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5 Reasons Why the White House Response to the Death Star Petition Was Genius

January 15, 2013 Leave a comment

Back in November 2012, someone posted on the White House’s “We The People” site petitioning the federal government to secure funding and resources to build a Death Star by 2016. We The People is an online petition website that allows any citizen to make a suggestion, and if it receives 25,000 votes, the White House will issue an official response. The Death Star petition reached 25,000 votes in December and one month later, the White House issued their response.

Picture of the Death Star from Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope

The Death Star would cost how much? Yikes

Here are 5 reasons why I thought the response was brilliant:

1. They Played Along

Kudos to the White House for embracing and adding more Star Wars references. There were mentions of

  • Blowing up planets
  • Having a flaw that can be exposed by a one-man starship
  • Luke’s robotic arm
  • The power of the Force

How many government agencies would have responded with “we are not familiar with the term ‘Death Star’ and therefore are unable to properly respond to this petition.” Probably a lot.

2. It was Informal

One lesson from social media is that it’s okay to be informal sometimes. People like interacting with other human beings more than a dry, soulless organization. It’s refreshing to see government be clever, witty, and funny.

The second paragraph begins with “…look carefully and you’ll notice something floating in the sky – that’s no Moon, it’s a Space Station!” Reading this sentence makes you feel like the author is actually talking to you.

Not only was it written with a playful voice, they even linked to a photo of President Obama wielding a toy light saber.

3. It was Informative

Not only was the response witty and playful, it was also very informative. The author saw this as an opportunity to educate the reader with relevant articles and programs. There were several links to government and non-government projects to get the reader excited about what is currently happening in space. I bet most readers learned something new.

4. They Promoted Others

Another important lesson from social media is that it’s not always about you. The White House was happy to promote other programs that they thought the reader would find useful, giving readers a more complete picture of what is happening in the industry. In addition to the many NASA programs, they also link to a private sector project with a mission to put more humans on the moon and DARPA projects to build floating droids.

There’s even a reference to a study that estimated the cost of a Death Star to be more than $850,000,000,000,000,000.

5. They Ended On a Positive Note

It’s difficult to draw something positive out of such an outrageous petition that was obviously a joke, but the White House pulled it off. Instead of just listing evidence to why this is a terrible idea, they ended with an encouraging message.

The second to last paragraph says “We are living in the future! Enjoy it. Or better yet, help build it by pursuing a career in a science, technology, engineering or math-related field.”

____

Despite the brilliance of the response, there is something that doesn’t sit well with me: I couldn’t find the article on We The People. Of course, if you use a search engine, the article shows up at the top and there are plenty of technology and government blogs that link to it, but if you start from the We The People homepage, it’s very difficult to navigate to the response (I couldn’t do it but someone else probably could). It’s as if the White House is purposely trying to hide it from accidental visits.

Even the title of the response is extremely vague. It’s called “This Isn’t the Petition Response You’re Looking For.”

Despite the fact that it’s hidden, I still have to applaud the author for a brilliant and refreshing response. This is a great example of what government can be: clever, in-touch, educational, and inspiring all at the same time.

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City of Houston Produces Video About Surviving Workplace Shooter

August 1, 2012 Leave a comment

Last week, the City of Houston’s Office of Public Safety, with grants from the Department of Homeland Security, posted a video called RUN. HIDE. FIGHT: Surviving an Active Shooter Event as part of their Ready Houston initiative. It’s a professionally done, six minute instructional video about what to do if someone were to open fire at the office.

The video was actually produced two weeks before the movie theater incident in Aurora, CO that took the lives of 12 civilians and wounded many more.  Soon after the shooting, Mayor Annise Parker and Dennis Storemski, the Director of the Office of Public Safety, had the video posted within a week, stating that “knowledge is power in a situation such as Aurora.”

