Software // Information Management
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5/22/2009
12:38 PM
Mitch Wagner
Mitch Wagner
Commentary
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Air Force Calls In Twitter Air Strike

When the Air Force wanted to refute reports that GPS technology is failing, the service turned to Twitter to get the word out. Government Q&As on Twitter have been going on for a few months; it looks like they've gone beyond the gimmicky roots and are emerging as useful communications tools.

When the Air Force wanted to refute reports that GPS technology is failing, the service turned to Twitter to get the word out. Government Q&As on Twitter have been going on for a few months; it looks like they've gone beyond the gimmicky roots and are emerging as useful communications tools.The U.S. Government Accountability Office reported that the Air Force's system of GPS satellites is on the verge of failure, and the Air Force isn't moving fast enough to fix the problem. GPS needs a certain, minimum number of satellites in the sky to triangulate users' positions, and the Air Force isn't replacing the satellite fast enough.

If true, this would be a crisis of major proportions to me. I've become increasingly reliant on GPS, and would be incapable of navigating from my front door to the foot of my driveway without my trusty Garmin nÜvi.

The Air Force disagrees with the GAO's dire assessment. In the past, in a disagreement of this type, the Air Force would have gone to journalists to get its side of the story out, holding a press conference, issuing a press release, or simply making a few phone calls.

This time, the Air Force decided to take its story directly to the people, via Twitter.

The sky isn't falling and neither is the Global Positioning System, the U.S. Air Force said during a Twitter news conference. "No, the GPS will not go down," tweeted Col. Dave Buckman of the Air Force's Space Command. "GAO points out, there is potential risk associated with a degradation in GPS performance."

GPS requires 24 satellites to keep up performance. The service has more than 30 satellites now, with one more going up in August and another early next year. "Going below 24 won't happen," the agency said.

Politicians and government agencies have been using Twitter to get the word directly to the people for a couple of months now. Israel hosted a Twitter Q&A on the Gaza conflict in January. In March, ABC News Washington correspondent George Stephanopoulos interviewed Sen. John McCain on Twitter for 15 minutes. The Centers for Disease Control is using Twitter to get the word out about swine flu.

At the time of the McCain interview, I thought the use of Twitter was a gimmick, but now it's starting to look like a real communications channel. It's tough to get a nuanced idea across in a 140-character message, but the service's ubiquity and ease of use makes up for its other shortcomings. It's easy to use Twitter to send a message, and easy for people to find that message.

Social media allows government to take its message directly to the people, bypassing journalists. Much of journalism has always consisted of "he said she said" reporting. The journalist goes to a government official to get a statement, dutifully transcribes it, runs to an opponent to get an opposing statement, and then brings both those statements to the readers. Social media helps put he-said-she-said journalists out of a job, because the government official -- and his opponent -- can get their message directly to the people themselves. That means journalists need to concentrate on going beyond the public record and provide analysis and investigation.

InformationWeek has published an in-depth report on the business uses of social networks. Download the report here (registration required).

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