National Study Ranks City Governments’ Use of Social Media

More than six times as many big city governments reached citizens via Facebook in 2011 compared to 2009, while use of YouTube and Twitter grew fourfold and threefold respectively, a new study indicates.

Karen Mossberger, head of the University of Illinois at Chicago’s public administration graduate program, and Yonghong Wu, associate professor, analyzed and ranked the online interactivity, transparency and accessibility of the country’s 75 largest cities from March through May 2011. They used the data to compile the Civic Engagement Index, and compared it with their findings from a study they conducted in 2009.

The cities’ rankings reflected opportunities for citizen participation and information, including:

  • hosting of open data portals
  • comments allowed on blogs and social networks
  • the extent to which online discussions concerned policy as well as city services
  • information on officials, budgets, city council meetings and neighborhood issues

New York and Seattle tied for first place, followed by Virginia Beach, Va.; Portland, Ore.; San Francisco; and Kansas City, Mo., the study reported.

Mossberger said the top-ranked city governments have made technology a priority, especially for transparency or civic engagement.

“Seattle has long been an innovator in this area, with programs to address the digital divide online and offline. New York has long used the web for transparency,” she said.

Chicago tied with San Diego and Minneapolis at 17th. Toledo ranked last.

Twitter was used by 87 percent of the cities, compared with 25 percent in 2009. Facebook also was used by 87 percent of the cities, up from 13 percent. YouTube links appeared on the websites of 75 percent of the cities, up from 16 percent.

Nearly all city sites allowed comments on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube and presented policy content such as discussions of city budgets.

“In Chicago, for example, the Emanuel administration solicited budget ideas last summer on Twitter,” Mossberger said. “Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer regularly holds a virtual ‘Talk to Greg’ on Facebook and Twitter. Seattle is experimenting with platforms like the IdeaScale, where users can submit and rate ideas.”

Open data portals were found in only 12 cities: Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Honolulu, Louisville, Ky., Milwaukee, New York, Philadelphia, Portland, Ore., San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, D.C. The portals allow users access to city data on crime, budgets, Freedom of Information Act requests, city facilities, vacant land, building permits and other matters.

The researchers note that some information is not formatted for easy use by average citizens.

“For example, cities often post files that require special software, such as geographic information system software. And budget data can be difficult for citizens to understand,” Mossberger said.

Mossberger predicts that new apps may make information on data portals more usable. Apps designed in competitions in Chicago, New York, and Washington, D.C. have focused on civic engagement as well as city services.

“First-place winners in New York and Chicago addressed traffic and parking,” Mossberger said. “But in Chicago, another winning app allowed residents to contribute ideas for a park. Other apps have been designed to track lobbyists in Chicago.”

In another study confined to Illinois’ 20 largest cities, the researchers found that 55 percent of the cities used Twitter, Facebook and YouTube in 2011, compared to 15 percent for Twitter, 10 percent for Facebook, and 10 percent for YouTube in 2009.

“Ultimately, the impact of these tools depends on factors other than technology — the quality of the information, local government practices and citizen response,” Mossberger said.

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