Gov 2.0: Now the real work begins

Having picked all the low-hanging fruit in the form of Facebook, Twitter and mobile apps, federal agencies will be more targeted in their social media approaches in 2012.

The go-go days of “Gov 2.0” social media and mobile applications likely are over. That's not to say that Gov 2.0 is passé. It's just that we are in transition from a period of rapid adoption and experimentation into a time of more discerning judgments about value and efficiency. That applies to familiar social formats and also the newer formats including Google Plus and Facebook Timeline.

Just as Facebook grew quickly to about 150 million U.S. members and then stabilized, the growth rate for Gov 2.0 is slowing down. As of mid-2011, nearly all major federal agencies already had a presence on Facebook, Twitter or both, according to the Government Accountability Office. Many agencies also host mobile websites or applications. The get-your-feet-wet phase is over.

After three years of forays into Web 2.0, most federal agencies have picked the low-hanging fruit. In the next phase, they are becoming more discerning about what they do, whom they target, and how they engage citizens and get valuable feedback. They are focusing on the tools that really work.

That means fewer instances like the National Hurricane Center trying out Facebook last year as an experiment in communicating more effectively with the public during disasters and more examples like the Peace Corps using Tumblr, a quirky blogging platform, as a recruitment tool.

“Instead of everyone jumping on the bandwagon, we will see agencies leverage how and where social media is used,” said Lisa Dezzutti, president of research firm Market Connections. “They will build a presence in a few key areas and execute well.”

That shift has already begun, said Gadi Ben-Yehuda, social media director at the IBM Center for the Business of Government.

“We are seeing federal agencies using social media to fulfill their missions,” Ben-Yehuda said. “They are using mobile apps and social networks to collect and analyze data to make better decisions.”

This second wave of adoption is more thoughtful and deeply engaging than the initial one. Targeted social media efforts also fit the current climate of intense fiscal austerity, which requires careful use of resources. Federal managers know that although social Web tools are relatively low in cost, they can rely heavily on staff hours to maintain.

Government agencies are also becoming savvier about the drawbacks of the Web 2.0 environment, which include viruses, identity theft, privacy incursions and search engine spam. A related issue for 2012 is how government use of the Web is being affected by the commercial ambitions and filtering activities of Facebook, Google and other Web 2.0 giants to leverage more Web content in their own favor.

Anil Dash, founder of Expert Labs, is among those who have warned recently of Facebook’s insidious tendency to promote captive content on its network ahead of open content from the Web.

Facebook’s stated goal is to become the Web’s preferred conduit for all information. Google, Amazon and others have similar high hopes for leveraging Web content on a broad scale.

Certainly many citizens (and citizen journalists) wonder whether those self-interested goals will hinder the ability to obtain fast, free and reliable information from government agencies on the Web. Will citizens have to log into Facebook or Google Plus and wade through multiple influenza bulletins from friends before getting the latest update from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention?

“With Web users filtering content through friends, how do you preserve content integrity?” asks Renu Kulkarni, executive director of the FutureMedia Initiative at the Georgia Institute of Technology. “For government, it is tricky.”

She said she believes highly credible and valued government content will still likely rise to the top in a “friend-filtered” Web eventually, but it might take time.

Talks about how the government could, or should, get involved in preserving the free flow and integrity of public information in the Web 2.0 environment are just getting started.

Accountability

With the 2012 presidential election looming and Occupy Wall Street and Tea Party activism on the rise, it is not surprising that government accountability is a hot topic on the Web. Federal agencies can expect the level of scrutiny to rise dramatically this year, both online and off-line.

Websites such as USAspending.gov and Recovery.gov continue to lead the way in demonstrating effective federal transparency and accountability. Agency data is being read, analyzed and charted; agency tweets are being turned into news articles (thanks to Storify.com); and Facebook status updates are regularly liked, linked and blogged. All that means more pressure to be open and transparent while avoiding the pitfalls of too much information.

Visual communications

It took a while for images to be recognized as some of the most powerful Web content. But now the General Services Administration, NASA and the Peace Corps are making greater use of stand-alone images in their Web communications. A picture can be worth more than a thousand words.

Several trends are converging to bring imagery into focus. Computer monitors have become larger and colors more vivid so the imagery is more eye-catching than ever. Furthermore, geospatial tools have made mapping programs ubiquitous, which means data is richer and has more visual oomph. Also, photographs, graphs, charts and drawings can help circumvent language barriers.

Government is becoming a key provider of valuable visual communications. For instance, NASA’s space photographs are consistently ranked among the most popular images on the Web.

Big data

It used to be that 1 terabyte (1 trillion bytes) was a large amount of data. Now we have petabytes, exabytes, zettabytes and yottabytes. The era of big data is here to stay.

The amount of data has exploded, with most of it created in the past two years. It includes sensor data, digital videos, consumer transactions and cell phone signals collected globally around the clock. Governments play an expanding role in collecting, distributing and analyzing large datasets for improved productivity, innovation and competition.

The White House’s Data.gov website offers more than 300,000 datasets for free. The goal is to encourage private developers to create applications that make the data user-friendly. For example, volunteers tackled the Health and Human Services Department’s data on hospital quality and made it accessible to consumers via the Bing search engine.

As Todd Park, chief technology officer at HHS, said during a recent seminar, publishing the data is 2 percent of the work and marketing is 98 percent. The marketing part might become easier in 2012 because pioneers have already shown how to do it.

Identity management

Identity management continues to be a volatile and increasingly high-profile issue in the Web 2.0 and Gov 2.0 worlds, with several opposing trends leading to a possible clash in 2012.

The Obama administration’s National Strategy for Trusted Identities in Cyberspace calls for reliable methods of authenticating identities online. Google and Facebook also have stated goals of verifying the identities of their users, with no pseudonyms allowed.

On the other hand, the Electronic Privacy Information Center advocacy group has warned that broad-based identity schemes on the Web could raise the risk of privacy losses and of cyber-identity theft. Also, Twitter, which allows pseudonyms, is soaring in popularity. It doubled its U.S. user base in the past year and now has 100 million active users worldwide. Some suggest that Twitter’s rise is occurring partly because the service allows users to avoid the identity control issue.

Government agencies have had mixed records with large-scale identity management. Examples include the Homeland Security Department’s E-Verify system for determining employees’ eligibility to work in the United States and U.S. passports, which GAO said have historically had gaps in security. Clearly, identity management on the Web will continue to be a complex issue for government in 2012.

Read about the state of acquisition in 2012 or more forecasts for government IT.

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