Social media and the city

Social media is changing the conversation. Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, foursquare – we no longer just communicate; we interact. In the process, how can the wealth of information being generated by social media help us better understand how our cities function and create smarter cities in the process?

Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter all report membership in the hundreds of millions. Google+, the social media network launched by the search engine giant early in 2011, saw 25 million people sign up in its first four weeks. Foursquare popularised geolocation in social media, and now photographs, tweets and status updates can be tagged with your location.

Our appetite for social media is changing the way we communicate and offers new ways to interact with our cities.

Over a billion people worldwide log on to social networking sites.1 British internet users on PCs clocked up a total of 169 million hours on Facebook alone in April 2011, according to research by Ofcom, the UK’s communications regulator. Mobile users of Facebook, meanwhile, spend more than five and a half hours on the site each month.2

Clearly, social media is not a fad.

Instant communication over social networks – and the presumption of instant feedback – now underpins just about every aspect of our lives. This includes our relationships with local and city governments. The spectacular growth of social media has also increased expectations about transparency and the right to participate in the policy-making process. Used properly, social media represents new value for local authorities, especially when coupled with the right technology, such as a secure private cloud. Leading cities in the UK, US and beyond are already tapping into this hunger for public engagement, with social media playing a part in everything from town planning to combating traffic jams.

The smarter social media city

Social media provides local government with powerful and flexible tools to deliver information services through a variety of channels. Equally important, it provides unique tools for formulating policy and redefining the meaning of accountability as well.

Discovery techniques based on social media are already helping local authorities to shape the future and to define exactly what a smarter city should look like. Coventry in the UK’s West Midlands is a case in point.

CovJam is a collaborative online venture staged by Coventry City Council and IBM. It used social media as part of a unique three-day brainstorming exercise to identify ways to make Coventry a smarter city.

IBM’s “jam” technology is a proven technique for drawing on the wisdom of crowds, capturing ideas in a way that isn’t possible using traditional forms of consultation. CovJam generated more than 2,000 posts, with 82 per cent of pre-registered participants, including residents, public-sector organisations and companies, taking part.3

Following the event, IBM used corporate brand and reputation analysis to organise the unstructured information, identify patterns and to help the city council to prioritise key topics and viewpoints. For the council, CovJam provided new ideas; for local people and businesses, it provided an easily accessible opportunity for people to become active citizens.

As well as providing a channel for capturing and analysing real- time information, social media provides a critical feedback mechanism, with citizens able to report on everything from road closures to broken water mains. Commuters can also provide feedback after an incident or event is reported, using the social web including Twitter, blogs and forums.

Social media also has a unique capacity to capture the mood
of the moment and to spur powerful, impromptu actions. That can have both a positive and negative impact: social media may have been used by some rioters to organise criminal activity during the disturbances that took place in English cities during the summer
of 2011. Yet the same social media helped to galvanise the unprecedented community response that followed.4 An account on Twitter – @riotcleanup – attracted more than 70,000 followers in a matter of hours, with residents turning out to help in the clean-up operation across the country.

Key characteristics

What makes a smarter social media city? At its best, it is:


It promotes citizen involvement and builds a new sense of ownership with scope for collaboration in every aspect of city life.


It lifts the bonnet on how the city works – processes are visible, dialogue is open, feedback is swift.


It delivers services in real time with an enhanced ability to adjust to citizens’ fast-changing needs.


It respects privacy, protects data and leverages technology to enhance the physical security of citizens.

169m hours were spent on facebook by British users in April 2011 alone – mobile users spend more than five hours on it each month.

New value for local government

With public-sector budgets under greater pressure and scrutiny than ever, having the
ability to fine-tune services and to deliver them where they’re needed most is becoming increasingly important. Social media gives city authorities this opportunity, tapping into public sentiment in real time – albeit only that portion of the public using social media and in a raw form.

Crucially, it’s not just a case of passively watching and listening to what citizens are saying. The social web also makes it possible to reach out in new ways. Social networks mean local government can carry out surveys – and publicise them – at relatively low cost. Insights gained in this way not only represent a significant cash saving; they can also be carried out more rapidly than traditional opinion polls, with no paper processing delays and no risk of data transcription errors.

The use of social media also opens up potential for enhanced cross-departmental collaboration within councils. Local government is a major employer: for example, Merton London Borough Council employs upwards of 5,000 people, as does Brent Council, while Birmingham City Council is the largest local authority in Europe, employing 60,000 people – the same size as a multinational company. Tapping into that resource makes sense and can unlock real value, with crowdsourcing creating synergies that would otherwise be lost.

Perhaps the most important aspect of social media, though,
is the potential it has to open up public participation. Social media has a decisive role to play in motivating and empowering citizens, as well as increasing engagement with the third sector, which includes charities, voluntary groups and not-for-profit organisations.

As the Coventry project reveals, the online environment can be “sticky”, with users tending to spend longer perusing material than they might in an equivalent paper-based exercise. CovJam participants each spent an average of two and a half hours online.5

CovJam underlines the extent to which social media and new technology can help to improve the agility of local authorities, with complex public consultations made far more manageable and granular than an equivalent approach based on filling in paper forms.