I have to admit when I first saw the video title I recoiled, wondering “have we come to this as a society?” But within a second, I had to stop what I was doing and watch the video, because I needed to know. Then I had the feeling to share it with all my coworkers. Then I had the feeling to blog it on the internets.

 

What was your reaction when you learned that a city is promoting tips to survive a workplace shooting? Have you ever considered what you would do if you were ever caught in this kind of situation? Should the government sponsor initiatives of this kind, or is it going too far?

In this digital age with social media, we rely on people at the scene to provide us with up-to-date information during extreme situations. Then we rely on creative and technically-skilled people to create tools to present data in a meaningful way. Then we rely on social media influencers to distribute the knowledge to rest of us. But all of this happens AFTER the emergency. Perhaps it’s the government’s role to empower us BEFORE anything ever takes place?

How Did Caine’s Arcade Get Famous?

April 18, 2012 Leave a comment

By now, you’ve probably heard of Caine Monroy, a nine year old boy who built a carnival-like arcade out of cardboard boxes in his dad’s auto shop. The short documentary was viewed more than 4.5 million times in just a week, netting him a $152,000 scholarship, a non-profit foundation to help kids reach their dreams, and a real pinball machine for his arcade.

If you’ve seen the 11 minute video, you probably teared up when you saw him surprised by the big crowd at his arcade. It was truly a heartwarming, feel-good story that inspires hope and creativity in all of us.

Caine Monroy and his cardboard arcade

So how did this little guy get so immensely famous?

Because he’s a genius?
There’s no doubt Caine is a special kid who is highly intelligent for his age. Many instances in the film that displayed his intelligence:

  • he built a drop-the-claw game out of a box, hook and string
  • he would hide behind a box and feed tickets through a slot
  • he recycled a toy from a pizza restaurant and turned it into a game

But did he get famous because of his ingenuity? I would argue no. Caine is a smart cookie, but that wasn’t the reason why his story went viral.

Because he’s persistent?
As inviting as a mini basketball hoop taped to a box may sound, Caine didn’t have any customers for a while because his father’s auto shop gets very little foot traffic. His dad actually told him to go play outside, but Caine never gave up. This is definitely admirable, but persistence and determination is also not the reason he became famous.

Because he thinks like an entrepreneur?
Caine could have just invited his friends to play, but he treated his arcade like a business. He charges $1 for 4 tries and $2 for a Fun Pass, which is good for 500 turns. He also made a shirt that says “Staff” on the front and “Caine’s Arcade” on the back. Make no mistake, he took his business very seriously, which is also a rare and admirable trait. But that’s not what made him famous.

Being intelligent, persistant and business-savvy are all key ingredients to achieving some amount of success in life, but to get viral on the internet requires something else. How 5 million people came to know Caine’s Arcade has nothing to do with anything Caine did himself.

The reason why Caine went viral is because his first customer was a filmmaker who understood the power of social media.

The documentary was created by Nirvan Mullick, a filmmaker who needed a car part, wandered into the auto shop, discovered Caine, and decided to make a film. More specifically:

He created an event
Getting people excited about a kid’s cardboard games is one thing. Getting people excited about a kid’s carboard games AND inviting them to a flash mob is completely different. What made you tear up wasn’t Caine’s brilliance, it was the giant crowd of supporters surprising him at the end of the video.

When it comes to mobilizing people, the best way to build a following is to offer a specific action. Don’t just get excited about a proposed city ordinance; join us two hours before the town hall meeting next Thursday and help us make some signs. You have to give people an actionable task if you want tangible results.

He promoted the event for a month
Many times we think of videos going viral as an overnight sensation, setting the internets afire in seconds. That may be the case for some internet memes, but in this case, it was a methodical and calculated effort by Nirvan. He understood the importance of promotion using social media, creating a Facebook Event, a twitter account, a website and posting to Reddit.com, and being very active to promote the event a month before the date.

