Monthly Archives: August 2015

When Community Engagement Goes to the Dogs

The internet 2.0 has brought unprecedented ways government to interact with its constituents. Many governments have blindly followed their peers and society into the ever-evolving world of social media. The smallest of governmental organization with nontechnical staffs can easily set up a Facebook or Twitter account, and start interacting with the digital world. Once on social media, these agencies will open a utopian exchange of information that will allow public administrators to have meaningful relationships with the very citizens they serve.

Real problems can occur when the community engagement tool starts to be used in ways that are counterproductive or even a weapon against the organization or other members of the community. The news is full of stories of people leaving rude or even malicious comments of what can feel like near anonymous websites. A digital environment full of internet trolls, Hacktivists, and digital protests, can make controversial town council agenda items seem enjoyable in comparison.

What can seem even worse is that the government organization may not even be seeking to be involved in some of the issues that can be brought to their social media presence. A good example of this occurred in the City of Greenville, North Carolina during Hurricane Irene when a homeowner left a dog inside a chain-link fence kennel as the family evacuated the approaching storm. A concerned neighbor posted a picture on an animal rescue Facebook page after the town animal control officials informed the neighbor that they could not legally take any action to remove the dog. The picture went viral, and soon animal lovers around the world started to besiege the city with demands to have the dog removed from the property.


City resources during the peak of the hurricane became dedicated to dealing with the calls for action to rescue this dog whose owners had not violated any laws as best the city could determine at the time of the incident. Poorly worded posts to the city’s Facebook page caused concerned animal lovers from around the world to leave angry and threatening posts in response to every post made by the city during the event. Emergency phone lines were tied up by people calling to request the dog be rescued and the owners charged with animal abuse. After the fifth welfare visit by animal control officers, the dog was removed from the property and placed in an undisclosed shelter location due to the threats made from concerned individuals.

Before this event, the City of Greenville had no social media policies that addressed most of the issues they faced as a result of the anger from animal activist who demanded immediate action to save the pictured dog. Prior to hurricane Irene, the city emergency officials had no policy for monitoring social media during emergencies. They also lacked a policy for handling users who went beyond voicing their discontent to being harassing and preventing the city from sharing important messages with its citizens.

While it may be easy for a business or private citizen to simply block abusive users or turn off the comment sections on their web pages, government agencies must balance any control actions with the individual free speech and due process rights. The best way to prepare is to work with legal counsel to develop policies that address when citizen generated content becomes counter to the purpose of the vision and goals of the governments social media sites. This can be especially important to have in place during a crisis when stress cause passions to run high for the things we value the most.


Running Together: Highlighting Raleigh, NC’s efforts in going the extra mile

This past Friday, August 7th, more than 2,000 people went to Meredith College’s track to show their support for the Sir Walter Miler – a community based, running event. Why is this important? A local group, including Sandy Roberts, Logan Roberts, and Pat Rice, created an event, which began with only having one participant, and developed into something amazing by engaging the community in just two years. Robert Putnam’s bestselling book “Bowling Alone,” discusses how the nation has become increasingly disconnected with its communities, but that was not the case for at least 45 minutes in Raleigh, North Carolina that Friday night as thousands of people cheered on elite and local athletes.

Raleigh has a strong history for supporting running events; perhaps my personal bias skews this perception. The city hosts a variety of running events for local residents, high schools, and colleges, often getting national attention thanks to the success of North Carolina State University, Duke University, and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In the 1980s and 1990s, the Old Reliable Run brought many elite runners to the area, but this event no longer holds the prestige that it once held. My 3rd place showing in the 2007 Old Reliable Run provides evidence to this opinion.  In reality, the running community does not compare to the size of those found in Eugene, Oregon or Boulder, Colorado.

Yet, on that Friday night, Raleigh’s community made a statement by flooding the track, cheering on athletes as they set personal records and world leading times in the mile. Most notably is Steph Garcia, leading three women under 4 minutes 30 seconds, with a 4:28.04 time. The environment is like non-other. Individuals formed a barrier surrounding the track, giving off a much needed, high-intensity environment, supporting and helping the runners achieve their goals.

Meet directors Sandy Roberts, Logan Roberts, and Pat Rice made this event possible by engaging the community. Sandy Roberts stated that he wanted to see the “community coming together in this movement, called Sir Walter Miler … feeling invested in the product.” Leading up to the main event, a series of 5 “Pop Up Miles” were held, allowing participants to run fast miles, set personal records, or an opportunity to earn a spot in the elite race. This was the foundation of developing an invested community, drawing 30-40 people to each of these events. Participants and supporters would spread the word about their experience, building speed for the movement. The Race Directors also incorporating active community outreach efforts by speaking to local running groups, high schools, and organizations about the event and their goals. Social media was also a main component for community outreach efforts since many of the elite participants live across the nation. Social media users were given an opportunity to interact with participants using Twitter and Facebook.

