Emerging Tech

Commentary: If It’s Social and It’s Digital, It May Be Government

When you hear words like “digital,” “social” or “online community,” “government” should also come to mind. Agencies are adapting to developments in social media and digital technologies in some surprising ways.

Consider the Defense Department’s All Partners Access Network, formerly known as the Asia Pacific Area Network. Hosted by U.S. Pacific Command, APAN is a community of unclassified Web portals that facilitate information exchange and archiving in a collaborative planning environment. This allows Defense to build partnerships and improve security cooperation initiatives, humanitarian assistance, disaster relief and event planning. As a result, APAN provides a unique military operational capability necessary to support multi-agency operations as well as government and nongovernment organizations during complex operations and events.

Many will remember the earthquake that devastated Haiti in 2010. What  few people know is that U.S. Southern Command was charged with coordinating the humanitarian response to it. APAN served as the central communication hub throughout the response as the primary unclassified conduit for non-military information sharing and collaboration. Officials created a new Haiti group on APAN within 24 hours of the earthquake. Nearly 2,000 users joined the site in the first week, and APAN established 24/7 technical and user support to provide immediate responses to SOUTHCOM and users.

Social technologies were critical during this time, and APAN users were able to use community collaboration tools to their benefit, such as creating wikis for ease of information dissemination and retrieval, posting blogs to provide situational reports and communicating major announcements. During the relief operations, users also got a chance to see the power of mobile firsthand, as mobile and GPS imagery provided direct and immediate insight that would have otherwise been internationally inaccessible.

During the aftermath of the earthquake, discussion forums served as the primary method for collaboration and coordination. One post in the APAN Haiti community forum indicated that family members were receiving SMS messages from a victim buried in rubble. Within 30 minutes, a reply was posted to the APAN Haiti forum that provided contact information for assistance. Another community post identified the need for emergency access to a brain scan machine. An answer came from Miami, where a donor offered to provide a functional machine if transportation to Haiti could be arranged. As a result, air transportation options for the equipment were volunteered and coordinated in the same thread. The importance of unstructured data quickly became evident during the earthquake by significantly enhancing APAN’s relief efforts. The use of APAN’s community also signaled a fundamental shift in U.S. military communications, from a “top-down” structured data architecture to a more horizontal, collaborative, unstructured data community.

APAN is a perfect example of how governments can use online communities to change the methods of information sharing, collaboration and the crisis management process: Thousands of people in hundreds of organizations were connected, lives were saved and emergency response was changed forever.

This is only one example. The potential for government organizations using online communities is endless. What other ways would you like to see government organizations use online communities and other social technologies?

Rob Howard is the chief technology officer of Zimbra, Inc.

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