Ryan Link, a Planner with Michael Baker Jr. Inc’s (Baker) Richmond, Virginia office, got hooked on social media over a year ago when working with the non-profit Athletes for a Cure. He immediately made the connection that sites such as Twitter and Facebook could increase public engagement, involvement and outreach for NEPA and just about any planning project.
Recently, Baker has had the opportunity to use these social media sites for the Loop 1604 EIS in San Antonio, TX. The Alamo Regional Mobility Authority (ARMA) is undergoing a 3 year environmental study for Loop 1604 around San Antonio, Texas. In addition to traditional public involvement and outreach like a “More for 1604” website and public meetings, Baker and the Alamo RMA are using 4 popular social media sites to communicate about the EIS: Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. Below is a little more information about these sites and how they are being used by Baker and the Alamo RMA to increase engagement during public involvement for the Loop 1604 EIS project.
Facebook is the most popular social networking site in the world, boasting 300 million users. Users stay current with friends and colleagues via messages, status updates, blog posts and photo galleries. Facebook provides one of the most efficient and free services to stay current in your social world and in the outside world.
The “More for 1604” page Facebook page invites visitors to “Become a Fan”, and join 257 other fans. The “About Me” section tells me that the purpose of the Facebook page is to enhance communication in the community and to make their EIS process transparent.
Scrolling down the news feed, I can find pictures of the meetings or submit my own photos. Status updates include invites to submit articles, blogs, and editorials about the Loop. There are polls and “Questions of the Week”, one of which was “What are your to 3 reasons for using Loop 1604?” The page also cross-references their Twitter page.
Twitter is another successful free social networking site that provides a mini-blogging service. Users set up profiles, add “followers,” and then send messages to their followers. The 140-character mass messages to followers, called “tweets,” vary in purpose: announcements, questions, answers. Tweets can be passed along (“re-tweets”) and replied to creating distributed conversations.
The More for 1604 Twitter page gives their bio as, “The latest on the Loop 1604 Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).” The project has 36 tweeps or Tweeter followers as of today. A recent tweet, from only a few hours ago, gives a link to some materials that will be available at an upcoming meeting:
Flickr is a free picture-sharing website, on which users sign up, upload pictures, and share them in a “photostream”. “Geo-tagged” photos may be displayed on a map. Flickr users have the ability to comment on photos, bookmark them and share with others.
The More for 1604 photostream on Flickr displays a large grid with 38 photos of recent public meetings and the project study area. Unlike Twitter and Facebook, this website does not provide links to their website or any other social media site. Poking around, I find that the account has only been set up in August 2009, so time will most likely bring a more developed site.
YouTube is another extremely popular website that enables users to upload and share videos. Again, you can create a profile, upload your videos, and others can save them as favorites, comment on them and share them.
The More for 1604 Videos page encourages community participation. It displays a video screen with a 19-second clip of a recent public scoping meeting with 22 views as of today.
On the right side, there are more videos of the scoping meetings, showing more interactions with the public, as well as videos of the current traffic conditions of Loop 1604. I scroll down, and there is their profile, showing the number of channels and videos watched, as well as subscribers. The most popular video on the site has over 70 views.
So, Is It Working?
Link is pleased with the follower and fan counts for the different sites. Residents seem to be using social media to stay informed about the project. Link hopes that residents will use social media channels to communicate and engage with the project team more in the future.
It is interesting to note that none of the comments made using these methods will be included in the administrative record. Recent discussion about this controversial subject on the Re: NEPA website debates whether the the public discourse contained in such media outlets should be considered for the administrative record. The Federal Highway Administraion (FHWA) is still working on an official policy to address the use of social media in the EIS process. Hopefully, FHWA and other government agencies will expand their public involvement guidance to address social media in the near future.
But for now, The More for 1604 website provides a disclaimer on “usage of social media websites and tools”:
“Comments made on these sites (Twitter, Facebook, Socializer, blogs), herein called ‘social media sites’ will be not be included or evaluated as part of the ongoing Environmental Impact Statement decision-making process… These social networking tools are only intended to encourage public dialogue about the project.”
This statement means that these comments will not be recorded or officially included in the administrative record for the EIS. Only the traditional ways like calling their hotline, sending an email, or submitting a comment at a meeting or at their office, will provide official documentation of the public’s thoughts and input.
HELPFUL RESOURCES PROVIDED BY ALAMO RMA
- Social Media Training Guides: One for Facebook, one for Twitter, and one for Flickr. Each guide give links to how to get started with these sites, how to set up accounts and how to use them.
- Are You In the Loop?: A small tutorial about these social media sites for those unaware of what they are and how they can be useful. Click on “Social Media 101 Classroom: Handouts” and download the .pdf.