Social computing

Web 2.0 is a much-maligned, ambiguous phrase that’s been used to justify everything from social revolution to a swathe of Internet bubble business plans. It supposedly covers everything from Instant Messaging to Facebook and has spread beyond its Silicon Valley roots into the ‘old’ worlds of bricks and mortar business and the world of traditional media. What, then, does Web 2.0 mean for the public sector? How can the government sector take the best of so-called social media and leave the worst of the hype behind?

What is it?
There are many answers to the question of what Web 2.0 is but broadly speaking, Web 2.0 is a combination of technologies and processes that encourage true, person-to-person interaction via the Internet. In addition, it implies a lightweight, server based technical infrastructure – applications accessed over the web rather than on a desktop.
    
A range of applications typifies it – sites like Facebook and MySpace live up to the interaction aspect whilst tools like Flickr and GMail give us a glimpse into the future of online applications. These definitions are vague, they encompass things like blogging and instant messaging, but overall Web 2.0 is a grouping of activities that represent the latest stage in the web’s development.
    
In the private sector Web 2.0 went crazy in 2007, creating what many have perceived to be a new Internet ‘bubble’, with mad valuations and VC funding creating a feeding frenzy for DotComs not seen since 1999. However, whatever one thinks of the thinking behind this growth, no one can argue that there’s something there. From nothing, MySpace has grown to hundreds of millions of users and Facebook is now one of the most heavily trafficked sites in the UK.

Web 2.0 and the corporate
The public sector manager looking to leverage the Web 2.0 revolution could do worse than look at major enterprises that have tried to adopt Web 2.0 tactics. The most obvious development in this field has been the corporate blog.
    
Already there are professional, consumer facing blogs – groups like Gawker Media (www.gawker.com) have a broad range of niche, consumer media propositions based around the blog format. More than that, corporations have adopted blogging in a big way – from technology analysts like Jupiter (http://weblogs.jupiterresearch.com), who blog their thoughts on the latest developments, through to businesses blogging to their consumers, like mobile operator 3 (www.3mobilebuzz.com).
    
In addition, the software as a service model (SaaS) that typifies the Web 2.0 environment is taking on the corporate world in a big way. Because SaaS sees an application hosted on a centralised server and accessed online, it opens up huge potential efficiencies. Software can be updated centrally, rather than on each and every desktop, and data and applications can be accessed from anywhere in the world.
    
Even social networking has reached into the corporate world. Company intranets, long the home of long-unread HR documents and irrelevant health and safety advice, are increasingly becoming networking hubs within major companies.

Social Networking
The interest in social networking sites such as Facebook and Wikipedia, the wide-scale use of blogging and the rapid deployment of new  mash-up applications are moving us nearer Tim Berners-Lee's original vision for the web as “anything being potentially connected to anything”.
    
These developments cannot be ignored by the public sector and the emphasis on participation in Web 2.0, in particular, has important consequences for government.

In the public sector
The question is not of when the public sector will embrace social networking, but how. What is the best way to engage with the general public, and break down the traditional barriers to communication?
    
Web 2.0 technologies can be used to alter perceptions of public services. Its irresistible rise is already evident, just look at the number of political blogs, Youtube videos and Facebook groups that have sprung up in recent times. These are new channels of communication, but may fall short of fully embracing the potential that Web 2.0 has to offer.
    
At first glance, the political word befriending the transparent and honest outlook of social networking appears improbable. Politicians traditionally rely heavily on an ability to control situations and add a positive spin to their messages. An open dialogue is therefore open to abuse and any attempt at censorship would expose the author to greater public scrutiny. It is easy to see the evolution that e-government could undertake on the Web 2.0 path, but it is not necessarily the best direction for the public sector.
    
A direct digital democracy could be opened up once more to the nation using Web 2.0 as a basis, as it allows large-scale feedback on service quality and government initiatives. A more citizen-centric approach to governance would allow real-time evaluation, and possibly speed up bureaucracy.
    
Benefits
Internally, the public sector can also benefit hugely from the arrival of cheap and simple tools that support collaboration. Response times and innovation should be improved as a result of better knowledge sharing. Wikis are a proven transparent tool and leave clear audit trails for later evaluation.
    
The user-friendly social computing tools that have evolved on the web can only serve to frustrate corporate and public employees. IT departments are caught between embracing Web 2.0 technologies and losing control, or prolonging restrictions on access in order to protect the user.
    
In the world of Web 2.0, it is the user that discovers the best way to adapt tools to solve the problems they face. The answers tend to emerge from the user and his peers, instead of trickling down from the IT expert at the top.
    
It is this streamlined and flexible approach to problem solving that needs to be promoted throughout the government. Web 2.0-based social computing has a vast potential to unfetter both citizens and employees. If this new momentum can be effectively directed, we will begin to see giant leaps forward. A collaborative public sector can become a distinct possibility.

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