Toronto transit riders will be able to track bus locations on cell phones

GPS tracking on Toronto transit buses and a 311 number to monitor every civic complaint filed online, are just two ideas garnered through social media channels that will be rolled out as new municipal services in Toronto.

These services, and how they are being implemented, exemplify the new role for the Web — and specifically social media tools — in bolstering democratic practices, according to Toronto city mayor David Miller.

And democracy, Miller reminded a sold-out crowd at MESH, a social media conference in Toronto – extends far beyond voting.

He said his objective is to improve transparency and openness in his government, the sixth largest in Canada.   

How does Miller propose to do this?

For starters, the mayor launched a new Twitter account (@mayormiller) this January, surprising Torontonians by frequently tweeting from his BlackBerry and posting pictures on Twitpic.

He also tweeted about every single thing he did on Toronto’s 175th birthday, in an effort to record the special day for the history books — or Internet archives.

The Web, Miller noted, has changed the way people consume information, and to improve transparency and delivery of government services, facts need to be made available online.

In bygone days, news used to break in the morning, but it now breaks constantly on the Web, he said. So it’s important from the government’s perspective that the message be accurate, because if it’s online, it’s permanent.

“I use Twitter to try and tell people what’s happening in Toronto, so they can share in that knowledge.”

He says while the stuff on the front pages of newspapers may be the most interesting news of day, there’s so much more happening in city. “Twitter gives me the opportunity to relate all that from my perspective.”

So Miller tweets from his Blackberry, often when rushing from one meeting to the next.

“I am able to quickly twitter and I do try and reply if people ask questions. It’s been a place to sharing ideas for improving the city.”

All City employees with responsibilities for communicating with the public are allowed to use Twitter to make public service announcements, Miller said. This includes Toronto Transit Commission staff or city councilors.

Twitter is also being used to bring business and government together, through Invest Toronto, a group which, among other things, aims at bringing more foreign investment into the city. 

The city is also using Facebook to reach out to a different, wider audience, seeking suggestions and input on a streetscape improvement project on Jarvis Street, for instance.

Some ideas — garnered through social media channels — are being implemented as new municipal services, such as a new 311 call centre, which will go live in June this year, Miller said.

The 311 number will track every complaint filed online about civic issues, such as a pothole on a street. A list of all potholes in the city will be created, along with the date they were reported, and by when they are expected to be repaired.

All city buses will be outfitted with GPS NextBus data technology, allowing transit riders to track buses online and on their cell phone, rather than wait outside in the cold.

Other services being made available online include the ability for low-income families to register for parks and recreation programs, and for Toronto employment and social services users to pre-qualify.

Pre-qualification would optimize the use of use highly-trained social workers, whose time can be expended helping families, rather than for bureaucratic tasks, such as filling out forms.

“We’ve seen when we share information, people use that data to create new applications that benefit the public and city,” Miller said.

An example of this is Red Rocket, an iPhone and iPod Touch application created by Hilary Street and George Talusan using TTC trip-planning information.

Red Rocket offers you information about when your streetcar is set to depart, the location of the closest TTC stop, and approximately when the streetcar will arrive.

An unofficial Twitter account called @tofire uses information from the Toronto fire city site to post updates about Toronto fire alarms across the city.

And Change Engine, a project which came out of the Change Camp conference, will allow the public to report, map, and resolve issues around the city. It’s a perfect companion project to the 311 initiative, Miller said.

Bonin Bough, global and digital director of social media for Pepsi Co. uses social media to build relationships with key influencers and passionate brand ambassadors.

“You can no longer stand on a hill and talk to people, you need to bring them in and ignite passion points.”

Pepsi, Bough said, uses Twitter to build trust with customers by creating a conversation with anyone who asks a question.

The feedback process also serves as an “early warning system”, as the company learns from both negative and positive comments posted online and changes product designs accordingly.

One example of this is when the company redesigned its Tropicana orange juice carton after the original design received a lot of negative feedback online.

“We were doing market testing and listening to customers,” said Bough.  “We’re not afraid of that.”

Using the Web to enhance communications will be the standard strategy for improving customer relationships and conducting day-to-day business activities, he said. 

He said the commercial that won the Super Bowl for Doritos, a chip company under the Pepsi brand, was user-generated.

Meanwhile, to improve city-based government services, Miller will be appealing to Toronto’s ICT crowd by sharing data on a new site, www.toronto.ca/open.

The site will catalogue city data, including static and real-time reports collected through a call centre.

Potential benefits of the site – which will be ready by next fall – include better city services, expanded reach for these services and increased transparency.

The city of Washington, D.C. had a similar project, Apps for Democracy, which worked with the development community, something Miller believes is also a good idea for Toronto.

He said opening everything up, creates opportunities for direct engagement. “It will allow people to knowledgably steer political issues they care about … [taking] democracy to a whole new level.”

And in the last analysis, Miller said, that’s what democracy is all about. “I’ve never believed it is just about voting — that’s just the cost of admission.”

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