Politicians using social media

twitter politicsA hot topic right now is politicians using social media to communicate with constituents.

One example is Michigan state representative Justin Amash. According to a 2011 article on mlive.com, Amash posts “all his votes, reasons behind them and other news from the floor on his Facebook page.” He emphasizes that it increases transparency for voters.

Twitter is another increasingly popular tool in politics. The Chicago Redeye reported on the trend on January 9:

In addition to [Chicago] Mayor Emanuel’s handle (@rahmemanuel), aldermen in 29 of the city’s 50 wards have Twitter accounts, according to a RedEye review, although each varies in how frequently he or she posts. . . .

“They don’t get it,” Ald. Joe Moreno (1st) said of his colleagues who don’t use the microblogging service. “It takes effort and I think [the City Council is] way, way, way behind the curve. There is no reason not to have it.”

There is even an assistant professor at IIT, Libby Hemphill, who is tracking Chicago politician’s tweets looking for patterns about the information shared.

For politicians, however, using Twitter (or Facebook) is not without risks.

Politico reporter Scott Wong summed it up like this:

Twitter’s a dream for politicians with an itch to reach voters in candid, quick bursts, but the fear of jokes gone wrong, gaffes and hacks is becoming palpable.

Because of the potential for gaffes, one democratic consultant recommends that politicians stick to Facebook and not personally post on Twitter.

The best solution may be for politicians to hire professional tweeters to post tweets for them. As Wired covered in November 2011, many celebrities already employ “ghost tweeters,” who go to great lengths to copy their employers tone and voice while tweeting frequently in an effort to connect with fans and increase the celebrity’s profile. Of course professional tweeters are far outside the budget of most politicians (though probably not Mitt Romney), so they are stuck with drafting carefully.

Great interview with Chris Vein – Video Wednesday

Check out these videos featuring Chris Vein, who promotes opening up government data to encourage private-sector innovation (including app development)—with the goal of increasing government efficiency. The second video—a lengthy interview—is quite useful. Vein recently moved from San Francisco government to being the Deputy U.S. Chief Technology Officer for Government Innovation at the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy. Looking forward to seeing what he can accomplish.

Videos after the jump:

Continue reading “Great interview with Chris Vein – Video Wednesday”

Census Tuesdays: The Basics

The U.S. Census Bureau website is one place cities can find data about their populations. Every Tuesday, I plan to highlight some aspect of Census data that may be particularly helpful to local communities. This week, I’m going to lay out some basic information provided by the
Census Bureau.

  1. There is an impressive mapping feature that showcases data about population, race, age, sex, and housing status—all the way down to the “census block” level (and also at larger divisions, such as townships, congressional districts, or the state as a whole).
  2. There is another helpful map (go down the page to “Redistricting Data”) that charts population change for 2000-2010 by race for states and counties, and another map (same page under “Apportionment Data” that lets you see changes in population and population density every ten years since 1910.
  3. Although not on the U.S. Census Bureau website, the New York Times has used Census data (from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey) to create beautiful infographics covering race, income, housing/families, and education. I particularly liked the data on median monthly rent, changes in mortgages consuming over 30% of income, and percentages of high school/college graduates.

This data provides a treasure trove for analyzing national and local trends. I hope to provide more in depth analysis in future posts.

Featured Website: Data Driven Detroit

Every Monday, I plan to feature a new website or project devoted to city management in the information age. Today, that website is Data Driven Detroit.org. True to its name, the site—which is the public face of a full-on grant-funded project headed by information guru Kurt Metzger—tracks, provides access to, and analyzes data about communities in Southeast Michigan.

I’m new to this topic, but these guys are pros; here are some highlights:

  1. A collection of best practices.
  2. My favorite—a collection of maps and data (derived from the 2010 census data and locally collected data, including foreclosures).
  3. Newsletters and blogs by analysts and other staff.
  4. Many other projects that you can check out here.

It seems like a great project; one worthy of attention, especially as Detroit rebounds. So, check it out.

Review: “The City Solution”

cityThere is an neat article in the December 2011 issue of National Geographic—“The City Solution” by Robert Kunzig—that advocates that cities (meaning big, densely populated cities) are the best solution for handling the world’s rapidly growing population.

Kunzig lays out arguments by scholars on why cities are good for a country’s economy and the environment (he makes the interesting point that densely populated cities generally emit less co2 per person than the average for the country in which they are located). He then tells the story of Seoul, South Korea, which has rapidly urbanized in just the past 50 years. He attributes Seoul’s success to careful planning and recommends that city planners could learn from that success by not fearing urbanization (and by being forward-thinking in creating cities).

But there is one point I think Kunzig gives short shrift—the effect of advances in information technology on Seoul’s success. As he explains, striving to make products that foreigners would buy led Seoul’s forefathers to promote and fund tech companies, including Samsung. I don’t think it’s a coincident that a city now seen as a global success story put an emphasis on promoting technology. I think there is something to be said about how advances in technology to collect and categorize information can help a city grow in an organized and effective way.

Oh, and the article is full of beautiful pictures and infographics, so check it out.

What is vacant property registration?

file0001472960139As the country continues to suffer the repercussions of the mortgage crisis, one consequence to many cities is a growing number of vacant properties (other cities, like my hometown of Flint, have been dealing with large numbers of vacant buildings for years—the county where Flint is located has set up a renowned landbank to help address the problem).

Vacant Property Registration (VPR) ordinances have become an important tool in combating this rise in vacancies (and the resulting increase in costs as city governments battle blight and vandalism). The basic idea is that a local government enacts a law that requires landowners to pay a fee for registering vacant property and to maintain the property to certain standards. The fee pays for staff to monitor and enforce the maintenance of the property.

Beyond the basics, there are many differences in VPR ordinances nationwide. One distinction is when registration is required: Many cities require registration after a property has been vacant for a certain amount of time; others require registration only after a foreclosure; still others use both approaches. The foreclosure approach is aimed at mortgage lenders, who typically control a property’s maintenance when the property is in the foreclosure process (and often, the theory goes, let maintenance slip). Registration encourages them to hire local companies to maintain the property or risk incurring penalties for noncompliance.

Another way VPR laws vary is in the fine imposed. Some cities impose escalating fees for every year a property is vacant. This type of law focuses on getting rid of vacant buildings altogether. Many of these cities require property owners to submit plans to renovate or demolish buildings on the property. Other cities require a small or even no fee for registration but impose steep penalties for noncompliance with maintenance rules. The purpose of these laws is aimed more at keeping a city clean while it waits for economic recovery. Maintenance rules can be extensive, including guidelines for pools, securing a building, and the exterior of the building (even including paint colors).

The bottom line is that a city looking to manage vacant properties should consider enacting a VPR ordinance (or encouraging the county or even the state to do so), but must also figure out what the primary problems are that it wants to address:

  • For city officials facing a swell of foreclosures but confident that homeowners will return, a foreclosure-initiated ordinance (like that enacted in Chula Vista, California), may be the best bet. Those types of programs imposes strict maintenance requirements on mortgage companies when a property goes into foreclosure.
  • For cities facing long-term vacancies (like many Midwestern cities facing loss of industry) the best solution might be an aggressive program like that in Wilmington, Delaware, which imposes severely escalating fines for every year a property remains vacant.
  • Even better, many cities are adopting a combination of these approaches—targeting both longterm properties and those recently in foreclosure.

Of course, once any law is passed, the key to success is aggressive enforcement.

For a database of VPR ordinances, check out Safeguard Properties or Mortgage Contracting Services. But be aware that both these websites are associated with the mortgage industry, which is generally opposed to vacant property registration (calling the requirements unreasonable).

I will do a future post on electronic registries, such as the Federal Property Registration Corporation and Mortgage Electronic Registration Systems (MERS), and their potential pitfalls (especially MERS). For now, I wanted to lay out the basics. To see more, check out my article Vacant Property Registration Ordinances, 39 Real Est. L.J. 6 (2010), or go to the resource page for vacant property registration.

County Holds Online Auctions


Michigan Radio recently ran an interesting story about a county in Michigan that is using an online auction to buy supplies. Taking bids for
government supplies is nothing new, but the technology involved here allows the county to get supplies from a much broader group of potential sellers than might otherwise be involved.

Here’s the scoop from an article by Lindsey Smith:

When Kent County needs office supplies, like printer paper, it opens an auction online. It lists a maximum price it’s willing to pay based on previous bills. Vendors offer to sell the county printer paper at that price or lower.

The auction runs in real time so businesses can name a lower price if they’re outbid. The auction may last an hour or so but if there are last minute bids the time will extend. After ten minutes go by with no new offers, the lowest bid gets the county’s business.

“It’s so simple but I mean getting to where we got it took like 3 and a half years to build the foundation,” Kent County Administrator/Controller Daryl Delabbio said. The program has saved Kent County more than $200,000 in 2 years. The county has used it to buy office supplies, paper towels, soap for the county jail, even a car.

Only about an hour seems like a pretty efficient system. That it took 3 years to develop may suggest the county needs a better method for developing new technologies. But they said they were trying to avoid the cost of paying a larger corporation for the service. Thankfully, the county is now hosting auctions for other cities for free. Here’s a link to the auction website.

Basics of 311


I want to start this blog by highlighting a great article (though dated) about the basics of 311 data collection and how cities are moving from mere data collection to making that data actionable. (For more on that topic see this post by John Geraci of DIYCity.)

In “What a Hundred Million Calls to 311 Reveal About New York” by Steven Johnson, published in Wired Magazine and available online here, Johnson covers how New York is using 311 call lines to solve real problems. As an example, he tells the story of how city inspectors used the location of 311 callers to target the location of what was producing a strange syrupy smell in the New York City (it was a plant processing Fenugreek seeds).

Johnson springboards from that seemingly trivial story into stuff that has a big potential to influence the way cities operate. To me, the most exciting part is revealed by an annual contest held by New York City. As Johnson says it:

“New York has sponsored an annual competition called NYC BigApps, modeled after an earlier program in Washington, DC. Participants design and submit web or mobile apps that draw on information stored in the city’s Data Mine, which encompasses hundreds of machine-readable databases, including a sliver of 311 information. The first BigApps winners, announced in early 2010, were awarded cash prizes of up to $5,000 and a meal with the mayor. One winner, Taxihack, allowed users to post reviews of individual cabs and their drivers. The grand-prize winner, WayFinder NYC, superimposes directions to nearby subway stations over photos that users take on their Android phones.”

This method of drawing on the public (and encouraging competition) is both simple but groundbreaking. The potential to improve our cities is huge. Of course NYC is capable of sponsoring bigger rewards and attracting more talent than probably any other city government. But there is no reason why this model couldn’t be replicated, and, indeed, it already is being replicated (in some form) by other cities. For example, Chicago—which already has an established 311 system—announced this summer that it is trying to establish an App Contest.

Whatever the merits of App Contests, the broader point is that the more data a government collects and makes accessible to the public, the more individuals (and companies) are able to develop tools to improve city life and even government functioning. I plan to continue to follow App Contests through this blog, particularly Chicago’s.