He managed the logistics
When you invite the internet to a surprise party, you have no idea what will happen. Perhaps nobody cares and nothing happens, or way too many people show up and chaos ensues. There’s no way Caine could have accommodated a large crowd by himself, especially when $2 gets you 500 turns.

Nirvan was very active to set expectations, handle logistics, and answer questions. If his message was “come check out a boy genius’ cardboard arcade, best $2 I ever spent,” there would be people showing up to play, wait in long for hours, lose patience, and leave. No, the message was always “come show your support about an amazing kid and I’m shooting a film about it.”

Also, whenever there was a question or comment, he’d address it right away. He took care of issues such as

  • where to park
  • what to do if you show up early
  • whether or not to contact the media
  • why there won’t be a bouncy castle
  • how to volunteer
  • how to make a donation

He even asked a friend to continue answering questions on the Reddit page because he was going camping for his girlfriend’s birthday and didn’t want to lose momentum planning the flash mob. This was definitely a case of someone who knew where to find people on the internet and how to manage a large event.

Overall, the story of Caine’s Arcade is amazingly brilliant, and will go down as one of the top internet stories of the year. There are many takeaways from the documentary, not just about creativity and persistence, but about the ingredients needed to create a well-organized, public event over the internet. Caine’s flash mob teaches us the importance of planning an event, allowing plenty of time to prepare, and managing the logistics – all using the power of social media.

Pinterest for Government

December 28, 2011 Leave a comment

Lately, there has been a site called Pinterest that has skyrocketed in popularity. The basic concept behind Pinterest is an online pinboard; a virtual space for sharing images from all over the web based on specific themes. It’s a way to discover new ideas and get inspired. People use it for home remodeling, wedding planning, arts and crafts, cooking recipes, and any other theme that allows creativity, innovation, and fun.

 

This is an example of sharing images about different types of architecture on Pinterest

 

Is this something that government can use to engage their citizens? I think there are some agencies that could benefit from sharing ideas for very specific themes. Too many times I come across government photosharing sites and see things like buildings, agency heads accepting awards, historical landmarks, or office parties. Unfortunately, most citizens don’t find that particularly interesting. But what if we had a site that allowed us to share content worth a thousand words to reach a specific target, such as…

Designing new buildings: wouldn’t it be great if citizens had a chance to suggest ideas for the design of new buildings? There are so many innovative architectural designs all over the web. Why not let the citizens share some of their favorites with you.

Being more green: There are so many ways to be more green at the office without having to spend a lot of money. Ways to create heat, enhance natural lighting, simple redesigns to increase space, creative ways to reuse waste, etc.

Redesigning websites: Many agencies are looking to refresh their official website. Get fresh ideas from the community on what they like to see. After all, they’re the ones that have to use it.

Decorating public spaces: Share ideas for decorating parks, making improvements, or finding new ways for celebrations like holidays and parades

Integrating art from schools: Kids make the most inspiration and endearing art. Why not find ways to creatively showcase them in our public buildings?

Designing new marketing materials: How often does government spend on pamphlets, posters, and flyers that look unattractive and boring? Get design ideas that would make a stronger impression on your audience

 

Granted, Pinterest has its limitations, since it wasn’t designed for organizations to solicit ideas from others as much as it is to show off what you find on your own. But there is a collaboration feature that government could turn on to invite others to create content. Or just instruct citizens to mention you when they come across something related to your pinboard.

Either way, it’s a great way to be inspired, discover new ideas, and build relationships.

Keep in mind that as government, we have to be extra careful with areas such as accessibility, record retention, terms of service, and others. Make sure your agency is covered in these areas before you get started.

 

Overall, I think there are many public agencies that can use Pinterest as a powerful business tool. Yes, there will be some that sigh at the notion of jumping on yet another social networking site (“last year you told us to get on this site; what a big waste of time that turned out to be”). Chances are, many agencies will try and get little to no response. But if you have a business reason to try it out, why not give it a shot?

Are Your Social Media Activities Integrated With Business Lines?

