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Tweet success for Greater Manchester Police – a few more thoughts

By October 24, 2010No Comments

After a very interesting week – that took in two conferences (Beyond 2010 and CIPR Local Public Services) I thought it might be worth saying a few more things about the Greater Manchester tweet experiment, where the force used four separate Twitter accounts to tweet out ever single incident over 24 hours.

In my previous post I made a few observations about the reasons the force may have chosen to carry out the experiment, but I didn’t look in much detail at the resources, or how it could have been even more valuable.

The conferences and, in particular, a conversation with Nick Cloke, head of media relations at Sussex Police, really helped me to think about this. Nick pointed out that a project like this demands resources – probably a serious commitment for any force. As I understand it, there were two people from the communications team who tweeted out the incident reports for 24 hours. That would effectively be (I guess) three days’ time (3 x 8 = 24), so six press officer days. (You can see a full explanation of how the communications team handled the event on Amandacomms’ blog, here.)

Given the time and the energy running this would have required, GMP will have thought long and hard about how to get maximum bang for its buck – in terms of ensuring the greatest possible exposure. PR and comms teams are good at working this stuff out. It’s what they’re paid to do. And the force ended up with more than 16,000  followers (I think the number was higher for a while), not to mention a considerable amount of press attention. As an exercise in improving reach it might have been hugely useful.

But the real value of communication through social media is in its ability to help you engage with people, not just to have them follow you (I should point out that the team did an excellent job in responding to people and answering their queries on Twitter throughout the exercise). And, for Greater Manchester police, that real value (long term) is at its greatest when you are engaging and exchanging with people who live in Manchester. I thought, as an exercise, I’d try to have a quick look at the followers that Greater Manchester Police now has on Twitter.

I’m not a programmer (and I was doing this on a Sunday, from bed) so I went the easy route and found a simple analytics tool called Foller allows you to enter a twitter name and grab some interesting statistics about that individual. In the case of Greater Manchester Police it gave me this map:

GM Police: map of followers

You’ll have to click on the map, or run the same search as me, to see the details. To be honest, it is only illustrative. It doesn’t seem to crunch sufficient numbers to be able to do the job properly. I hoped to use TweepSearch, which allows you to search a user’s followers for location and profile information, but it often takes a long time to update – and isn’t yet providing anything like the information required to analyse this stuff sufficiently.

Nonetheless, I’ve trawled through the users and, while the majority obviously come from the UK, very many don’t come from Manchester. Although it’s useful to have people outside your area interested in what you’re doing – any constabulary is primarily interested in communicating with its own people. They’re the ones who use the service, ultimately will make decisions about that service and the ones you want to help you to make that service better.

So how would you ensure that this kind of project worked better and had more of a focused impact on Manchester?

There are a few of things that immediately occur to me. Although, before I go any further, none of this is criticism. As my last post suggested, I think the event was excellent and a success for the force – my comments are simply meant to look at what else could have been done to add to the project.

  • Firstly I’d look to see how I could get other people involved in the experiment beforehand. After my last post, Andrew Cater very kindly provided details of the Hacks and Hackers’ Day run by Scraperwiki in Manchester. At that event, two very enterprising souls took a dataset already gathered together of the tweets and used it to create – short term – a search tool to look through every single incident. Involving people with these kinds of ideas beforehand would have meant that some of the resources Greater Manchester Police committed to the project may have been even more useful to the community. The search tool is now offline because Yuwei Lin and Enrico Zini, who created it, don’t have the resources themselves to keep it going.
  • It’s not just programmers and journalists who could help, though. Manchester is teeming with social media folk with bright ideas – and has some excellent hyperlocal bloggers. Could some of them have helped out on the day to tell the story of what Greater Manchester Police do? I don’t know how easy that would have been to organise, but it might be something worth thinking about in the future for other organisations that might be interested in doing similar projects. While I’ve no doubt Manchester’s social media scene is absorbing the project and talking about it, could that process have been larger and more interesting if they had been involved at the inception? I believe it would have been – and many of these people are themselves skilled communicators who can help to defend the project against some of the unwarranted criticism that it did receive.
  • I think I might also look to respond directly using other forms of social media after the event. The YouTube video provided beforehand was excellent. There were two more updates, but none after the event – and they don’t seek to respond to questions that people have asked about what was happening. Furthermore, could there have been more use of other forms of social media, such as a blog? Almost all the activity around the event – and the corresponding conversation – took place on Twitter (from what I could see). With a blog, the team could have rounded up the many blog posts generated about the event, as well as projects like the one I mentioned above. That would have helped to give a much stronger picture to the public of the activity the event created – and its purpose. It would also be helpful for people like Yuwei and Enrico to know that their efforts had been recognised by the police. It might, too, have been a useful place to answer some of the questions that people might have had about what the police force was doing and about how it manages resources.

What I really liked about what the constabulary did was that it dared to go a little further with a simple tool than others have. What it does is open up the possibility of finding other ways to use social media to explore how our public resources are used. However, what will make these kinds of projects work in the future, I think, is community involvement. The kind of community involvement that means other people exchanging and telling your story and helping to make any organisation’s understanding of what it does even stronger and better defined. Hats off, again, to GMP and to all those involved. Let’s hope others pick up the baton and run with it.

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