A key component of the event that demonstrates community buy-in, is providing elite runners lodging through a host family. Families, with and without a running background, opened up their homes for these athletes, providing shelter and meals.  These strangers were given an opportunity to become friends, creating more investment with the event and was more personable for the host families as they cheered on the athletes.

This blog post only touches some of the key highlights of Sir Walter Miler as a community event. The Race Directors put in a lot of hours in making it successful. The event got the immediate attention of large running and sports agencies such as and Sport Illustrated, which highlight how important this model is for the future of running events. Yet, it doesn’t have to be limited to running events. This was not for profit, it was fueled by an idea and passion. This can be applied to a variety of areas that can bring a community that was once alone, together again. I cannot imagine what the future holds for Sir Walter Miler.

2015 Sir Walter Miler Results

Women’s Elite Mile

  1. Steph Garcia 4:28.84
  2. Amanda Eccleston 4:29.06
  3. Heather Wilson 4:29.39
  4. Morgan Uceny 4:34.02
  5. Christy Cazzola 4:39.70
  6. Emily Lipari 4:46.33
  7. Victoria Voronko 4:47.29
  8. Andie Cozzarelli 4:47.92
  9. Sarah Pease 4:52.39
  10. Ericka Charles 5:00.21

Men’s Elite Mile

  1. Robby Andrews 3:57.38
  2. Kyle Merber 3:57.97
  3. Jack Bolas 3:58.83
  4. Lex Williams 3:59.40
  5. Brandon Hudgins 3:59.67
  6. Ford Palmer 4:00.47
  7. Donnie Cowart 4:00.48
  8. Isaac Presson 4:00.86
  9. Cory Leslie 4:01.66
  10. Craig Forys 4:01.79
  11. Joe Stilin 4:02.12
  12. Jake Hurysz 4:08.04
  13. Kyle Graves 4:09.88
  14. Christian Brewer 4:10.32
  15. Jake Edwards 4:12.22

Additional References:

Water Agency Uses Mobile Application When Engagement Opportunities Seem “Dry”

Is there a limitation on how citizens can engage with your agency, specifically with agencies that offer public works services? Well the Placer County Water Agency (PCWA) located in Auburn, California, developed a method that has attracted the nation’s attention, including the Daily Show with Jon Stewart!

The devastating draught conditions California is currently experiencing is one of the reasons why the PCWA launched a new smart phone app last October. The mobile app provides up-to-date information on the California drought conditions, water efficiency resources, bill paying options, and allows citizens to report water wasters. The latter of the features is what draws attention from the media, including Jon Stewart.

The mobile app allows citizens to take pictures of other people, or businesses, which are wasting water and report them to the agency. The mobile app uses GPS tracking location, so the PCWA has an accurate location on where the water waste is occurring. According to a USA Today article, the creators want the mobile app to encourage water conservation and this gives citizens another option to report water waste. The PCWA receives approximately 35 to 40 calls a week regarding water waste. Close to 10% comes from citizens using the mobile app.

Aside from overlooking the negative implications of encouraging an environment of citizens “snitching” on their neighbors, as Jon Stewart’s satire highlights, using this method of engagement can potentially create many benefits for a community.  Engagement opportunities between water agencies and their customers seem dry, mainly consisting of going to the water agency’s office in order to turn on service and pay a deposit. However, as water conservation continues to be a hot topic, agencies can look at this model for promoting engagement opportunities with their customers.

Establishing the mobile app allows citizens to get current information on water issues, i.e. water outage, contamination, pollution. Reporting water waste by taking a picture gives the agency pertinent information on specifics of the complaint being reported, and allows them to better evaluate offenses and establish priority, as opposed to getting a phone complaint (no visual). The app can give agencies the resources to monitor and track repeat offenders, and provide evidence for hearings (whether the evidence would be admissible in a formal hearing is another topic of discussion).

As one customer states in the USA Today article the mobile app “… feels like policing. I think the first thing I’d do is ask people if they’re aware and have them stop.” Ideally, this would be a simple solution and easy process, but what if a person does not want to be in a confrontational situation with a stranger, neighbor, or business. Using this method also expands beyond just water agencies. Some municipalities use this to report potholes on their streets. Additional usage can include pollution, roadkill, littering, or building violations in Historic Districts. Overall, I think this is an innovative program to promote citizen engagement with their public utility agencies.


A New Life for QR Codes?

Like many of you I have Facebook friends who like to repost viral content. I usually scroll past the political memes (no thanks, Dad) and videos of increasingly elaborate “promposals,” although I have a soft spot for the oft-shared videos of dogs welcoming their military people back from deployment. The other day a former coworker of mine shared a Facebook post that normally I would have scrolled past had it not been for the QR code in the accompanying photo.

In class we talked about QR codes as one of those forms of technology that never quite caught on. Sure, they were ubiquitous for a while, posted in subway stations, at bus stops, and sometimes even on the sides of buses. Should I ask the driver to slow down so that I can scan the QR code to find out about your awesome apartment complex? No thanks.

