Communicating with the Public Through Sensors and Technology

This blog post is an excerpt from GovLoop’s recent guide, “The Internet of Things: Challenges and Opportunities for Government.”

In the early 2000s, the social landscape looked vastly different. No Facebook. No Twitter. No Instagram. It would be quite a while until the first iPhone was introduced and acronyms like LOL, OMG and TTYL would enter the picture.

But today millions of messages are sent each day to connect with citizens around the world, and the public sector is more engaged than ever on social and communications platforms.

Behind it all, said Richard Fong, Technical Implementation Consultant at Granicus, a leading company in the public sector digital software space, there is an acronym that is making an ability to engage with one another possible: API, or Application Programming Interface.

GovLoop sat down with Fong to discuss how APIs are currently interacting with the Internet of Things (IoT), enabling public sector organizations to automate communications with their citizens about everything from air quality issues to traffic conditions.

While a seemingly complex term, APIs are simply the middleman between a programmer and an application. In other words, APIs are a common boundary between a set of information and a user.

“Have you ever streamed a show on Netflix? Do you have an app that tells you when you could expect the next bus, or what traffic looks like?” asked Fong. “All of these examples use APIs to connect to an information source, approve the transfer of information, and then allow access for a user.”

Fong also discussed how public sector organizations could potentially use sensors as well to extend information to citizens through the reach of email and other digital communications using an example from Maricopa County, Arizona.

“In the Maricopa County area in the past decade, they’ve installed a series of sensors,” Fong explained. Their goal in doing this was to be able to measure the air quality and alert citizens if the quality was too poor to spend a significant amount of time outside. They then implemented a Rapid Response Notification System.

“Whenever a certain air quality level was discovered, they wanted to be able to alert citizens to stay inside, to not drive, and to not work outside if you had health issues,” Fong said. “This was all done in response to a federal mandate that said to get a particular amount of funding, you have to have some kind of notification system. So they came to us.”

Granicus worked with the county and their sensor system to set up an automated email process related to poor air quality measurements. The air sensors send an email to county staff if the air quality reaches a certain limit. Once that information reaches a county staff member and it has been verified, the staff person will use their mobile phone to send a message to Granicus with the alert, who will in turn send the message to that specific monitoring site distribution list.

“In essence,” Fong continued, “it’s using automation to connect people and communicate to them in an efficient, automated way about really important topics. These sensors can gather information, relay an action, and part of that action is a communication to the public that helps them stay healthy.”

Fong added that the ability for other organizations to use this sort of automated sensor communication is unlimited – natural resources departments could use it for alerts about water pollutants; departments of transportation could use it for traffic alerts; and much more.

The power of exposing resources via sensors or APIs is apparent for many organizations. There are APIs for mapping, weather, search, photos, data, stocks, and music. According to an article by ReadWrite, 75 percent of Twitter’s traffic is done via API and 60 percent of all tweets come from a third-party app.

“By extending our platform with APIs, we can expose various resources so a government agency’s system or application can communicate back with us via APIs,” Fong explained. “This matters because government can save time and reduce staff resources by automating tasks – everything from growing their audience, driving engagement, call-to-action messages, more informed citizens, eliminate errors, managing topics, and sending out alerts via email or SMS.”

“As the world continues to evolve,” said Fong, “so does the way we serve government and thus, how government communicates with citizens. Just imagine where we’ll be in another 15 years.”

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