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Social media provides local government with powerful and flexible tools to deliver information services through a variety of channels. Equally important, it provides unique tools for formulating policy and redefining the meaning of accountability as well.

Discovery techniques based on social media are already helping local authorities to shape the future and to define exactly what a smarter city should look like. Coventry in the UK’s West Midlands is a case in point.

CovJam is a collaborative online venture staged by Coventry City Council and IBM. It used social media as part of a unique three-day brainstorming exercise to identify ways to make Coventry a smarter city.

IBM’s “jam” technology is a proven technique for drawing on the wisdom of crowds, capturing ideas in a way that isn’t possible using traditional forms of consultation. CovJam generated more than 2,000 posts, with 82 per cent of re-registered participants, including residents, public-sector organisations and companies, taking part.

Following the event, IBM used corporate brand and reputation analysis to organise the unstructured information, identify patterns and to help the city council to prioritise key topics and viewpoints. For the council, CovJam provided new ideas; for local people and businesses, it provided an easily accessible opportunity for people to become active citizens.

As well as providing a channel for capturing and analysing realtime information, social media provides a critical feedback mechanism, with citizens able to report on everything from road closures to broken water mains. Commuters can also provide feedback after an incident or event is reported, using the social web including Twitter, blogs and forums.

Social media also has a unique capacity to capture the mood of the moment and to spur powerful, impromptu actions. That can have both a positive and negative impact: social media may have been used by some rioters to organise criminal activity during the disturbances that took place in English cities during the summer of 2011. Yet the same social media helped to galvanise the unprecedented community response that followed.  An account on Twitter – @riotcleanup – attracted more than 70,000 followers in a matter of hours, with residents turning out to help in the clean-up operation across the country.

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