Visualize this: 32,000 DC Bikeshare Trips (VIDEO)

The Capital Bikeshare in Washington, D.C. has been on my dataviz short list since I first took a crack at Boston’s Hubway data last fall. At the urging of a fellow Urban Planning student and bona fide NYC bike nut, I set out to bring the D.C. system’s open data to life. (The Capital Bikeshare is run by Alta, who will also be implementing Citibike in NYC this year)

In the 32,000 trips included in the 5-day sample, rush hour surges, pulses of local traffic, cross-river commutes, and 3 a.m. Sunday morning “Rides of Shame” can be seen throughout the city.  Trip starts are represented by Blue dots, which quickly fade away.  If the trip ended at a different bikeshare station (as most do), a moving yellow dot appears, covering a straight-line path between the start and end station.  Weekday peaks occur at 9 am and 6 pm, and system appears to be well-used all day long on the weekends.

Capital Bikeshare opened their data in early 2012 and has been useful for visualizers and transit developers alike.

USDOT in the social media slow lane

photo by freephotouk

photo by freephotouk

The U.S. Department of Transportation is officially nowhere to be found in social media circles, but DOT Secretary Ray LaHood is everywhere, including Facebook, Twitter and Flickr (no Creative Commons). DOT does have an official YouTube channel, but most of the recent videos include LaHood in his “On the Go” video chat series.

While I’m all for high-level U.S. government officials engaging with citizens via social media, LaHood, a former seven-term politician prior to becoming Transportation Secretary, still appears to be on the campaign trail, making his persona the prime focus for the entire department. In fact, LaHood is the only Cabinet member to follow this practice. With the exception of Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s Facebook page being promoted on ED’s homepage (they do have an official Facebook page), no other agency follows this protocol.

Here’s why DOT is short-sighted in its approach to social media:

  1. No long-term strategy: When LaHood leaves, presumably the accounts go with him. Even if they’re the property of the U.S. Government, the branding transition back as official DOT accounts will be cumbersome. Basically, the next communications/social media department will start from scratch.
  2. No one knows Ray LaHood: With all due respect, he seems like a great guy, but no one outside of Washington, DC, knows who heads what agency. Everyone, however, knows what DOT is.
  3. It comes off as self-serving: When the agency itself doesn’t have social media accounts, but the Secretary does, the impression is that he’s still running for office or using his position to build influence for future gain.

Hopefully LaHood and DOT’s communications team can change lanes quickly and embrace a more comprehensive and sustainable social media strategy. Citizens (and taxpayers) deserve a more refined, strategic approach to outreach.

If not, does AAA service social media?

Social Congress and the 21st century legislator

Brad Fitch, Congressional Management Foundation

Brad Fitch, Congressional Management Foundation

How is it possible, in the 21st century, that I can Skype with friends in China, keep up with my friends across the country via Facebook and exchange messages with the CEO of a startup I admire on Twitter, but yet when I try to communicate with my members of Congress, it seems like everything I do is swallowed up by the black abyss?

What? Maybe I should try tweeting to Senator Boxer, commenting on Rep. Nancy Pelosi‘s Facebook page or emailing Assemblymember Tom Ammiano? Come on, you’re joking, right? Doesn’t everyone in Congress think the Internet is a series of tubes?

Well, turns out I’m wrong. Not only is Congress up on their social media skills, but according to Brad Fitch, president of the Congressional Management Foundation:

Nearly 2/3 of staff surveyed (64%) think Facebook is an important way to understand constituents’ views and nearly 3/4 (74%) think it is important for communicating their Members’ views.

Fitch talked about how Capitol Hill perceives and uses social media at a #SocialCongress meetup Monday in San Francisco. He had some good news, bad news and interesting perspectives. (The full report will be released on July 26th.)

Bad news first: staffers agree that email and the Internet have made it easier for citizens to take part in public policy, but nearly 2/3 feel like they’ve reduced the quality of the messages they send, and less than half think that email and the Internet have increased citizen understanding of what actually happens in D.C. In other words, to quote Popvox CEO Marci Harris, “The internet has increased civic participation and lawmaker accountability but has not necessarily led to a more informed constituency.”

Great, now we have uninformed people writing to Congress. How does that possibly help our democracy? Well, as Thomas Jefferson said, “We in America do not have government by the majority. We have government by the majority who participate.” In 2005, CMF found that “Congress received four times more communications in 2004 than in 1995 – all of the increase from Internet-based communications,” and a 2008 survey by CMF and Zogby found that “43 percent of Americans who had contacted Congress used online methods to do so, more than twice the percentage that had used postal mail or the telephone.”

