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How local governments are using social media to stay plugged in.

Everyone knows cities are rapidly changing. But what’s changing even faster is the way these cities are communicated about and especially the way they communicate with us. Besides the fact that the spread of social media enables city dwellers to share important information more freely than ever, a number of American cities have decided to get in on the action themselves. 

Seattle and New York City scored the highest marks in a study released in 2012 by the University of Illinois at Chicago, which ranked use of social media by city governments. Other digitally-savvy cities are Portland, San Francisco and Austin. These cities are using everything from Twitter to Vine to connect with their citizens. 

Seattle in Washington state is home to some of the United States’ most innovative technology companies, so it’s not surprising that it ranks high on the list of active civic Facebook and Twitter users. The city administration recently launched a mobile app called “Find It, Fix It” that makes it easier for Seattle residents to report issues like graffiti, potholes, burned out streetlights, abandoned vehicles and more. 

All users have to do is shoot a picture through the app and upload it. The pictures are all geotagged, so city officials can accurately respond to each and every report. The Seattle City Council even sponsors “Find It, Fix It” walks—one walk was recently led by Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole. “Of course we are concerned about violent crime and gun battles, but quality of life issues are important, too. If we don’t address those, it will lead to more serious crime,” says O’Toole.

Another city with a large and diverse social media division is Austin, Texas. This city’s social media department includes resources like “Art In Public Places,” “Bicycle Program,” “Live Tobacco Free Austin” and even a “Music Division.” Each of these resources has its own Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Flickr accounts. Some even have a Pinterest page. It’s no wonder that in 2013, Austin was declared one of the top tech-savvy digital cities in the United States by e.Republic’s Center for Digital Government and the Digital Communities Program.

According to Todd Sander, executive director of the Center for Digital Government, “The top digital cities are leaders in open data and transparency efforts, as well as innovators in deploying mobile applications to citizens while conforming to fiscal standards.” Among the specific digital programs that Austin was recognized for were its use of the 3-1-1 system online, which is a single point of contact for every Austin city department, the Austin Public Library’s online catalog and the use of the Combined Transportation, Emergency and Communications Center, which organizes seven emergency response and communication resource agencies in one facility.

But city administrations aren’t on Facebook to just score “likes,” they’re also there in times of emergency. New York City Fire Department’s social media manager Emily Rahimi recalls the trying weeks in October 2012 when Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast.

“Once the emergency calls started coming in, I was surprised and it took a second to figure out how I was going to handle it,” Rahimi told the publication Emergency Management. “I didn’t think about the fact that with cell service down, they’d still have access to Twitter.”

In the absence of the Internet, Twitter users can activate Twitter text messaging on their cellphones and update their status by sending the message to 40404. So, Rahimi used the official Twitter account in a way it hadn’t been used before, sharing emergency info and calming storm-struck citizens. 

But don’t worry, Twitter is still being used for more light-hearted communiqués, like when comedian and TV host Stephen Colbert challenged New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio to appear on his show by tweeting: “I demand you come on my show! Stop dodging me, Mr Mayor!” He was happily surprised when the Mayor quickly tweeted back:  “Sure. How about Wednesday?” And, indeed, De Blasio appeared as a guest on Colbert’s show on July 16.

Now that’s what you’d call successful social media outreach.


Anne Walls is a writer and filmmaker based in Los Angeles, California.