Using Twitter to Listen: City of Chicago Gets Social Media Smart

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Nearly every time I tell people what I do for a living, I immediately have to dive into greater detail. The idea of a job in social media remains difficult for most people to grasp.

Even more difficult to grasp is the value in it, but last week I stumbled across a quote in a week-old edition of the Chicago Tribune that did as good a job as any in showing the power of social media today, particularly Twitter.

The quote came from Chicago Health Commissioner Bechara Choucair. She was explaining why the health department uses a computer application that searches Twitter for mentions of food poisoning, then suggests to people who post them that they file a report with the department.

“If they are experiencing food-related illness, they won’t always pick up the phone and call us, but they will tweet it,” he said.  

It’s a fantastic use of social media, similar to how Google flu trends track the spread of the flu each winter (which is admittedly flawed, but useful).

How the Chicago Mayor’s Office Uses Twitter to Listen

Chicago Mayor's Office uses Twitter to listen

This reminded me of a conversation I had with Kevin Hauswirth late  last year. At the time he was the director of social media for the Chicago mayor’s office, and we were talking about how they used Twitter to be more responsive to constituents.

Hauswirth told me that the idea that social media is a toy has run its course. In the mayor’s office there is an ever-growing recognition that it’s a powerful tool to help the city run better.

Take something as mundane as Christmas tree disposal.

When the lights and decorations come down, families all around Chicago have to figure out what to do with their Christmas tree. For the city, that’s hundreds of thousands of trees to discard. When the Chicago Park District needed to get the word out about their tree recycling program, they turned to Twitter and Facebook.

“That played really well on social media, but it wasn’t some big policy announcement,” Hauswirth says. “It was something simple and useful that helped people get through their day.”

It’s the kind of thing people might discuss at the bar, or the coffee shop, but now they can get the answer direct from the authorities, not Whiskey Wade wearing out a stool by the tap handles. This, Hauswirth said, is further evidence that the delineation between online and offline is blurring.

“It has gotten to the point that social media is so ubiquitous that the conversations at coffee shops are the same conversations we’re seeing online,” he says. “The beauty of social media is that we can be involved in more niche conversations that you can’t have offline. For example, there is a very active community involved in transportation initiatives. There’s a very active community talking about green energy initiatives and sustainability. These are issue-based, not location-based communities in a city otherwise organized by geography.”

Hauswirth said this became clear on his first day on the job, Emanuel’s inauguration day in May of 2011.

One of his first actions was to put together a Facebook town hall in which people submitted questions and voted on the best ones to present to the mayor. Emanuel then spent an hour answering them on streaming video from Englewood.

“There was something really interesting about seeing him answer while you had this dialogue going on in the comments on the side,” Hauswirth said. “You had people talking about the city’s issues who had probably never ventured into each other’s neighborhoods.”

Selective Listening

It’s not all good news, however. Most of the city’s aldermen still don’t use Twitter very well, though it’s an ideal avenue to get information to their people, especially in emergencies.

And one wonders what happens to the listening in the Mayor’s office when Twitter explodes with vitriol over Emanuel’s handling of Chicago Public School closings, the parking meter debacle, or the end of Prentice Hospital.

But we’re still in the formative stages of using social media for public discourse. The health department’s strategy of using Twitter to listen is the kind of thing you expect from Coke or Nike, not a department in a city known for its red tape.

In Chicago it’s easy to focus on government dysfunction, but here, the health department deserves a tip of the cap.

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Writer and content strategist Myles Dannhausen joined Lightspan in September of 2012. The new West Town resident brings a decade of experience as a writer, reporter and editor and small business owner to Lightspan.
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