The Promise -- and Peril -- of Web 2.0

What a difference a year makes!  At last year's Managing Technology conference in Seattle, the attendees spent a lot of time discussing Web 2.0 tools ...
by | May 28, 2009

What a difference a year makes!  At last year's Managing Technology conference in Seattle, the attendees spent a lot of time discussing Web 2.0 tools -- interactive sites such as Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Flickr and open-source collaborative wiki documents. While a handful of state and local agencies had already been utilizing these types of tools, many of the conferees in Seattle worried that they posed insurmountable privacy concerns, security nightmares and productivity issues.

Since then, though, a number of governments have forged ahead, acknowledging the potential risks of these third-party tools but emphasizing their ability to transform government processes.

At this year's conference, Chris Vein, the head of telecommunications and information services for the city of San Francisco, talked about how his city has wholeheartedly embraced the tenets of Web 2.0. In the middle of the nation's historic economic downturn, Vein said the promise of these types of technologies is worth the risk. "We are in a horrible crisis. I think the only way we're going to get out of it is by doing creative things and taking risks."

The city of San Francisco adopted what Vein referred to as an "open gov" policy:  "Sure, let's use YouTube. Let's use Flickr. Let's use Facebook. Whatever the case may be." The city began adopting those already available Web 2.0 tools to meet its challenges.  In some cases, the city worked with the sites to help tailor the service to meet the city's needs. For example, when Mayor Gavin Newsom wanted to use YouTube as the platform for his 2009 State of the City address -- which clocked in at over six hours long -- Vein worked with YouTube to get special dispensation for the city to upload such a lengthy video.

The dividends are quite impressive. Next week, San Francisco is launching an application that will allow residents to use Twitter to send service requests in to the city's 311 center. The city is even planning to add a functionality that will let users send photos via Twitter, to help document and illustrate their service needs. The city's Facebook page, which has more than 200,000 "fans," helps provide information to city officials they otherwise could never have received. For example, earlier this week, when the California Supreme Court handed down its decision on Proposition 8, Newsom released his initial response only on Facebook. Within five minutes of his posting, 250 citizens were writing in to respond. "That kind of immediate feedback, for a politician, is priceless," said Vein. "It wouldn't have happened if we hadn't been using Facebook."

That's not to say there aren't concerns about this Brave New Web 2.0 World. Thomas Jones, the deputy chief technology officer for the city of Washington, D.C., said he has major concerns about letting employees loose on social networking sites, because controlling the city's message becomes nearly impossible. "Quite frankly, Facebook scares me a little bit," he said. "More than a little bit."

But that's not stopping D.C. from adopting many third-party Web 2.0 tools. "We're not going to stand still. Our constituency is demanding that we move forward. People are always asking me, aren't we concerned that these kinds of tools aren't ready for prime time? Of course we're concerned about that. But we're in technology. We have to innovate. You weigh the risk and you go forward."

Zach Patton  |  Executive Editor
zpatton@governing.com  | 

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