A social media game to be run in five cities across the world on 31st March is highlighting the potential for government agencies to use open social media to disseminate information and gather feedback from citizens.

I’ve long been a champion of the potential of local websites to act as channels for local, regional and national government to understand what people are saying and communicate key messages.

Aggregating these networks alongside Twitter and Facebook offers the opportunity to monitor the opinions of  citizens who may represent different groups than those with whom government habitually engages. The opinions expressed through these media are also often less modulated than those expressed in the more formal channels typically used for consultation.

Events around the world last year, including the riots in the UK,  have further developed thinking about how social media can be used by government. Public agencies are paying more attention to how to get the best use from ‘public’ social  networks like Twitter and Facebook, but are also looking at citizen websites.

In London, Networked Neighbourhoods have been working with the BBC to use local websites to support a community information scheme. Time will tell what impact this first trial will have, but what’s of real note for me is that an organisation like the BBC is now able to see the potential of aggregating local websites at a regional level. (Our 2011 research underlined the increasing recognition local sites are already receiving as tools for local government).

Now a one-off social media game is being launched to orchestrate communication with and collaboration between citizens on a global level. The TAG Challenge requires contestants to collaborate across five countries to identify and photograph five ‘suspects’. The winners will receive US$5,000.

It’s more evolutionary than revolutionary in its scope, but what’s interesting is its pedigree. The game was conceived by a group of graduate students from six different countries as an outcome of a series of conferences on how social media could be used to improve transatlantic security. Funding and support were provided by the US State Department and the US Embassy in Prague, in association with the Institute of International Education.

This heritage underlines the issue of how social media must still be regarded by us all as a double edged sword, as was well illustrated by the role of local websites and Twitter in last year’s riots.

Alan Silberberg considers the potential pitfalls of how government uses social media in a thoughtful piece, Spies LIke us – Literally. He points out:

Currently there are few to zero laws regarding how conversations on social media can be used by law enforcement…….Many agencies are pressing ahead with “initial pilot programs” of converting monitoring the conversations to arrests and or stopping crime before it happens.

Although writing for the US context, I doubt that the situation is much better elsewhere.

I welcome initiatives like the TAG Challenge that have the potential to create buzz around how social media, including citizen websites can be a tremendous force for good. I remain hopeful that government agencies will better exploit the potential of aggregating local websites. However some local website administrators and an increasing number of social media users will continue to worry about interacting with public agencies on local websites or on ‘public’ social spaces until government bolsters our trust by taking measures to hold itself to account over how these new tools are used.

Hugh Flouch


Further Reading

TAG Challenge website

FEMA focuses on speed, not perfection in using social media

The US Government is testing how social media can be used to track terrorists