The New York Times reported this weekend on New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg’s “geek squad.” More formally known as the Policy and Strategic Planning Analytics Team, the group analyzes the massive amounts of public and government data available on New York City to improve government services: 

“For the modest sum of $1 million, and at a moment when decreasing budgets have required increased efficiency, the in-house geek squad has over the last three years leveraged the power of computers to double the city’s hit rate in finding stores selling bootleg cigarettes; sped the removal of trees destroyed by Hurricane Sandy; and helped steer overburdened housing inspectors — working with more than 20,000 options — directly to lawbreaking buildings where catastrophic fires were likeliest to occur.”


New York City collects mountains of data on its inhabitants, from “the number of heart attacks and fires that occur inside” each building to the number of cars parked at metered parking spaces every day. But during a brainstorming session the Times reported attended, the group suggested mining another data source – social media:

“Every day, he said, there are 250,000 New York-centric posts on Twitter alone — some concerning trash complaints, others unsanitary restaurant conditions. ‘If Young & Rubicam can use tweets to sell you stuff,’ he hypothetically asked, ‘why can’t the city use them to make you less sick?’”

People have speculated about the Internet’s ability to redefine the interaction between governments and their citizens through increased communication between the two. Organizations like See Click Fix, for example, empower people to report problems and issues to their local government. The viability of See Click Fix and Gov 2.0 depends on people’s willingness to be citizens everyday, rather than just election day. Are people motivated enough to engage with their government on a regular basis?  

Time will tell. But the mining of social media seems like a promising alternative. Instead of relying on people to turn to an online service for reporting potholes or unplowed streets, all the government would need is for people to rant on Twitter. It will be difficult for towns and cities without New York City’s resources and size to effectively learn from mining social media. But if I were to choose an approach, I don’t know that I’d count on people using a service to constructively engage government. I’d count on people complaining on Facebook.

This post was written by Alex Mayyasi. Follow him on Twitter here or Google.