street, because City Hall already saw your tweets? (And we know you spend a lot of time on Twitter moaning about #potholes).”

The basic idea is that city government could mine social media data to determine citizens’ feelings about, well, potentially anything.

IBM, through it’s Smarter Cities program*, calls it “social sentiment analysis”.

This isn’t a super exotic concept to data/social media geeks: IBM’s algorithm will basically ”analyze millions of public tweets, with the goal of creating real-time public opinion snapshots. They transform 140 characters from raw, unstructured data into valuable insights, gauging sentiment and following trends on a variety of topics from the retail, sports and entertainment, including major events like the World Series, the Super Bowl and the Academy Awards.”

It’s another idea in local government’s ongoing efforts to find new ways to respond to taxpayers. Established methods of reaching out are getting more local exposure, too.

Omaha recently unveiled its smartphone application to help residents report problems. There’s also some interest in establishing a traditional “311″ phone hotline system to serve as the main number for general calls to City Hall. Consultants have said establishing such a system would cost $1.2 million over three years. City Council members added $40,000 to next year’s city budget to fund 311 software.

EDIT: Mayor’s office says there’ve been 3,088 downloads of their app so far (nearly evenly split between iPhone and Android platforms). Could be a promising start.

But what could the future hold?

*Omaha was one of eight U.S. cities and 33 cities worldwide to receive a Smarter Cities Challenge grant this year. Nothing to do with social media, though. Our grant is supposed to help examine the total costs of urban in-fill development versus suburban sprawl. IBM consultants were supposed to spend three weeks in Omaha this fall to examine such redevelopment efforts, but I’m told the project hasn’t moved much at all yet. Stay tuned.


  1. Torsten Adair says:

    311 works great here in NYC.

    If I see something that needs fixing, I make the call and an operator transfers me to the correct person. The call might take 5 minutes (due to paperwork), but the response is immediate.

    If the 311 system is used as the impetus to make the City and County more efficient, instead of just being a receptionist, then the expense of running the system would be covered by reduced costs.