How Local Governments Put Social Media And Mobility to Work

The relationship between the government and the governed is fragile. Citizens are quick to complain about inefficient services and the failure to address problems fast enough. But local, county and state governments can improve relationships with the citizenry by leveraging tablets, smartphones and mobile apps to deliver better, more efficient service. Many are doing just that.

New York public transportation inspectors use tablets to process inspections and issue violation notices. Barcelona’s City Council has a tablet-based social support network for elderly citizens to combat isolation by contacting people they trust. Around the Boston area, a smartphone app is allowing citizens to request fixes for potholes and broken signs.

Wherever you look, a government agency is using mobile technology in new and innovative ways to tighten bonds with citizens – all while better managing taxpayers’ money. Here are three examples where the government is using mobile technology to better the lives of citizens.

BOSTON: TURNING COMPLAINTS INTO REQUESTS
Black walkie talkie sits on desk with worker in background

In Boston, the city government wants residents to be its “eyes and ears” by downloading the Citizens Connect smartphone app to report problems such as potholes, damaged signs, and graffiti. First launched in 2008, the app was well received. “We got a great response when we first launched the app, and when we asked people why they liked it, they said, ‘When we call, we feel like we’re complaining, but when we use the app, we feel like we’re helping,’” City of Boston CIO Bill Oates told Governing.com.
A new version of Citizens Connect released in 2013 added features that further cement the relationship between city workers and residents. Workers can take photos of repairs they complete and send them to the person who reported the problem. The citizen receives the photo and the worker’s name and, in response, can send the worker a virtual high-five.

While the app increased service requests by 35 percent, according to the Boston Globe, mobile technology makes it possible to send those requests directly to work crews already in the area of the reported problem, cutting travel time and allowing each crew to finish more jobs. Boston’s success has not gone unnoticed: Fifty-four other Massachusetts municipalities are launching their versions of the app. Josh Velasquez, a resident of nearby Malden, told the Boston Globe he’s used it about 15 times. “One of the biggest things I appreciate is the speed with which the responses come,” he said.

SAN FRANCISCO: JAIL CELLS AS CLASSROOMS

Classroom with red and yellow chairs

Across the country from Boston, about 100 inmates in a San Francisco jail are taking part in a $275,000 pilot program to use tablets to access a calculator, an educational application and four websites to read books, do homework and consult legal documents. The tablet program is an extension of the city’s Five Keys Charter High School, an accredited charter school on jail grounds and aims to leverage technology to reintegrate inmates into society.

Inmates keep the tablets for most of the day for study and research. Sheriff’s Department staff monitor the tablets remotely and can disable them if used improperly. Technology use in jail cells has historically been discouraged, but San Francisco Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi says the program helps prevent inmates from returning to prison once they are released.

“It’s all about public safety and crime prevention,” he told the San Jose Mercury News. “If we equip people in our custody with a desire to learn — that also requires some motivation to help them learn and to stick with it — then we are seeing less and less people return to the San Francisco jail system.”

MECKLENBURG COUNTY, NC: ONE PERSON, ONE DEVICE

Mobile device tablet is used by medical professional

The Mecklenburg County, NC Government has equipped almost 6,000 employees — including school nurses, social workers and parks and recreation staff — with tablets to perform tasks that previously required a large number of devices and a lot of paper. Managing multiple devices increased the county’s costs and switching back and forth between them hurt worker productivity, so the county implemented a “One Person, One Device” initiative.

For the county’s Youth and Family Service social workers, the tablet has replaced stacks of paper records that slowed down the workers. If a social worker had to respond to an emergency while in the field, the person would have to drive to the office (sometimes as far as 40 miles away) to print case details before responding to the emergency. The tablets make the records easily accessible and eliminate the extra travel.

Likewise, Mecklenburg County’s school nurses who have to travel between schools use tablets to access email and the records they need. In each case, robust security is in place to help prevent private data breaches that would violate regulations such as HIPAA. The initiative has not only improved productivity, but also saved the county more than $3.2 million.

Mobile technology has the potential to save government agencies millions of dollars by replacing inefficient, manual systems, improving routing and scheduling for work crews, and reducing printing costs. In the process, it is also helping cities, counties and states have a better rapport with citizens — and that’s the kind of value you can’t put a price tag on.