In his plea for Obama campaign technologists to dedicate their time to non-partisan, pro-accountability projects, Tom Steinberg argues that we have yet to see a “civic app” come even close to the scale of, say, TripAdvisor or Foursquare or Match.com or so many of the other platforms that have changed how we go about our day-to-day lives. But then he leaves a little footnote. “You can certainly make an argument that Twitter and Facebook sort-of represent non-partisan democracy platforms that have scaled,” he notes, “but some people disagree vehemently, and I don’t want to get into that here.”

I don’t know where this vehement disagreement is taking place, but I want to be part of it.

Is Twitter a civic app that has reached scale? Specifically, using the language of Steinberg, is Twitter “a huge, scaleable app of meaningful positive impact on democratic, civic or governance systems?”

tweet

Scale

Let’s start with the second part of the question: has Twitter reached scale? When you compare it to the above-mentioned sites — TripAdvisor, Foursquare, and Match.com — the answer is, absolutely yes. Given my own geographic focus, I’ll concentrate on Latin America, one of the world’s most active regions on Twitter. In fact, according to a July 2012 study by Semiocast, Brazilians now represent 8% of all Twitter users.

In the latest issue of Americas Society, Brazil-based blogger Rachel Glickhouse assembled a useful compilation of studies and analyses about the use and impact of Twitter in major Latin American countries. We learn, for example, that five of the ten most influential heads of state on Twitter are Latin Americans. In Chile, President Sebastián Piñera became the first president to enter office with an all-Twitter cabinet. In Mexico, Twitter helped facilitate the spread of the #YoSoy132 student protest movement. In Brazil, Twitter has helped keep the anti-corruption movement alive between the headline-nabbing scandals.

Of course, this is looking at Twitter usage through rose-colored glasses. Twitter has also been used to permit drunk drivers to avoid alcohol checkpoints and spread false rumors that caused an entire city to shut down. But these are the extreme cases — both positive and negative. Take a look at Trendsmap any day of the week and you’ll find that the vast majority of content on Twitter is both apolitical and harmless.

What really caught my attention in Glickhouse’s article are the numbers. According to 2012 data from GlobalWebIndex, Twitter now has higher per-capita usage in Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Mexico than in the United States, despite far lower internet penetration in all four countries. In fact, if the numbers are to be believed (and there is some serious doubt about that), then one of every seven Argentinians are active Twitter users. The same is true in Chile. In Mexico, one of every ten citizens allegedly has a Twitter account. And in Brazil, where Twitter will open its first office outside of the United States, there are some 40 million users in a country of around 200 million people.

These are impressive numbers. Impressive enough to convince politicians to pay attention … dedicate entire teams to help manage their Twitter communication. Writing in the Atlantic, Luis Moreno has argued convincingly that Mexico City’s Twitter users now expect their mayor to constantly communicate his activities and priorities via Twitter. Sadly for us, the numbers are even more impressive when you compare them to the numbers of users of civic platforms we support including FixMyStreet, I Paid a Bribe, Scout, Inbox Influence, Indaba, Mideast Youth, SeeClickFix, Acceso Inteligente, and Sejmometr.

Twitter and Big Data

We are constantly looking for new innovations that empower citizens to inform themselves about the workings of government and to hold their political leaders to account. But what if Twitter already is that innovation and it’s merely being underutilized?

I recently met with a representative of a “social media intelligence” company that measures activity on Twitter to advise movie theaters how many screens they should dedicate to which films based on the types of online mentions each movie receives in the run-up to its release. One can easily imagine dozens of similar uses of social media analytics by government agencies to improve how they measure the needs of residents and deliver public services. A white paper for the World Economic Forum outlines some of the possibilities:

  • Text analysis of key indicators on social media (such as increased use of public transit) can foreshadow unemployment spikes.
  • Analysis of text messages and online searches can help detect disease outbreaks (eg. Google Flu Trends). When tied to individual health records, this information is also incredibly valuable to epidemiologists who study macro-trends of patients with diabetes, cancer, and other chronic diseases.
  • Target, for example, learned that a teenage girl was pregnant before her parents did based on her shopping history. Water and electricity utilities should also be able to customize suggestions to their customers depending on their usage history. Same goes with waste removal and even the processing of drivers licenses.
  • Robert Kirkpatrick claims that mobile carriers can predict with 90% accuracy household income based solely on the frequency and amount of prepaid airtime top-offs. This has led some startups to develop algorithms that create credit rankings based on prepaid airtime habits.

The list goes on. A shared spreadsheet of over 100 mobile data collection projects is available here. It’s also worth skimming through the “Demystifying Big Data” report prepared last year by the TechAmerica Foundation. And in the UK, Policy Exchange released a report on “The Big Data Opportunity” for governments.

Is Twitter the command line of civic action?

The key question for those of us in philanthropy, tasked with distributing resources to empower citizens through innovation, is whether we should support platforms like mySociety’s FixMyTransport, which encourages users to report their experiences with Britain’s public transit, or if we should merely assume that Twitter is the platform where most Brits already report their experiences about public transit, and support the development of tools that make that information actionable to hold government agencies accountable to their users.

The pros of using Twitter are obvious: it’s a global platform with hundreds of millions of users and significant per-capita penetration in many countries. It’s a tool that people already know how to use. The fact that the platform is mostly used for purposes other than holding governments to account means that it becomes more difficult for governments to justify shutting it down. (Though that didn’t stop China from censoring the entire platform, which in turn hasn’t stopped many Chinese from using it regardless; though there is massive variation in reports of how many Twitter users are active in China — anywhere from 18,000 to 35 million.)

The cons, however, are significant. First of all, Twitter is noisy. It often feels like walking into a bar sober at 2 a.m. and trying to make sense of everyone shouting over one another. An incredibly small minority of Twitter messages contain pro-active suggestions as to how government institutions can improve their responsiveness to citizens. More than anything, Twitter tends to be a shouting match that encourages more shouting. Second, spam has arrived to Twitter in a big way, in the form of bots. Whether it’s to win elections or to get people to click on porn sites, it’s likely that a number of these fake Twitter accounts are following you. You might even be following them. How is a politician to know whether a complaint or proposal comes from an actual constituent, or a computer program writer somewhere in Russia? Finally, and most importantly, Twitter is a private company. Its algorithms are secret; we have no idea, for example, how it decides which topics are “trending.” And, until recently, we had very little knowledge why some content is removed. Twitter, a profit-driven company, decides whether it will comply, ignore, or go to court over corporate requests for content takedown and government requests for private user information.

I’m curious to hear what others think, but in my opinion this is a matter of “both” rather than “either/or.” Yes, there are probably many more Brits reporting public transit issues on Twitter than on FixMyTransport. Surely, more residents of Washinton DC complain about broken street lights on Twitter than they report them to SeeClickFix. And I’m sure that Twitter receives way more commentary about, say, the NRA Members’ Gun Safety Act of 2013 than either OpenCongress or GovTrack.

Twitter, which has a small team dedicated to government and politics, can do more to make civic reports more actionable by government agencies and civil society organizations. Similarly, the developers of civic applications might want to focus less on convincing new users to file new reports through their specialized applications, and focus more on adding value to the wealth of civic information that flows by second-by-second on platforms like Twitter.

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