New ways to 'listen' to your citizens (Think big data and social analytics)

Australians are among the most frequent users of social media in the world. Every day 30% of the Australian population checks in online at least five times, according to the latest numbers from the Sensis Social Media Report 2017.

Of the 17 million Australian Facebook users alone, more than half check it every day. And it's not just those teenagers on Snapchat users that are skewing the social media user numbers, but there continues to be considerable growth in the 50 years of age and over bracket as well.

These, and other fascinating social media facts, were presented by social media expert Stacey Murray (of Alfalfa Social Media), at the recent Ecocity World Summit in Melbourne. Her presentation was part of a panel that the Smart Cities Council facilitated around social media analytics in the smart city. Titled "Listening in on the social buzz", the session was designed to explore the evolving world of social media as a source of valuable data for making better investments in our cities.

Joining Stacey on the panel was Jessica Christiansen-Franks, Co-Founder and CEO of Neighbourlytics, a start-up that is currently piloting its custom built social analytics platform for neighbourhood development. Jessica presented a compelling case for how big data can help city-makers understand what makes local neighbourhoods tick, through dynamic, 'granular' and user generated data points. And when you are in the business of community planning and real estate development, knowing what your community 'really' thinks, values and loves, brings significant opportunity.

But social media not only tells us what the community thinks, it shows us how people are feeling, and this is critically valuable for any government leadership. Well this is what Andrea DiGiovanni and Troy Nolan from Council Innovation Partner evolve24 think, who also joined the panel via Skype from Washington DC. In their presentation, Andrea and Troy shared the results of the emotion algorithm they apply to social media data, which is a validated neuroscience-based set of measures that identify the emotional flavour and intensity of discussion within social media data. This allows them to understand what people care about most.

With these emerging approaches, platforms and tools, combined with recent research from institutions such as Harvard (1), New York University (2) and University of Vermont (3) demonstrating that people are potentially more honest online than in person, the community engagement approaches applied by some government organisations must now be questioned.

It's not the community's job to be heard, but rather, government's job to listen. So, is 'have your say' style community engagement really the most effective approach to understanding what your community is thinking, and feeling? Potentially not.

Using these new community engagement and analytics tools in the hyper-connected and data-rich smart city is potentially an adjustment some are not ready to make yet. And this is understandable, as we have grown up embracing the fundamental principles of building relationships, and therefore trust, by being among our stakeholders in person.

For others, the richness of the data from social and digital media presents a new frontier of intelligence gathering, one that can shape investments to more effectively build opportunity and prosperity in our communities.

(1)      Diana I. Tamir1 and Jason P. Mitchell, “Disclosing information about the self is intrinsically rewarding” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America

(2)      John A. Bargh, Katelyn Y. A. McKenna, and Grainne M. Fitzsimons, “Con you see the real me? Activation and expression of the “true self” on the internet” Journal of Social Issues by the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues

(3)      Emily M. Cody, Andrew J. Reagan, Peter Sheridan Dodds, and Christopher M. Danforth, “Public Opinion Polling with Twitter” Cornell University Library