In this case, the good news and the bad news is kind of a mobius strip: more people are communicating with their elected officials. Those people may not be as well-informed as said elected officials hope them to be, however, the saying “the medium is the message” is more appropriate than ever when talking about the Internet. Senior managers and communications staffers on the Hill across the board said social media tools like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube were vital to both communicating the Member’s views and understanding what constituents want. The key is doing more than just liking a status update, or leaving one-word comments on a link. To make an impact on your member of Congress, you have to discuss the impact of a bill on your state or district, give a reason for your support or opposition, or tell a story.

Gov 2.0 champion Tim O’Reilly asked the question that was on the minds of all the technologists in the room:

“It’s not just about reaching Congress,” he said, “but can we use technology to make Congress smarter? People in government are ready, they want to figure it out. We have to help them be more responsive, to be the government we wish we had.”

Can citizens get satisfaction?

Wendy LeaWhen we talk about open government technology, it’s often in terms of open data, open source software, social media or crowd-sourced ideation and 311 tools. What’s rarely discussed is a truly open, transparent and comprehensive platform where citizens can comment or ask government questions and get direct assistance from public servants or even their own fellow citizens.

New Web 2.0 customer service tools such as Get Satisfaction offer government an opportunity to connect with citizens online and real time in the most transparent way possible. While adoption is slow, and the NYC Comptroller’s Office are formally leveraging these options to address citizen service issues, share ideas, report problems and even accept praise.

Compared to the private sector, government has been slow to adopt this cloud-based, out-of-the-box option, but as the push for open and need for fiscal creativity become inevitable, ‘citizen relationship management’ is the new CRM.

We asked Get Satisfaction CEO Wendy Lea to share her advice on how government can leverage Web 2.0 tools to better connect with citizens.

Given the social software available today, where do you see the lost opportunities around citizen service?

It’s funny – we live in a democracy, and we have lots of formal ways for people to express their opinions to their legislators: elections, ballot initiatives, public hearings and so on. There are tried-and-true processes to collect, synthesize and act on the results of all those formal expressions of people’s will. But then, you have millions of people voicing opinions in these huge, informal – yet radically democratic – settings in social media. And what is government doing to be receptive to that feedback, digest it in a systematic fashion and then act on it, all in an open and transparent fashion? Not nearly as much it could. The structure just isn’t there.

That’s a huge missed opportunity – to listen and engage with citizens in a manner that isn’t surveillance, but has an open posture.

What are the biggest challenges around government adopting services like Get Satisfaction and how can they overcome them?

I think the biggest challenges are cultural. There’s fear of the unknown, and there’s the need to have policies in place to govern interaction with the public. Governments revolve around structure and process, and it takes a lot of time, energy and effort to get those into place, especially if you’re the first to implement something like Get Satisfaction. It’s like, do we stick our neck out and try it? What if it blows up? Can we wait and see if someone else does it first?

The other part of it is that there are an awful lot of ways for government to listen, both through traditional, offline methods, and through the many “listening” and idea apps out there. But there aren’t many applications – like Get Satisfaction – that are designed for engagement and dialogue. So you bump up against that fear of the unknown, and not having a precedent or procedure for open dialogue that’s designed for results. In order to overcome that, you’d need to see a mental shift from fear to anticipation – anticipation that by providing people with an open arena to express themselves, ask questions and submit ideas, you’re not exposing yourself, but you’re empowering others.

What are your (citizen service) recommendations for government?

1. Be helpful and use plain language.

Keep it simple, keep it friendly, don’t overload it with government jargon. Rethink how you talk to people, and how you convey information to them. Do it in a way that’s natural and friendly to them. This doesn’t have as much to do with social software, technology, or any of that – it’s more a reminder that it all boils down to communication and your organizational culture.

2. Use tools that are common in the real world: Facebook, Twitter and YouTube and all the rest of it.

Part of being of the people and for the people is interacting with them and using the tools that they use; and going to them in their environment instead of expecting them to come to your environment.

3. Take service to people wherever they are – so that includes mobile, too.

Mobile-optimize all your services. Have a website that’s mobile-friendly, that offers services that people can actually complete on a mobile device. Right now, people have to drive all over town to go to the DMV, go to Social Security, go to the child services office. And a lot of that can be completed online, which, these days, means it can be completed on a phone.

Connect with Wendy on Twitter at @WendySLea or learn more about Get Satisfaction at

More signs of trend in changing dynamics of public access TV? Google launches YouTube for Government

Google announced the launch of YouTube for Government with a simple landing page and playlist of examples of how elected officials and government is using its video platform.

As social media savvy politicians and municipalities begin to creatively adopt free Web-based tools, public access television may find itself lose relevance sooner that we think.

Google is obviously paying attention:

With more than 200 million Americans online, political information is now regularly distributed outside of traditional media outlets. Government officials can use YouTube to engage Americans of all ages and demographics.

Most recent example from St. Charles, Missouri: