Stephenson: Government in your hand

Governing in the YouTube era will change relations between government and citizens

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s decision to let people attach camera-phone photos or videos to their 911 or 311 calls demonstrates how new technology will inevitably empower individuals in their relations with governments as it has their relationships with the news media. Referring to YouTube’s popularity, a Bloomberg aide said, “This is the way the world is now working, so it’s just time to bring 911 and 311 into cyberspace.”

Powerful, networked personal communications devices and applications are part of the reason for the transformation. Equally important but less understood, however, is a new scientific understanding of how leaderless groups, such as social networks of people linked by cell phones are capable of high-level collaborative thought and action.

That combination can transform the public’s relationship with government from a passive recipient of services into an invaluable collaborator. One example of how devices and applications are empowering individuals illustrates the potential for new interactions between government and individuals.

The District of Columbia publishes several Web-accessible databases that it updates in real time. Using one of those databases and city maps, also available on the Web, someone created a Google mash-up that tracks pothole complaints and pothole repairs.  A mash-up combines content from two or more Web applications in a new hybrid Web application. Displays showing the status of potholes repairs subtly, but effectively, keep the city’s Department of Public Works on its toes. That example also illustrates an important aspect of the Web 2.0 world. Some call it “sousveillance,” which happens when people turn the tables and monitor government.

Also, the growing scientific understanding of the principle of swarm intelligence is an important aspect of this potential transformation of government. The term suggests that groups of people may be capable of a higher level of collaborative behavior than could be predicted from the abilities of individual members.

The synergies between networked devices and social networks mean that friends and neighbors can share real-time, location-based information during a terrorist attack or disaster and plan better responses than preplanned ones to fast-changing situations. An example of that is the action of strangers thrown together on Flight 93, who used situational awareness obtained from cell phone calls to organize the only effective action left for them to take that day of terrorist attacks.

In addition to the new benefits, Global Positioning System devices and camera phones create privacy concerns. But people can manage them by designing interactive processes to eliminate crank users.

During the recent tornadoes in Alabama, first responders had trouble communicating because they, along with everyone else, reached for their cell phones rather using the state’s $18 million emergency network. Does that undercut my point? Not at all. It only shows that government must move quickly to use these devices for creating a resilient, flexible network in which we all have a constructive role.   

Government in your hand — it’s coming whether officials want it or not. The government’s challenge will be to find new ways to make the public an effective partner in government and capitalize on this new, bottoms-up technology.

Stephenson is president of Stephenson Strategies, a homeland security and e-government consulting company.

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