At 5am this morning Greater Manchester Police completed a grand – and furiously busy – experiment in social media-based transparency. Using four separate twitter profiles, two staff from the constabulary’s PR department tweeted all 3,200 incidents that the force’s officers responded to in a 24-hour period.
According to PublicTechnology.com, the force’s twitter following went from 3,000-odd to more than 17,000 followers – impressive, clearly, but what was the force attempting to achieve with this flood of tweets?
Well, on Greater Manchester Police’s website, the Chief Constable Peter Fahy used a YouTube video to say in advance of the experiment that he hoped it would ‘give the public a better understanding of what their police officers are doing today’.
Although crime is a very important part of what we do, we do much else besides. We are very much the agency of last resort and a big part of our work load is related to wider social problems of alcohol, drugs and mental health – and people who are having problems with their relationships.
What I found particularly interesting, however, was the next bit of his explanation…
So through this exercise we hope to give the public a better picture of what is the reality of day-to-day workload and [we are] also saying that in the current debate about our public spending there are a lot of repeat individuals, families, locations that agencies are having to deal with and, therefore, if we were funded and measured in a different way, we feel that we could actually be more effective and do our best to maintain the service to the public in the difficult financial times to come.
So, the idea behind the great tweet out wasn’t just to make it more obvious what the police do, but to start to pose some fairly interesting questions about the responsibilities the police have and how it is expected to meet these expectations. A message, then, that wasn’t just aimed at the public, but at the government.
As Peter Fahy suggests in his statement, the UK’s police forces face a difficult time ahead. In the autumn spending review next week (October 20, 2010), we expect forces will be asked to find cuts of between 25 and 40 per cent. Since staffing accounts for about 80 per cent of police spending, that will have a profound impact on the way our police services operate. What the chief constable of one of Britain’s biggest forces appears to be saying is: we need better measurement of the police’s social value i.e. where it really makes a difference. It seems that he thinks this is missing at the moment and this little experiment will help provoke a rather better informed debate about these issues.
So has it? Well, frankly, it’s hard to tell. A deluge of tweets does not represent an in-depth bit of research. Nor, indeed, is it that easily digested – although someone must already have put all the tweets into a spreadsheet and be looking to make a few, more considered, observations about GMP’s 24 hours. (UPDATE: Well, someone has already made it easily digestible. Working at the Scraperwiki Manchester Hacks and Hackers Day, Enrico Zini and Yuwei Lin turned a dataset of tweets assembled by the Guardian‘s Michael Brunton-Spall from the GMP 24 event into a JSON dataset, producing a simple search tool to look through the data. While that isn’t running now (they didn’t have the resources to keep it going), they’ve made the code available on a GPL licence on Enrico’s blog, here. Thanks very much to Andrew Cater – who commented to tell me about all of this).
While Greater Manchester Police is demonstrating a level of innovation in its approach to social media, it remains to be seen whether this will be turned into a truly meaningful conversation about its priorities, its service and its funding.
But, as a PR exercise, coming only a few days before the government makes its announcement about where cuts to the public purse will be made, it may have been rather clever. Certainly, it generated some considerable media attention – and an accompanying twitter storm (not to mention quite a few blog posts, like this one). Such activity, and the accompanying conversation, can’t hurt Chief Constable Fahy’s argument one little bit (if you leave aside a few poorly considered moans about it in itself being a waste of money, like this one). And, if it does lead to a better informed debate, it’s to be applauded.