A recent FHWA study reports that Web 2.0 apps actually increase efficiency.
“Web 2.0” applications are online sites and applications that are user-driven, and emphasize collaboration and interaction like wikis, social media, podcasts and blogs. When Cubit has spoken with planners and engineers in the past about Web 2.0 applications, we heard things like “we have to hire extra staff to do social media” or fears of an inevitable deluge of negative comments in online forums. However, research is showing that as many as 81% of state DOTs are using Twitter to reach the public. And a recent study by the Federal Highway Administration aims to dispel doubts by shedding some light on how 2.0 applications are being used by state DOTs to meet their objectives—and how the benefits outweigh the costs.
The FHWA analyzed the use of 2.0 tools by 7 DOTs, focusing on the use of 2.0 tools for four distinct functions: information provision, planning and administration, social networking, and analysis/evaluation. They found that providing information directly to the public was the most common use for 2.0 applications, particularly through blogs and social media sites.
Sound surprising? The DOTs in this study report that 2.0 tools offer several benefits. These tools are allowing them to:
- Reach more people and new audiences — RIDOT produced a podcast series, complete with a Spanish version, detailing their unprecedented Iway project. (As a result, they have reached a younger audience.)
- Communicate more directly and customize information to a target audience –Mississippi uses six route-specific Twitter sites to disseminate its Hurricane Evacuation Guide in different regions in the state
- Engage the public in new ways — TxDOT is using Twiter, Facebook, YouTube and podcasts to inform the public and address concerns
- Provide in-depth information to stakeholders — NCDOT maintains a variety of 2.0 applications to disseminate info to media and the public, including public meeting videos
- Make their agency more accessible by giving them a recognizable “face” — MassDOT posts videos of their Secretary of Transportation’s speeches on YouTube
- Invent creative solutions using a collaborative approach — MassDOT used Twitter during a developers’ conference on data management, to provide real-time information to those who could not attend
- Communicate more easily within the agency, with the public, and with other agencies — MoDOT turned its Engineering Policy Guide into a wiki, allowing multiple users to easily review and track changes made to the document
Surprisingly, negative comments from the public in online forums have proven not to be a problem (Rhode Island and Texas, for two, report very positive experiences). And far from straining staff and resources, the study suggests that agencies can simply re-purpose existing materials (such as press releases and maps) that they would already need to produce in an environmental assessment.
Of course, with any new technology there are challenges. FHWA finds that agencies may in fact need extra staff or technical and fiscal resources, though they claim that the resulting long-term efficiencies are worth the investment. Extra staff time is often required up-front, with at least some continued effort to keep information current or respond to public comments. Also, the nature of social media means that agencies have less control over how information is presented (users can more easily make quotes and comments in other venues). And as mentioned above, there is still a lack of adequate performance measures to assess the value of these tools, particularly qualitative data. But this study is a good start.
FHWA makes the following recommendations for agencies considering using 2.0 tools:
- Have a plan for how 2.0 initiatives will support the agency’s core business mission
- Consider the full range of 2.0 tools—and consider existing tools rather than creating your own
- Use 2.0 tools to complement (not replace) traditional media
- Develop policies and guidelines for how people should access and use 2.0 applications—such as mashup map sites that drivers may want to use while on the road.
- Take critical comments as constructive comments
- Review the effectiveness of the applications
FHWA believes that the use of 2.0 tools “will continue and increase in the future,” and anticipates their use for a wider range of objectives, from real-time project updates to live-streaming public meetings and even virtual meetings with online chat features. How might these technologies change how we shape the built environment? Do you have any interesting examples of agencies or companies that are using Web 2.0 tools? Leave me a comment below!