Santa Monica Lookout
Public Technology Institute Celebrates Santa Monica's Tech
By Jason Islas
August 16, 2013 -- Santa Monica is one of a handful of local governments using groundbreaking technology to bring democracy to its citizens, according to the nonprofit Public Technology Institute.
The PTI recognized Santa Monica as one of nine “Web 2.0” enabled governments in the country Wednesday, a designation that acknowledges City Hall's aggressive use of social media tools to reach out and engage residents.
"People expect to engage their governments using mobile devices and social media tools," said Chief Information Officer Jory Wolf. "This award recognizes the success we have had in anticipating and meeting this demand."
According to City officials, residents can interact with City departments through more than 180 social media tools, including Facebook, Twitter and Youtube.
PTI singled out Santa Monica's Be Excited Be Prepared campaign which uses social media to inform residents and visitors about the major construction projects happening around town.
“We really showcase (the campaign) when it comes to social media,“ said Wolf, because it uses “really cool web technologies.”
Visitors to the City's website, which was created by in-house developers, can look at interactive maps of construction sites around the City, get updates on how the projects are progressing and even see real-time footage from some of the sites, Wolf said.
The mobile version of the site uses GPS to pin-point a visitor's location and give him information specific to his immediate vicinity.
Santa Monica's use of technology isn't just a one-way street. City officials are using social media and other emerging web technology not only to convey information but to get feedback from residents as well.
In January, the City launched a public forum -- run by a company called MindMixer -- where residents can weigh in and help develop Santa Monica's forthcoming Pedestrian Action Plan.
Since it launched, about 2,000 visitors have come to the site, sharing more than 400 comments, questions and ideas on the public forum, according to officials.
“It's a good opportunity for public discussion,” Stefan said, adding that it's very useful for reaching out to residents who want to participate but can't always make it to public meetings.
It also allows for longer, more robust conversations, she said, since visitors can come back to discussion threads over longer periods of time than they could at an in-person meeting.
The forum has other uses, too.
Participants have used the forum to draw attention to problems that can be fixed immediately, like broken sidewalks.
Stefan said that City officials have requested that the MindMixer employees who moderate the site identify posts that deal with problems that could be fixed in the short term and let the planners know about them.
While the City uses the Go System, which allows residents to alert City officials to about pretty much any problem from their phones, computers or electronic tablets 24 hours a day, the online Pedestrian Action Plan forum has augmented that system, Stefan said.
The online forum is just one several ways the City's Planning Department has come into the 21st century.
As part of the City-wide effort to expand technological outreach, the Planning Department recently updated its website and has begun using Facebook and Twitter to promote public meetings.
While most departments have had a lot of success with the City's technology strategies, Wolf said that there are few stragglers.
“I'd like to see more utilization of the Santa Monica Buy Local site,” he said. “It's really important for our local businesses.”
Santa Monica's Buy Local site allows visitors to see a list of businesses which participate in Santa Monica's Buy Local program, which aims “to support local businesses and raise awareness of the community, economic and environmental benefits of choosing local first,” according to the website.
The site offers visitors a map of participating businesses, a self-guided bike tour of local businesses and an up-to-date calendar of Buy Local events.
Wolf said that part of the reason he wants to see the Buy Local site get more traction is that it makes it easier to “support those local businesses that are doing what the community of Santa Monica thinks they should be doing,” referring to sustainability, environmental-friendliness and overall socially-responsible business practices.
Santa Monica has a long tradition of using technology in public outreach.
In 1989, Santa Monica's Public Electronic Network (PEN) -- a virtual town hall -- became one of the first online public forum run by a city government.
At its height, PEN boasted around 4,000 members, including homeless individuals who used the network to advocate for a public shower system within the city.
Input from the City's homeless population on PEN led to the establishment of the SWASHLOCK program in 1993.
SWASHLOCK, an acronym for showers, washers and lockers, "provides homeless people with access to restroom and shower facilities, as well as a place to store personal belongings while they are working or looking for work, and until they can find more stable housing," according to OPCC, the local homeless shelter that began running the program in 2005.
Eventually PEN shut down after users began fleeing due to online bullying.
In a presentation at the 99th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association at San Francisco in 1991, Councilmember Kevin McKeown said, "There is a dark side to the Force.
"The same relative anonymity and detachment that preclude prejudice on PEN also disable the social feedback on behavioral norms that usually shapes and distinguishes a 'civilized' community," he said.
"To put it simply, otherwise nice people can get downright nasty," McKeown said.
So far, City officials haven't seen that problem repeated in its new social media drive.
“We haven't had much trouble," Stefan said about the public online forum for the Pedestrian Action Plan. Part of the reason for that success is that MindMixer takes down any defamatory statements or profanity, she said.
Censorship was a sticker issue with PEN, Wolf said, because it was moderated by City officials and it raised tricky legal questions about free speech if they were to take down comments.
Wolf is optimistic this time around, though, adding that new and emerging technologies are making it easier to engage with a broad base of residents.
"Every since social media came to pass and we have more and more people engaged in it, we're speaking to a lot more voices," he said.
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