Agencies 'open the door' to innovative uses of social media

Thursday - 1/23/2014, 7:40am EST

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"While #Janus buries DC, our Tomb Sentinels remain ever vigilant at their post!" the Old Guard of the Army tweeted, along with a photo of a guard at Arlington National Cemetery.

With 437 retweets and 264 favorites, the tweet is just one example of how agencies are increasingly expanding their use of social media.

More than 60 social media apps are now available to agencies, allowing them to select the best method to meet their missions.

But it's not just about the social media tools, said Justin Herman, social media program manager at the General Services Administration.

"Now we're talking about capabilities," he said on the Federal Drive with Tom Temin and Emily Kopp. "We've been talking for a good half year that one of the areas that's most ripe for innovation is in emergency management."

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is now using crowdsourcing to improve response to disasters. The agency's mobile app features a "Disaster Reporter," where users can take photos of disasters and display them on a public map for others to view.

The State Department is using an Application Programming Interface (API) that provides automated safety warnings and alerts for U.S. citizens traveling abroad. Web developers integrate the API into tourism guides and travel agency websites. Once the data-set is programmed in the third-party site, the site can deliver real-time alerts to consumers.

Some agencies, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Geological Survey, have worked collaboratively with Twitter to launch Twitter Alerts. They allow users to get an immediate update on a flu outbreak or an early warning for an earthquake.

Herman said social media is especially beneficial when agencies have limited resources and budgets. Compared to the price for an agency to answer a question via phone or email, social media can reach a much larger audience at once and at a lower cost.

"This is exactly where social media in government excels, because it's helping agencies improve their missions ... but it's using free technology from the private sector most of the time," he said.

It may seem like the perfect solution, but Herman said customizing social media tools is a major challenge for the federal government.

"These tools were not developed for public services," he said. "However, it's our responsibility to adapt them to public services and our needs."

The Social Media Community of Practice (CoP), also referred to as the SocialGov community, works to improve government's use of social data.

Launched in June 2012, the community has established best practices for using social media in government. It also organizes social media trainings for agencies.

"It's over 140 federal agencies, more than 500 managers, directors, we've got a couple of CTOs in there," Herman said. "Across missionaries, we are all able to meaningfully collaborate and put together these working groups and deliver results on it. That is part of the promise of using these internal, collaborative tools — that we're able to break down those silos."

Herman said many social media tools are often not as user-friendly or accessible to persons with disabilities.

"We work very closely with the Department of Labor to try to work with platforms and work with agencies to make sure that, while we're rushing to adopt these emerging technologies, those technologies and our programs are accessible to the very people who need it the most," he said.

NASA has been lauded among agencies for its innovative and prolific use of social media. Its Twitter handle is the most followed in the government.

The agency hosted Google Hangouts with astronauts aboard the International Space Station.

The State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs later followed NASA's lead. The bureau hosted a Hangout to address questions about its visa application process.

"Programs like these shatter the mold for what limits other agencies think exist and open the door to better programs across mission fields," Herman said in a blog post.

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