City on a Hill: D.C. and the Series of Tubes

By:
09/18/2008

After years of serving District residents with a truly subpar website, the Office of the Chief Technology Officer is nearing completion of an across-the-board overhall of the entire DC.gov portal. And while OCTO’s plans sound promising-the words “social networking” and “Web 2.0” came up a lot in an e-mail from OCTO’s spokesperson Ayanna Smith, and her office seems to have gotten wind of a trendy little thing called Facebook-OCTO and the city need to proactively reach out to residents in order to make the new website the “virtual public square” OCTO wants it to be.

For a model of how to do this, OCTO need only go down the hall to the Department of Consumer Regulatory Affairs. Troubled for years that college students in the District were unaware of their right to free city inspections of off-campus housing, DCRA began an aggressive online campaign to reach students two weeks ago. They launched a blog, thisshouldbeillegal.com, in conjunction with a Facebook page and Twitter listings, which together provided an anonymous forum for complaints against landlords and a listing of licensed landlords in the District. All were instantly popular, DCRA spokesperson Michael Rupert, said. So far, the blog has gotten 6,500 hits.

DCRA’s savvy use of technology certainly contributed to thisshouldbeillegal.com’s burgeoning success, but at the heart of their success is the fact that DCRA’s outreach is shrewdly targeted at student renters.

To date, DC.gov has failed to make sure some of its best online applications are available to the right audiences. The CapStat Mapping Application, for instance, is a phenomenal tool which allows residents to search for D.C. addresses in a Google Maps-like program. The search results yield descriptions of all types of crime, from homicides to muggings, plotted on a map within up to a mile radius of the entered address. But as valuable as this tool is, CapStat can only be found by circuitously clicking through the DC.gov mainpage. It doesn’t appear on the Metropolitan Police Department’s homepage, or on the websites of any of MPD’s seven districts, where it belongs, and where one can only hope it will appear after the redesign. (Smith said that after the redesign, MPD “could possibly include enhanced crime feeds.”)

According to Smith, all D.C. agencies are currently authorized to create Facebook pages. This is troubling, because so far only DCRA has taken advantage of Facebook in order to reach the city’s youth. For thisshouldbeillegal.com, it’s proved an efficient way for DCRA to serve students worried about the safety of their housing. Students need only anonymously upload a photo of say, exposed electric wiring, to thisshouldbeillegal.com’s Facebook page to spur a city investigation of their home. But if a teen who uses the basketball courts at Volta Park wanted to report a facilities problem in one of DC’s parks to the Department of Parks and Recreation, it would require Magellan-like navigation of DPR.DC.gov.

City departments should have been using every tool at their disposal to serve the public a long time ago. Adding networking features to DC.gov and agency websites should make agencies easier to contact, and the overhaul should make the sites easier to navigate. But D.C.’s disturbing history of feet-shuffling makes it clear that giving D.C. agencies new internet toys will not improve their services unless they make a simultaneous effort to broadcast and really exploit their new abilities. After all, Facebook doesn’t work unless you friend people.

-Molly wants to wire you $47,000 from her Nigerian bank account. Send your social security and bank account information to mtr37@georgetown.edu.

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Molly Redden


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