News and Comment

Greater Manchester Police’s 24-hour Twitter experiment brings public service work to life

Wednesday 17 November 2010

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I recently attended a social media breakfast event where I got the chance to learn about Greater Manchester Police’s (GMP) 24-hour Twitter experiment where the force committed to tweeting – in real time – all 3,205 incidents that they handled over 24 hours.

Kevin Hoy, head of web strategy at GMP, discussed the experiment in the force’s broader aim of overhauling the way they use social media, moving beyond their existing channels that simply ‘pushed’ content to users, towards something more interactive and dynamic. After looking at existing networks and online ‘buzz’ related to their work and the range of possible approaches, Twitter emerged as the best tool for the job on the basis of its simple and user-friendly interface. The cost effectiveness of the tool was also a selling point. The project aimed to incur no additional costs and no use of operational staff time.

A digital window into public services

The project picked up a massive 17,000 followers and offered a window into the day-to-day reality of policing a big city. Substantial coverage in the media helped to broadcast messages about the project far beyond the Twittersphere. A quick Google search reveals how this novel use of Twitter became global news.

As well as achieving operational benefits – including better rates of responses to appeals and a space for resolving resident’s grievances – Kevin highlighted how the project helped raise awareness and provoke debate about modern policing and to satisfy the public’s growing appetite for greater transparency over how public bodies spend their resources. Analysis of the tweets showed the huge range of issues that police must attend to including a lot of social work – 38 per cent according to the Manchester Evening News. There is talk of a new model of collaboration between the police and social workers that may soon be trialled by the force.

‘How can we really introduce open data?’

Reflecting on the project in her blog, Amanda Coleman, GMP’s communications director, argues that the project should be seen as part of the force’s efforts to bring open data about crime and policing to life in the social media age, alongside the crime statistics, maps and annual reports they already produce. Here she asks a set of questions that could well be asked across the whole range of local public services:

‘What more can we do to provide people with that opportunity to see things live? How can we really introduce open data? And are we able to make a move from traditional communication to embrace the opportunities of social media?’

In an age when local newspaper circulation figures have seen a significant decline, the 24-hour twitter experiment points to the potential value of providing real time local information feeds and a range of other content offered through hyperlocal websites. As Amanda also says on her blog:

‘In a world where the Big Society is a hot topic, hyperlocal sites are growing and open data is on the minds of all public bodies …’

As the novelty fades local data feeds may not receive global coverage, but they could become a valuable means of promoting the type of local accountability and transparency espoused by the Coalition government. But rather than replacing traditional media, GMP’s 24-hour Twitter experiment points to the continuing importance of a range of media sources in helping to broadcast and interpret information and provoke wider interest and debate.