Commentary: Agencies should monitor social media to improve services

As Congress goes about grilling Homeland Security Department officials over their efforts to monitor social media -- as they did in at a hearing in late February -- a more fulsome understanding of the benefits of such monitoring is needed. The value of systematically examining social media exchanges extends far beyond following terrorist chatter. Rather than asking why some agencies are monitoring social media, Congress should be asking why more aren't doing it.

Monitoring and analyzing terrorist conversations to gain actionable intelligence is simply the low-hanging fruit that agencies can pick to aid their missions. There are at least three additional ways social media monitoring can be useful -- even critical -- for government agencies, along with a variety of other benefits as well:

Improve situational awareness and emergency response. Consider the 2011 earthquake in Virginia, recent protests across the Middle East, or even Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger's heroic 2009 landing of US Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson River. The first bits of information about those events came from witness accounts shared through Facebook, Twitter and other social media. If the government does not monitor those public communications, then it is turning its back on life-saving information.

If social media had been a viable resource during the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and agencies were monitoring those channels, they could have more effectively kept citizens informed during the unfolding crisis. The same might have been true for Hurricane Katrina. Had Twitter been as pervasive of a tool for spreading information during the 2005 disaster, emergency response officials on the ground could have more readily identified assets at their disposal, such as the dozens of school buses that could have been used in mass evacuations but instead were infamously left to rot in a parking lot.

Analyze disease outbreaks before they become pandemics. People provide a lot of personal information online, even on open forums like Twitter. The information can and is being used to identify patterns in disease transference across geographic areas. In January, scientists at Children's Hospital Boston and Harvard Medical School used Twitter to track a cholera epidemic. Researchers were able to collect 4,697 reports and 188,819 worldwide Tweets. While it wasn't perfect science, they were able to make a general assessment regarding the outbreak activity, including a calculation of its "reproductive number," indicating how quickly the illness was progressing. More important, they did the analysis two weeks faster than they could have using a traditional sampling methodology.

These insights are helpful for public health professionals trying to determine the necessary resources that health care providers and hospitals need to adequately prepare for outbreaks. The last thing we all want is to be left without enough medication to go around or information that could help prevent infections.

Saving money through program evaluations. Studying social media analytics also can help save money. The government spends billions on health prevention messaging and marketing every year, but it is notoriously hard to evaluate the effectiveness of such efforts. Via social media monitoring and analysis, agencies can quantify the exact reach, penetration and effectiveness of their message. Data derived from aggregating social media commentary could help to refine the message and avoid wasting resources on ineffective campaigns.

Similarly, instead of slashing budgets arbitrarily, Congress and agencies could work together to gather information on what the public thinks about government programs and services and make budgetary and programmatic changes based on actual evidence, not the anecdotal testimony of a few outliers paraded before lawmakers at hearings on Capitol Hill.

OhMyGov Inc. provided such an analysis for the Veterans Affairs Department in 2010. We analyzed what veterans complained about online with regard to VA services. Given the department's main charter to provide quality health care to veterans, it's easy to think quality of care would be the No. 1 complaint. It wasn't. Only 5 percent criticized the quality of care they received. But 60 percent complained about atrocious customer service, most of which was directed at seven specific facilities. With this information, VA can allocate resources to fix problems instead of mandating across-the-board health care quality improvements.

This type of aggregated data, where personally identifiable information is not included, is critical to informing government leaders about operational effectiveness and can save a lot of money by identifying where resources should be spent.

Physicians are switching to evidenced-based medicine; isn't it time our government moved to evidence-based program management?

Congress' attention to DHS' monitoring of social media is laudable, but ultimately ill-founded. Social media represents the single richest data source for solving some of our nation's greatest challenges. The immediacy of social media provides almost limitless potential for feedback on government services, and this dialogue could help federal leaders keep a finger on the pulse of public sentiment to determine what's working and what needs improvement.

Richard Hartman spent more than 24 years in federal service as an Air Force officer and a career member of the Senior Executive Service. He is the chief operating officer of OhMyGov Inc.

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