Outside analysis can be good indicator of citizens' online needs

Agencies urged not to wait for official guidance on new media to figure out what makes users tick.

Federal agencies should pay more attention to third-party data on the popularity of their Web offerings, as they wait for White House guidance on new media strategies, according to federal consultants. The administration has yet to issue policy granting agency officials broad-brush permission to gather online feedback on citizens' needs or to join certain mainstream online communities.

"If I were to make one social media investment, it would be in analysis," said Neal Thurman, a principal at Customer Value Partners, a consulting firm that aims to improve customer service operations through technology and specializes in the intersection between new media and cybersecurity.

Rather than collect opinions through questionnaires -- which can be time-consuming given policy barriers -- agencies should seek intelligence from private sector companies such as Scout Labs or Umbria that track the likes and dislikes of Internet users on social media outlets, such as the miniblog Twitter and video-sharing site YouTube.

"The tools are certainly out there and it seems like a much more effective use of time than putting up the form," Thurman said.

Some researchers predict that President Obama's new technology appointees will work to "democratize data," or provide online access to raw statistics from agencies, but even they will run into legal and financial hurdles.

Federal Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra, who Obama tapped in April, is expected to expand on the strategic use of technology he deployed in Virginia as the commonwealth's secretary of technology "to contribute to the nation's economic recovery while improving citizen service," wrote Adelaide O'Brien, research manager for Government Insights, in an April report. Government Insights is a consulting division of technology media company IDC.

"His challenges are formidable, including where to focus his time and energy, but Chopra's ability to grasp the big picture and quickly leverage technology to solve economic issues while better meeting citizens' needs will serve him well," she added.

While working for Virginia, Chopra and Virginia Secretary of Education Tom Morris launched a community Web site to update state physics textbooks. The Flexbook, an Internet-based set of instructional materials, was co-authored by volunteers from Virginia public schools, universities and industry.

On Monday, O'Brien said, "When it comes to transparency, innovation and engaging citizens in the whole government experience" Chopra and federal Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra "believe in the democracy of data."