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Top 5 Technologies Communities Can Leverage to Improve Citizen Communications

March 14, 2020 | Matt Jereb

A well-informed constituent will feel engaged and involved. Communities striving to improve citizen communications with their residents and visitors should periodically evaluate the technologies available and weigh their strengths against the community’s needs. Some technologies are excellent at getting information distributed to a broad audience quickly, while others allow for interaction and multimedia applications.

Here are five technologies to consider to aid citizen communications:

1) Text alerts

Text alerts are one of the fastest ways to communicate to citizens. A recent survey by Vision Technology Solutions, LLC states that email communications are trending down and text alerts are gaining in popularity. Signing up is easy for citizens, and there are many platforms that provide texting services such as Nixle.us, EveryBlock, Regroup.com, RingCentral, and CallWave, among others. Subscribers can sign up to receive alerts from multiple communities to know what is happening where they and their loved ones live, work, and play. Alerts can include road updates, community events, local projects, office closings, disasters, and emergencies.   

2) Mobile Apps

With 95% of the population owning a cell phone and 77% using a smartphone (according to the Pew Research Center’s findings), Americans are more mobile than ever. Consequently, mobile applications (apps) are quickly becoming a platform for civic engagement. Many government officials have found that mobile phones are the quickest way to connect with local residents. Apps can provide updates on traffic, crime, road closures, and voting reminders. For example, the City of Boston launched an app called Street Bump that gathers data about City streets using a smartphone’s built-in sensors as a resident drives.

Apps can also help local governments organize and distribute citizen issues and requests, thus reducing phone calls and walk-ins. Apps can be geared toward helping residents and visitors improve city neighborhoods, report problems, find parking, collect road conditions, pay parking tickets, track school buses, and even find out when the next trash pickup is. Some apps use “Crowd Sourcing” to share data with other users. The City of Colorado Springs recently used Waze, a popular crowd-sourcing navigation app, to include upcoming road closures for a bicycle race and proactively rerouted Waze users around the road closures during the event. Apps can demonstrate to citizens that community leaders are responsive and are providing enhanced transparency of government-gathered data, leading to more trust in local government.

3) Social Media

Local Governments are increasingly using social media to not only communicate to citizens but also leverage its ability to listen to constituents. Social media sites such as Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram are providing an effective platform to publicize events, alert people to traffic and construction situations, and other current events. Communities should note that in addition to pushing out information on social media, they also have the opportunity to listen to and engage with their citizens. Following up on feedback, questions, and comments can help strengthen community relations.

Social Media platforms should be treated as complementary as it relates to emergency relief efforts. One important thing to note is that communities should not rely solely on social media to communicate during emergencies as some constituents may not have internet access. In addition, some social platforms like Facebook limit free/unsponsored posts which reach a small percentage of followers directly in their feed/timeline. Email, text messaging, and voice are the essential emergency communications channels as they are the only outlets that can reach their entire audience.

4) Video Tools

Videos get more clicks and views than text-only communications. 72% of people would rather use video than text, according to Hubspot. Live traffic camera feeds, public safety, project renderings, public service announcements, and live streaming can help drive community participation. More communities are starting to use live video streaming services, such as Facebook Live and Periscope, to broadcast live events as they happen. Communities should consider the benefits of live sharing council meetings, festivals, parades, community sporting events, and concerts to help citizens feel that they are a part of their community even when they can’t participate in person.

5) Websites

Websites have historically been effective for providing information about living and working in a community, publishing government meeting information, and providing contact information. Now, however, municipal websites are becoming increasingly important in helping local economies by posting directories of businesses, publishing job openings, notifying local businesses and contractors about open bids and proposal opportunities, and providing permits and licensing information. They can also aid citizen communications through registering for text messages and email alerts as well as link them to social media accounts, mobile apps, and community videos. Since the use of mobile devices is steadily increasing, ensuring that these websites are mobile-friendly is imperative.

Additionally, creating specific websites for significant construction projects or community initiatives can help provide information and keep constituents up-to-date on project progress and long-term goals. 

Public involvement websites are a key tool for citizen communication during public projects.

For example, the City of Bellaire, Texas had a website developed to provide information and solicit community feedback about their Community Pathways Plan. Bellaire received community input through a survey that was heavily promoted through local groups and social media. The survey gathered recommendations from the community and the final report was shared allowing transparency so citizens could see how their feedback was incorporated into the plan.

Websites can also be key for collecting project information in addition to citizen communications. For nearly two decades, HR Green has been working with the City of Waterloo to help them transition numerous blighted properties, plagued by contamination issues, into assets that have helped expand the local tax base, create jobs, stabilize declining neighborhoods, and protect human health and the environment. A brownfields project website geared towards informing citizens of the City of Waterloo, Iowa was instrumental in empowering them to fully understand the history of environmental investigations completed in their respective neighborhoods. This dynamic outreach tool also provided an overview of the project, highlights success stories, cites leveraged sources, and included up-to-date news items. An interactive map accessible on the homepage allows users to track the status of targeted properties, review photographs, obtain parcel-specific data, and download reports.

New technologies, and how people use them, are constantly evolving. Community leaders should evaluate and consider leveraging various technologies to help them streamline communication delivery, increase transparency, and improve constituent relations.

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