Driving Citizen Outcomes

An interview with Jason Thomas from Thomson Reuters about the use of social data in government. 


With a curriculum vitale that includes creation of the FBI’s Internet Crime Center, Jason Thomas has been utilizing social data for government in innovative ways since 2000.

In a discussion that ranged from calls for the private sector to utilize public data sets in innovative ways to cautionary statements to the government to respect privacy when utilizing social data he presented an interesting view of the government’s use of social data.

Early Government Use of Social Data

IC3 was established as a channel for people to report complaints of internet crime. Jason recalls a moment from the early days of IC3 (2000) when a member of their team hypothesized what would happen if someone used the service to report something emergency related.

They didn’t have to wait long. The next day, a man would file a complaint with the IC3 that his house was on fire. At that moment.

Fast forward to 2013, and numerous emergency services, law enforcement agencies and government are interacting on social media in an meaningful and occasionally urgent way.

Social Data and Crisis/Crime

Thomas mentions that the perceived anonymity of social networks will help people feel more comfortable sharing tips with enforcement agencies.

The Boston marathon tragedy and Reddit, demonstrated the power of public’s activity in identifying suspects. Citizens engaged in a crowdsourced search for suspects. Though the identified suspect was not correct, it was a clear demonstration of the potential.

Threat detection is reputation management from a law enforcement perspective. Threats to officials, private individuals or government can be tracked and investigated.

With the government utilizing social data to monitor for these actions, it is natural that concerns for citizen privacy arise.

8-9 months ago was the first live Facebook kidnapping where a man updated Facebook live after he took his girlfriend. Things like this happen and it causes the government to look more closely at the data. There are proxy challenges. How can the government balance what is happening from a threat perspective while respecting citizen privacy? These are questions that remain unanswered, though Thomson Reuters continues to work to bring all parties to the table to talk about these issues.

Thomas includes one more note about privacy. He maintains that it’s not that the government disrespects privacy, instead it is that they are getting their messaging around privacy incorrect or too late.

Social Data Projects in Government

Looking to innovate in government? Don’t move too fast.

Thomas advices that innovators should plan for longer timelines than the private sector as government projects with social data will need timelines to accommodate extensive reviews to protect citizen liberties.

When it comes to buy v. build, Thomas points out that the government doesn’t do typically do innovation well. In fact, he suggests that often government will first look to build, only to realize they can’t due to both time and budget constraints. They will then buy.

This shouldn’t scare developers of social tools away from government.

There is a lot of interest by government agencies to see how social data can enhance their mission. A great example is the National Institute of Mental Health. They are constantly looking for ways to fund things. Thomson Reuters has helped them to see what topics people are talking about and interested in so they may fund research in those topics.

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