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Column: When Social Location Sharing Meets Government Services

Friday, January 22, 2010
I had the opportunity to do some thinking about the future of social media and government a month ago in Vancouver with some very smart people. One of the things that came up (mostly due to our geeky familiarity with the social space were some "you just had to be there tweets" and a communal check-in on Foursquare.

For those of you unfamiliar with Foursquare, it is a social location-sharing service that allows you to check-in to a venue, leave tips for other patrons and unlock badges for your achievements. If you are interested in learning a little more about it, Mashable published a decent piece entitled, 5 Ways Foursquare is Changing the World. I started experimenting with Foursquare mostly because I wanted to see what was happening in the space and to try to understand some of the implications for government as this takes hold as one of the most popular social services on the web.

Where location sharing services like Foursquare and governments collide will most likely be in the area of service delivery. More specifically, Foursquare (or whatever location sharing service rivals it) will be a key social space for any government agency that delivers service via a service center. Some of the more obvious examples that come to mind are Service Canada (federal), the Ministry of Transportation (provincial), or City Hall (Municipal). More specifically, I think that government agencies can effectively use crowd-sourcing to improve their service delivery, and they can do it at little to no cost. In fact, as Eaves rightly pointed out, local governments are already doing this with their emergency response services (911).

Finding Government Services

Right now the search function for Foursquare isn't that great, but as they inevitably look to Google (or perhaps Microsoft) to improve their search function, Foursquare users will start to use it as a means to locate services relative to their location as determined by their mobile device's GPS system. Why would anyone search for an agency on the open web if all they wanted was information on the location of the service centre? Searching the open web means that people are likely to end up on the landing page of the agency, be forced to navigate the clutter of the site, and perhaps even run another text-based search. The benefit of searching within the location-sharing social service is that it separates out all of that extra data when all I want to know is the location of the service centre. Thus I think it will be is already important for agencies with service centres to populate location-sharing platforms with the correct location, hours of operation, URLs, and phone numbers. The last thing governments want or need is to confuse people about their locations, hours of operation or URLs. The way I see it is this as an opportunity to help people find government services.

Crowd-sourcing Crowd Control

One of the interesting things about Foursquare is that it allows you to leave a “tip” for a venue. A tip is essentially a small piece of advice that you can leave for other patrons. Clients can leave tips for other clients that could help with the flow of work within the centre, perhaps even ease wait times. Much like the Ottawa Public Health did with its twitter updates on the availability of location based H1N1 vaccinations, venue tips can let people know what kind of wait time they can expect as a service centre depending on when they are going to be there. I myself recently left a similar tip for the local transit office after being frustrated by a long line one day and not waiting at all the next. If that kind of information was made available, I would be more likely to plan my day around the shortest anticipated wait time at the service center.

Undoubtedly an argument can be made that organizations are already looking at service times and trying to address them. They could however do a better job at proactively communicating those wait times out to users. Communicating wait times at service centres in an official capacity takes resources, having users do it for you does not. Overall, crowd sourcing some of the crowd control could reduce wait times, reduce the stress on staff, and increase client satisfaction due to friendlier and timelier service.

Crowd sourcing Employee Performance

Again relying on the tip feature, people could provide meaningful feedback about the public servants who helped (or didn't help) them while in the service centre. This is where most people cringe, expecting to be hammered over the head with negative comments about the service they received. Negative comments should be expected and when appropriate should be considered as action items. If one of the people working in the centre receives complaints daily about their performance, than perhaps their performance should be dealt with, that is nothing new. What is new is that the barrier to providing that feedback may be decreasing. For example, leaving a tip on Foursquare is a lot easier than asking to speak with the manager. Again, receiving feedback is nothing new but in low-barrier systems, feedback becomes abundant and if we are paying attention to the long tail than we have far more to gain from this interaction than to fear from it. I am far more fearful of decreased relevancy due to lack of feedback than I am of the volume of feedback itself.

With respect to positive feedback, tips that applaud service are invaluable to managers. It motivates staff, and can breed healthy competition among employees. In a previous life I worked in service-based environments (hotels and an NHL hockey franchise) where we competed ferociously to see who would get the most positive feedback via our customer comment system while our clients benefited from our hyper-attentive service. I think this model could work much the same way within government agencies. It provides a nice carrot for performance where there are little external or systematic incentives for high-quality client service.

Furthermore meaningful feedback is more than just the complaints and/or praise directed at service providers. Opening up this channel for location specific feedback could mean a whole set of interesting recommendations about actual observable and measurable variables. Initiatives like My Starbucks Idea come to mind. What if an expert in interior design comes through and, given their background, realizes that a simple tweak to the seating arrangement could mean increased capacity or better traffic flow through the centre. Their expertise would cost nothing and could be easily captured if the expert was so inclined to share it.

Rewarding Citizen Engagement

One of the challenges I see is encouraging people to check-in to government service centers (no one wants to be the "Mayor" of the Employment Insurance Office) and soliciting meaningful feedback on an ongoing basis. I think this is where one of the other core components of Foursquare comes in - badges. Users earn badges based on their check-ins. These range from things like "I'm on a Boat" (for checking into a venue tagged Boat) to "Gym Rat" (for 10 check-ins over a 30-day period in venues tagged "gym"). I think that agencies could partner with Foursquare to create badges for those people who have checked-in to their service centers. This requires some creativity but I can see badges like, "Served" with a federal/provincial/municipal logo on it, and the subtitle "You were proudly served by X agency" being at least somewhat popular. And as Foursquare expands its service offering I think it will move into a space where it also provides badges for people leaving tips. I think that this will happen as people realize that the real social value of the platform is not just letting people know where they are but what they think about where they are.

In this type of environment, government agencies could work together and reward users with incremental badges based on the amount of tips left for government service centres. These "Digitally Engaged Citizen" badges would serve as a badge of honor to those who are attempting to help government deliver its services better and is very much in alignment with the whole government 2.0 movement.

The Tip of the Iceberg

I consider hypothesizing about things that may be coming down the pipe is incredibly interesting. I also think it is the first step in starting to achieve these things in a real sense. If you know of any government service delivery centres that are thinking about these types of initiatives please let me know. I would love to follow up with them.