November 28, 2011 2 comments

Last weekend, I attended a conference at a nice resort and brought the whole family. We tried the hotel restaurant and went on Foursquare to look for tips and a possible check-in special. To my surprise, the hotel was very active on Foursquare and offered a free appetizer for checking into the restaurant. When I showed the unlocked special to the server, he looked puzzled and said he had no idea what I was showing him. He had to go back and forth with his manager a few times, and eventually, everything worked out and I got the shrimp tacos on the house. They were delicious.

If social media activities are not integrated with business, customer reps will be confused

Free appetizer on Foursquare? We do that here?

Very happy about the deal and very satisfied with the meal, I tweeted about how great the offer was, even though the staff had no idea they were on Foursquare. Not long after, there was an @reply from the resort apologizing for their uninformed staff. Of course, it was no big deal for me because a free appetizer is a free appetizer.

Spending just a few minutes looking through the resort’s profile, it was obvious that they were very well-versed in the social media space. Their Twitter account had over 2000 followers, 3100 tweets, and were on over 130 lists. They were very engaged and responded quickly. They retweeted useful content, used hashtags appropriately, and had a very likeable personality…displaying all the good practices for businesses on Twitter. Likewise on Foursquare, they had over 1500 check-ins from over 800 people, being available for at least the past two years.

So why was the staff unaware of their social media special? And why was I not surprised?

Perhaps the restaurant staff that night was new, but it’s not a unique situation. Plenty of times I’ll go into a business, show them the check-in special, Facebook coupon, Twitter discount code, or any other social media promotion, and get a “let me ask a manager” confused response from the person behind the counter.

Which makes me wonder, is your social media activity done in a bubble, or is it integrated with related business lines? For some organizations, especially in government, social media is an experiment or a “pet project” done on the side, disconnected from the rest of the organization. However, social media activities should involve related business lines and program areas, since they are the ones that engage with customers. If your communications expert/social media guru/marketing maven/web 2.0 ninja is interacting with your customers, most likely it’s being done behind a closed door. Eventually, the customer will need to interface with the organization, and it would make for a more pleasant experience if the person behind the counter were aware of the situation.

Of course, some transactions will be specific to a single customer and it’s not practical to inform your entire staff that Mr. so-and-so might be walking into any one of your 11 stores with a particular issue. Regardless, your staff should at least be aware that

  • you are on the social network,
  • you do offer certain promotions or special deals for customers, and
  • what an authentic promotion code looks like.

Eventually, if your social media “experiment” turns out to be a viable and sustainable program area in your organization, it is important to integrate the activities with relevant business lines and staff. Just like any IT solution, it should be aligned with the program it supports, especially if customer service is involved.

Facebook Questions is Great for Gov, But Be Careful…

April 5, 2011 Leave a comment

On March 24, Facebook rolled out the Questions feature to all its users. It’s a new way to ask and get answers from your friends or fans on Facebook. For government, this could be a great opportunity to get direct feedback for

Product development

  • How can we improve our current website?
  • How difficult was it to fill out the form?

Customer service

  • What was the most difficult part of the application process?
  • How long did you have to wait in line at the downtown office?

Policy development

  • What are your ideas to balance the budget?
  • Our agency is looking to add these service offerings. Which ones would be most helpful to you?

However, government must be aware of the implications of creating these types of content on a third party website. Hopefully, your agency already has a social media policy that covers general areas such as Security, Privacy, Retention, Accessibility, Acceptable Use, Advertisement, etc.

Introducing Facebook Questions might change the nature of your Facebook Page. Many agencies say their Facebook Page generates duplicative or transitory content. It’s duplicative because the original source of the link or post resides in a different location, such as their agency website, so the content on Facebook is not unique.

It’s also seen as transitory because it’s not essential, mission critical information, but more like conversations in passing. If you ask “How are you today?” and a fan responds “Great, thanks,” this information, although unique, is not treated the same as official agency information.

