Is Web 2.0 Always the Way to Go?

Just because government is further behind the private sector when it comes to jumping on the Web 2.0 train doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot of chatter about getting on board. I’ve heard things like

“We need an app where citizens can take pictures of potholes or graffiti with their camera phone, geotag the location, and have it entered into a maintenance request in real time which then generates a tweet with the work order.”


“We need an iPhone app that can play a song of their choice and as it gets closer to their registration renewal date, the song will play faster and faster until they renew their license.”


“We want a platform-agnostic, web-based application that can pull public datasets from every agency overlayed on top of a Google maps mashup with an augmented reality iPhone and Android app integrated into a custom Gowalla trip with flickr integration and vote up/vote down capabilities.”

Ok… I’m exaggerating. But my point is, sometimes we get so enamored by the shiny new jewel that we forget about less attractive options that might be just as useful, if not better than the shiny jewels.

More specifically, I’m talking about text messaging, the premier choice of communication for an overwhelming demographic in this day and age. The statistics are so astounding, there’s no need to list them. Just ask a teenager. People like love being able to communicate in quick, asynchronous digital bits, and this is definitely a channel that works well with government communication needs.

Yesterday, I came across an article in the New York Times blog about a service for pregnant women and young mothers that sends text messages with health tips, information, and resources based on their location. What a great idea!


  • simple,
  • effective,
  • inexpensive,
  • don’t require smartphones,
  • unobstrusive, and
  • completely integrated with normal communication channels.

With all the convenience and benefits of text messaging, why aren’t more government programs getting on board? I’m not saying that nobody uses SMS, but I hear so much more about Twitter, Facebook and other more 2.0 types of tools.

What do you think? Even though it’s not as “shiny” as some other applications, should government use text messaging more often? What are some other examples of highly effective programs taking advantage of this tool?

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Totally agree – was talking to a friend the other day about this the other day. There’s a lot of low-hanging fruit a lot of agencies haven’t done a great job with. Even basic stuff like agencies haven’t fully optimized use of the web, landing pages, email, online transactions.


I forget but I think Convio has pretty good info on it.

My sense is it really depends on the type of information. It’s a very different relationship – text than say email or facebook. I think there are two key types of texts – one where you text for info (text 56372 to find when the next bus is coming to your bus stop – i think thats awesome and its more of a one-off) vs on-going regular information pushes

Tim Evans

Citizens want fundamental services from Government. Benefits applications, license renewals, and the like. You won’t see this in Social Media, no matter how much some folks might want, because of the need to authenticate the citizens (I mean, you have to identify yourself [securely] to apply for government benefits, right?).

Steven Goldman

SMS is a VERY useful medium for reaching people in poorer communities who may not have access to all the shiny new smartphones or apps. We’ve been discussing using SMS for outreach to environmental justice communities, the goal of which is to deliver info on waterbody impairments, contact info for local authorities to contact about pollution/concerns, and information about local green spaces.

Jon Lee

Hey Steve, here’s a low-hanging fruit: emergency preparedness. A lot of people talk about Twitter being the ideal tool for emergencies because it can be tied to your mobile device but 1)very few people are actually on Twitter and 2) even fewer people enable the mobile notifications on ppl they follow

Jon Lee

Hi Leigh, I haven’t seen any studies about how many people sign up to which communication channel, but I think it all depends on the type of service you’re signing up for. If I were a pregnant mother with an unlimited SMS plan, I’d definitely sign up for health tips 3 times a week. But if it’s general news about what the City is doing… probably not.

Jon Lee

Hi Tim, thanks for the comment. I agree that people want fundamental services and government still has a ways to go just to provide basic egovernment services, but social media can be complimentary to basic services. The Emergency Management Department’s top priority would be to provide up-to-date information on their website during disasters, but they could generate more value if they offered an SMS service as well.

Jon Lee

Hey Steven G, that’s interesting. I don’t know how effective SMS would be for government to receive information, because you could end up with a lot of spam and “crank” texts. I guess it depends on the group you’re communicating with.

Ari Herzog

I’m a city councilor here in Newburyport, Massachusetts, and our police department is experimenting with SMS in the form of emergency notifications. Last fall, the police implemented a Reverse 911 system with a private vendor and residents were encouraged to visit a website to input their address (for geographical notifications) and their phone number and email address.

The initial R911 alerts were by phone only, and as the vendors are changing, email is now being introduced. The police inform me that the next step is to offer an optional SMS alert as well — so that a resident can choose between receiving alerts about snow emergency parking bans or hazardous spills or whatnot by their choice of robot phone call, email, or SMS (or any combination).

Would government want to get SMS back? Unlikely at the local government level — though, as a tech-savvy councilor, I encourage texts from my constituents.

Andrew Krzmarzick

A couple years ago, I signed up for weather alerts by text messaging. I think it was through this site:


I’ve got to tell you – I really appreciate getting these alerts when a storm is coming because I am not sitting around watching TV or listening to the radio. But I always have my phone with me.

Where these texts have become particularly helpful is when I am on travel. I have been on the road and received one of these texts for a Tornado Warning back at home…so I called my wife to make sure she was (a) aware and (b) taking precautions.

So I think citizens will sign up for texting if government can demonstrate consistent, real-time value.

Jon Lee

Hi Ari, thanks for weighing in. Why do you think it’s unlikely for local governments to want SMS? I’d think cities have the most to gain because of their proximity to their customers?

Jon Lee

Hi Andrew, thanks for sharing. I agree with your last point about demonstrating consistent, real-time value being a critical success factor. Good point.

Christina Morrison

Great points Jon. I think we see a lot of potential for the Web 2.0 technologies in government, and text messages could certainly be a great stepping stone. One issue with some Gov 2.0 technologies is that it could take time for the public to get used to using new applications, but if agencies could use text messages to reach out to their citizens, it could familiarize people with the concept of communicating with the government through their mobile devices.

Jon Lee

Thanks Christina. Good point about Gov 2.0 needing time for the public to adjust, which is another advantage SMS has over other Web 2.0 channels. A lot more people are familiar and comfortable with text messaging so I think there would be faster acceptance and adoption. Thanks for your comment!