Web-based technologies also have the potential to revolutionise routine public interactions. Research carried out by the Society of Information Technology

Management in 2010 reveals the scope of potential savings. At only 27 pence, the cost of a customer service interaction on the web is nearly 11 times cheaper than a phone transaction and nearly 25 times less expensive than an equivalent tace-to-face meeting.6

This does not mean that governments should slash all paper-based services in favour of digital – such a move risks creating a digital divide and excluding those without access to the internet.

By offering more digital channels, however, service can be improved and the public feels it has even more options.

Creating the strategy

Unlocking the transformative power of social media means finding ways to connect, collaborate, communicate and innovate.


Social media generates huge amounts of data. Finding ways to make sense of it all and to glean insights from the ongoing conversations is the challenge. For local governments and city authorities, that means using tools and techniques that have already proved themselves in the commercial sector.

Social media analytics makes it possible to measure public sentiment with real-time data mined from Twitter, blogs and other social networks. Text analytics uses natural language processing to spot key words and to gauge sentiment.7 And by combining data from social networks with existing, structured data, including internal documents, call centre notes and emails, it’s possible to obtain even better intelligence, leading to better decision-making.

For example, Medway Youth Trust, a charity working with young people in Kent, has been using IBM analytics software to help spot those at risk of becoming NEET (not in education, employment
or training).

The system combines contact information collected by personal youth advisers and community schools with the youth charity’s database.

“Social media opens up the possibility of engaging with new groups, such as 18- to 24-year-olds”

The system – which had been handled manually – has cut the effort involved in identifying potential at-risk candidates from weeks and months to hours, resulting in 250 per cent savings in time and cost processing.9 It draws on often unstructured information from a variety of sources, including social media to achieve its goals.


Research carried out as part of IBM’s Smarter Cities10 programme reveals that the public expects to see increasingly joined-up city governance. This survey of more than 2,000 adults from four British cities indicates that more than 75 per cent of Londoners want better co-operation between public-sector services and better communication with city leaders.

Smart use of social media has the capacity to enhance collaboration between different agencies and between individual departments within local authorities to leverage synergy benefits. Tools such as IBM Connections can be used by some local authorities to promote collaboration and share information internally, with discussions, opinions and knowledge-sharing covering everything from bus lanes to planning and policy initiatives.

In many cases, the impetus for implementing social networking technology for internal use has come from the workforce itself. And, like many other contemporary technological developments, it illustrates the phenomenon of consumerisation – the process by which technology emerges in the consumer market before being adopted by mainstream business. The message is clear: if local governments and city authorities do not embrace new ways of communicating, staff will do it for themselves.11


The traditional hub-and-spokes model of communications, where information was pushed from the centre to the people, is crumbling.

Social media creates the expectation of dialogue. It gives local authorities an unprecedented opportunity to publish draft policies and plans, and create active conversations throughout the process from an initial idea right through to final implementation.

The effectiveness of such collaborative information-gathering techniques is proven by initiatives such as CovJam. Similar approaches are now being tested by local authorities; the city of Leeds, for example, harnessed the power of social media – including Twitter and Facebook – to drive discussion as part of its “What if Leeds…” initiative to map out a future for the city.12

It’s also important to communicate using tools people expect and understand. That means making use of the full gamut of rich media tools that can be used alongside text-based social media. These include podcasting, photo-sharing sites such as Flickr and video hosting services such as YouTube and

Social media opens up the possibility of engaging with new groups, such as 18- to 24-year-olds who have traditionally been hard to reach. It also capitalises on the fact that when people arrive at a website via
a social network, such as Facebook or Twitter, they may spend longer looking at it than visitors who arrived via a search engine.


Social media has proved its ability to unleash innovation on the ground. By combining data, from text to geographical information and video, it’s now possible to create an all-encompassing
synthetic view. This approach could be adopted by local authorities as a way to visualise and better manage the city. A range of critical situation views could be provided, making it possible to monitor and manage traffic situations, major events, disturbances and even natural disasters.

Understand the risks

Warning: heavy Traffic ahead

The ubiquity of web access means that the potential feedback from any initiative or announcement can unleash a flood of data. An average London borough, for example, has a population of around 200,000. An online poll that generates a five per cent response means more than 10,000 sets of replies – ten times more data than is generated by a conventional survey. Analytics are needed to make sense of this deluge of data.

me Too?

Social media is all about inclusion, but not everybody has access to a computer or is sufficiently interested in engaging online. Even a small response rate in an online survey of an average London borough could generate more than 10,000 replies.

“The ubiquity of web access means that the potential feedback from any initiative or announcement can unleash a flood of data”

For smarter cities to take full advantage of social media, they will need to explore their options and collaborate in order to find the right mix of social media strategy and supporting technology.

By tapping into this new and rich source of information, local authorities will be able to turn their cities into the smarter urban environments of tomorrow between public-sector services and better communication with city leaders.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: