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Re-energising citizen engagement

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Could smart cities and social media be the perfect match? Simon Dennis, director of artificial intelligence and analytics innovation at SAS UK, reports. 

Politics is a divisive issue and not simply from a philosophical standpoint. Engagement levels are highly polarised across different sections of society. We could postulate many reasons for this, but the real question is: how can government re-energise citizen engagement in public and political life?

We think one answer lies in creating meaningful dialog between government and the people. However, such engagement will only come when it is fired up by something that citizens feel deeply passionate about. What better than the place they inhabit? Many central and local governments across Europe and around the world are beginning to develop their Smart Cities strategies, with key components such as transport and energy systems already moving through implementation phases.

Radically altering the physical environment in this way warrants buy-in from all affected parties, including local residents, businesses, social groups, environmental activists, and providers of public amenities and services. A Smart Cities project creates a dynamic and heated political environment – it’s vital that voices from all walks of life and business are not only heard, but have input. This simple act of two-way communication will substantially help to foster engagement and trust.

On a mass scale, how can so many opinions, needs and wants be gathered and analysed? How can these views be used to develop policy and decisions, forecast demand for infrastructure, predict costs, and evaluate project risks? 

We’re seeing multiple instances of social media analytics being used in the private sector. Gathering input into product development cycles from ardent brand fans and collecting social media sentiment from customers about your organisation’s customer service capabilities are two popular use cases. This is not an entirely new concept in the public sector either. In 2012, the Icelandic government used social media analytics in its policy development lifecycle, using Facebook to crowdsource certain specifications to its new constitution. Around the same time, Ghana and Tanzania also used social media platforms to gather feedback on their constitutions.  

What are the essential considerations?

Reaching out to the public with the promise of ‘being heard’ requires considerable planning. Should it not be successful, you risk alienating an already apathetic audience. There are a great many factors to consider, and we at SAS are happy to walk you through them. In the meantime, our top three considerations include:

  1. Carefully planning capacity: ensure you have the capacity for the volume of digital engagement that will come from opening up social media channels to mass two-way dialog. As much as this is an infrastructure consideration, it is also a human resource challenge, ensuring you have skilled people managing the communication is an absolute must. Delays in responses and in the distribution of draft policies will dent engagement levels rapidly.
  2. Enabling accessibility for all: not all social media platforms are equal – or rather, they are not all used by the same cohort of the population. Clearly, different tools are favoured by different demographics. Each must be adequately represented in your outreach plan. In addition, there will always be citizens and organisations who prefer traditional channels of input – such as paper or email. You must consider how you are going to combine analyses of these individuals’ sentiments with outputs from social media channels.
  3. Ensuring fit-for-purpose analytics: the scalability, security and statistical robustness of your analytical platform must be questioned. Can it run analytics at the edge, in real time? Does it easily enable the creation of scenario modelling – something that will be essential when deploying social media sentiment analysis in a Smart City programme. Can it manage and prepare multiple sources and types of data for the analytical process with minimum time, effort and cost?  

Make it a success

Finally, running complex citizen engagement programmes such as these requires advanced analytical capabilities and expertise, at least in your first forays. SAS has been working in the field of artificial intelligence – more specifically machine learning that this kind of social media analysis inhabits – for more than 40 years. And we’ve gained a great deal of practical experience that we are happy to share.

Not ready for Smart Cities?

Of course, there is no reason why your citizen engagement strategy should begin with a Smart City consultation – we simply recognise that the subject of ‘place’ is one most citizens are profoundly attached to and energised by. Your first programme could just as powerfully be deployed to consult on any material changes to policy, or the development of new public services. If you would like to explore a use case for this kind of advanced analytics, or another, please do get in touch with us for an exploratory discussion. 

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