The organization featured in the viral Facebook was If I Need Help. Founded by the parents of a son with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), If I Need Help’s main product is an ID patch (QR code-based) that individuals with ASD and other communicative issues can wear in case they are separated from their caregivers or are in situations where they might need assistance from the public. Scanning the QR code allows someone to view important information like medical conditions, ways to help calm the individual who needs help, etc.

It’s certainly not perfect, but this organization has hit on something. I had a close call in the emergency room when, too sick to communicate the medical team, I received a large dose of an antibiotic to which I had a severe allergy. I started wearing a necklace listing my allergies in case it happened again. QR codes enable caregivers and just regular good samaritans to access a much greater deal of information than jewelry. I would urge nonprofits like If I Need Help to consider investing in QR codes as a way of conveying key information that could be used to save lives!

Takin’ it to the Streets

Have you ever taken a walk through your community and fallen into a pit? Maybe that pit should be a park instead…


I know I have run across spaces that seem to be underused and the thought that runs through my head is, “They should do something about this.” You know who they are, right? The powers that be, the people in charge. The people in charge at Los Angeles Department of Transportation (LADOT) have given some of that power back to the citizens with their program called People St.

People St is a program that works to transform underused areas of L.A.’s streets into public spaces through community partnerships. The program brings the community and the City of Los Angeles together in determining which areas to target and the type of project to engage in.

There are three types of projects available: plazas, parklets, and bicycle corrals. Plazas create an accessible public open space by closing a portion of street to vehicular traffic. Parklets are an expansion of the sidewalk into the on-street parking to create places featuring seating, etc. Bicycle corrals occupy a single on-street parking space and accommodate up to 16 bicycles.

According to a recent article, LADOT is hoping “community leaders and the public will use the People St web app to identify places in their neighborhoods that might benefit from a parklet or plaza installation, and then apply to the program. The goal is to spark community interest in partnering with the City to improve residents’ mobility network for all travel modes.”

This is a Blog Post about a Blog Post about Blog Posts

Call me old-fashioned, but I have my doubts about blogs. Not on a personal level, there are many blogs I read for personal enjoyment, and I see their usefulness in being a cheap outlet for writers.

Organizational blogs, on the other hand, I have my doubts about.

Blogs ran by organizations typically read too polished, like they focused group what people would like to see on their organization’s blog and did exactly that. The reality that they are trying to somehow manipulate me is all too apparent. It rarely feels like I am getting a transparent look into an organization I am interested in and being invited to a conversation with them.

So I took to the internet to see if anyone else shared in my outrage.

I didn’t necessarily find that, but I did find a great blog post (aside from his egregious use of the wrong “your”) about why most corporate blogs suck:

10 Harsh Truths About Corporate Blogging

This post was written by Paul Boag who is apparently “a user experience consultant and expert in digital transformation” … er, whatever. Now, much of his blog post sounds a lot like many other “experts” in the field of social media/digital communications — mostly hot air. Make it a listicle, throw in some buzz words, call it a day. But I really liked his sixth point in the post:

“6. You sound like a faceless corporation…”

That’s it! That is why corporate blogs suck! It’s also why my blog post ideas often get shot down at work, because I write all wonky — with weird dashes (and parentheticals — not even a word apparently).

This also got me thinking about the one corporate blog I can think of that doesn’t sound that way… the blog of my beloved Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams out of Columbus, Ohio. If you get a chance, go check out Jeni’s blog. It’s great. It has heart, personality, humanity. I read it even though I have no way of eating Jeni’s Ice Cream at the moment.

If you get even more of a moment, go back and read the posts related to Jeni’s recall from the spring and early summer. Someone could devote an entire thesis in PR crisis management to Jeni’s blog throughout the recall. It was honest, passionate, clear, honest, open. It actually made me tear up when Jeni announced they were reopening (again, we don’t even have Jeni’s in Florida).

I guess this is the point of my blog post about Paul’s blog post about corporate blog posts:

If you don’t want them to suck, be human.

Before you kill that spider…

What do you do if there’s a spider crawling across your floor?  Instead of smushing it, scientists may want you to bottle it up and send it off to their lab.

With the advent of social media and smart phones, scientists and researchers are increasingly looking to “citizen scientists” to help gather data about the natural world.  It’s crowdsourcing for the science community – helping scientists understand the natural world better through an exponentially larger set of data than they could ever collect by themselves.

The North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences is a prime example of science organizations harnessing citizens’ long-lost dreams of being the next Bill Nye to gather data for research projects that span the world.

Examples of current projects include gathering samples of insects found inside your home, volunteering to place infrared motion-activated cameras in natural areas, and even providing a swabbed sample of the bacteria living in your armpit.  (This last example is for a primate armpit microbiome project, not researching the next generation of deodorant).


There’s even an app you can download – iNaturalist – that facilitates the user taking pictures of plants, animals, and fungi that they observe.  The species are identified and mapped, along with displaying the accompanying picture, for anyone to view on the iNaturalist website.  The Museum is interested in North Carolina data, but the website facilitates similar information sharing worldwide.

The Museum hosts all of this information – ranging from how to get involved to the specific projects in which citizens can participate – on their website at: