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6/5/2009
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San Francisco Twitters With Citizens To Fix City

Twitter's hometown is making it easier for citizens to request government services and get information about what's going on in City Hall.

In San Francisco, if you see a pothole that needs fixing or garbage on the sidewalk, don't just complain about it -- tweet it.

The city launched a program to allow people to send Twitter messages to city government for any nonemergency communications -- requesting garbage pickup, road repair, inquiring about where to get a copy of your marriage certificate, and more.

The service connects the city's 311 call center through Twitter. To sign up, users must go to sftwitter.sfgov.org and click on "Follow Me," and then send a direct message to "d SF311" to talk to the city. Some examples:

  • Queen mattress and two bags of trash on sidewalk at 1355 Market.

  • Offensive graffiti on the west side of the building at 1455 Market.

  • Where is the Human Resources Dept for the City and County San Francisco?

"We're in the middle of the Twitterfication of America," said Brian Purchia, deputy communications director for San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom. "San Francisco is in the center of the technology industry, so we should be ahead of this trend."

The service came from a meeting with Newsom and co-founders of the San Francisco-based Twitter, Biz Stone and Evan Williams. During the meeting, the mayor received a Twitter message from a citizen about a pothole. Afterward, Newsom directed the Department of Technology to brainstorm how the city could use Twitter to create two-way communication with constituents.

The city's 311 customer service center, which launched in March 2007, has received more than 5 million calls. The Twitter service started Tuesday, and by the afternoon, it already had about 300 messages about city services.

The city worked with another San Francisco-based company, CoTweet, to manage communications over Twitter. CoTweet is a Web-based service for companies and other organizations to manage their presence on Twitter. CoTweet takes the view that the most important thing that companies and other organizations can do on Twitter is connect with existing customers and engage new ones.

"They want to listen to what people are saying, and they want to respond," said CoTweet CEO Jesse Engle.

CoTweet offers a way to help multiple people share responsibilities for managing Twitter accounts, similar to the way call centers work, Engle said. Staff can use CoTweet to read and respond to messages, and monitor Twitter searches. CoTweet also can keep teams of users from stepping on each other's work, keeping a record of individual conversations on Twitter and allowing teams to let each other know who's on duty to monitor an individual Twitter account at a given time.

San Francisco is using Twitter as a one-to-one text-messaging service, with citizens sending private, direct messages to the city, rather than the more typical use of Twitter for public, many-to-many conversations. So why is it using Twitter at all, rather than just allowing people to connect with the city directly using SMS?

The city looked into setting up an SMS service for municipal services but found the options prohibitively expensive, at hundreds of thousands of dollars, Purchia said. The Twitter option proved much less expensive. "San Francisco, like many other cities throughout our country, is in this terrible budget crisis. We can reach a huge population much easier on Twitter," he said.


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