These two reasons, duplication and transitory, have allowed government to adopt less stringent policies for the management of its Facebook content.

However, if you’re now using Facebook Questions to develop policy or poll constituents , the nature of your Facebook content changes. There are at least three policy areas that might be affected:

1)      Record management: the results from your Questions are unique content. What kind of retention schedule will it have? Does it fit into an existing category or will you need to create a new one? Since this is critical information, you must have a way to capture and retain this data.

2)      Accessibility: Facebook is not completely accessible to persons with certain disabilities. There are workarounds, but you should still consider the accessibility of your Facebook content. In addition, how can you make it available for people who don’t have Facebook accounts? How will you make it available for people who don’t have computers or internet connections, especially if they want to participate?

3)      Take down policy: whenever you allow the public to generate content on your page, you should have a take-down policy, and it better be enforced quickly and consistently. As valuable as survey data can be, all it takes is one person with an offensive or inappropriate response to turn your brilliant poll into a PR nightmare. Moderation is always a delicate matter; if too extreme, people will be offended. But if you have a clear, fair, and visible policy (probably in your Info page or Discussion page), people will generally be okay if you remove comments that is consistent with your policy.

Overall, I think Facebook Questions will be a great tool for government to gain direct feedback from their customers. It’s free, easy-to-use, and can be an invaluable method of collecting data. As long as agencies figure out how to properly manage the policy implications, I believe many agencies will benefit from this feature.

What are some creative ways your agency could use Facebook Questions? Are there other policy areas that will be affected?

 

Local Govs Should Check Out Location Check-Ins

March 9, 2011 Leave a comment

This week, location based service Foursquare announced its new features to enhance the social check-in experience. They also reiterated their vision to go beyond “a game built on check-ins” into “making cities easier to use.” Foursquare isn’t just trying to find out whether you’re at the coffee shop or a night club; they’re gaining insight into what motivates behavior to frequent local establishments. And the astonishing amount of data they collect can be a treasure trove for local public policy decisions.

Some cities have experimented with Foursquare, Gowalla, or other location based service for touristy reasons. It’s a great way for visitors to learn more about points of interest and public artifacts. I think this is a great way for cities to gain street cred with the mobile generation. However, the real value is in the data.

What can the data tell us?

1. Where people are and when they’re there.

This is valuable data when cities are trying to decide where to add new public resources. Parking lots, public restrooms, trash cans, street lamps, benches, etc. If city officials knew exactly which blocks are used most heavily at what times, this could be a significant input into their decision. Or perhaps public transit is looking into increase the frequency of routes during a certain time period. There are many public decisions that could greatly benefit from these analytics.

2. Why people go where they go

Besides just checking-in, users can leave tips, to-dos, and photos. This layer of data reveals, to an extent, the motivation behind why people go where they go. Restaurant goers recommend their favorite dish or warn others of negative experiences. If cities have some insight into behavior and motivation, this could be a great resource for economic development plans, small business resources, and new businesses.

3. How merchants respond

Some location-based services also allow merchants to offer incentives to attract potential users. The new Foursquare merchant platform extends special offers for swarms, groups of friends, newbies, regulars, Mayors, or everyone. Seeing how consumers and merchants respond to one another can also be a great resource for cities looking to sharpen their economic development strategy.

There’s no doubt that the data is rich and can be very beneficial to policy makers. Yes, there will be significant hurdles along the way, such as:

  • The handling of Big Brother privacy invasion
  • The provider’s terms of service.
  • The provider’s willingness to share. Maybe Foursquare doesn’t want to play with government because there are more lucrative partnerships elsewhere.
  • The needed increase of users for more robust data. This is still relatively underused by the general public, but the trend is pointing to increased adoption.

I’m not saying this is a revolutionary device that will transform how government does business. I’m not even suggesting cities go and start placing trash cans outside the hottest hipster bars. I’m saying this is a potentially rich resource that can be considered when making certain public policy decisions.