If you were to step back and remove yourself from current society for just a minute in your mind, what would you think about a social network taken out of context? In other words, if they had never been developed and the idea was a brand new one that someone was just sharing with you, what would be your ideas for application?
When I do this, one of the first thoughts I have is how useful that kind of connection could be in communities. Faster access to firefighters, police, and medical services, a channel for public service announcements such as inclement weather or emergencies, the possibilities are almost limitless. Which makes me wonder why more communities haven't capitalized on this.
British Police Lead the Way with Social Media
Community police forces in Britain have taken social media to heart as a means of better policing and communicating with the citizens of their areas. The North Wales police force's website describes the ways they use Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to give locals "an alternative way to source the latest news, appeals and information in 'real time'. "
The constabulary for the Isle of Man has 11,500 followers on his Facebook page, a significant percentage of the local population. He finds that the force has a better relationship with those they are policing because of the social media connection, which is backed up a report on the subject published at the end of 2012. Research of Tweets sent from and about police during the 2011 riots in London and Manchester identified nine key themes in the use of social media by police:
- Social media as a source of criminal information
- Having a voice in social media
- Social media to push information
- Social media to leverage the Wisdom of the Crowd
- Social media to interact with the public
- Social media for community policing
- Social media to show the human side of policing
- Social media to support police IT infrastructure
- Social media for efficient policing
Police forces are likely best served by Facebook, Twitter, and Flickr or maybe Instagram as far as which social sites to use. For a detailed guide for police using social media, check out this series of posts.
Other Services Benefit as Well
Police forces aren't the only public service that have or can benefit from social media. Almost every department within a local government can benefit in many ways from better communication with the community.
One example comes from Stockholm, where the emergency phone service (911 in the US) has established sms communication lines with locals who are certified. If you call emergency services with a heart attack, you might see your neighbor come through the door after a minute or two, before an ambulance can get to you. This kind of thinking can save tons of lives.
It doesn't have to be emergencies, either. Announcements and news can be distributed, questions can be answered, and it also makes a large, local, citizen-journalist group that can be very helpful in certain situations. From a local government perspective, how much input and cooperation could you get from a non-stop, 24-7 town hall meeting?
Do It Right
The thing about public services and social media is that you can't afford to half-understand what you're doing. Bad information or an inappropriate comment about an emergency or police activity could be very, very bad.
A strict policy needs to be designed and adhered to, and training is needed. Appropriate tools are also a necessity, and the best tool you can have for social media monitoring and interacting is good social media management software. With the right software you can handle sms, email, blogs, and social media all from the same dashboard, analyze the data, and distribute to all platforms through a single conduit.