Saturday 28 April 2012

Is it going to flood? Check Facebook and Twitter

By Jessica Cheam, The Straits Times, 27 Apr 2012

WHEN the waters rise and a flash flood threatens, putting its reactions under the spotlight, one of the first things the Ministry of Environment and Water Resources (MEWR) will do is to turn to Facebook and Twitter.

It will use a range of online tools to broadcast real-time information on water levels as well as CCTV images of flood-prone areas, while also monitoring netizens' messages for updates.

The moves reflect MEWR's increasing use of social media as part of its drive to engage Singaporeans online.

In fact, having learnt lessons from the spate of floods in the last two years, the ministry now has one of the highest number of social media tools and initiatives among government agencies.

Such engagement, said its minister Vivian Balakrishnan, is less about being liked or popular online, and more about being transparent and open - and getting the job done better.

And by providing more information online, MEWR has also helped to improve national dialogue on issues such as flooding, he told The Straits Times in a recent interview that laid out his ministry's social media policy.

'My sense of it is, it's a far more constructive, engaged tone in the national conversation on environmental issues than we've ever had,' he said.

MEWR, he added, hopes to leverage on the increased engagement to create a 'community of problem solvers', in which the public works together with the Government to tackle issues.

Dr Balakrishnan also noted that providing timely and accurate data would not only be useful but also correct misinformation posted online.

So while dramatic pictures of flooded areas may go viral on the Internet, the PUB's up-to-date information will also show the public how quickly the floods cleared, and that PUB was on top of the situation.

'When someone posts something false, it is evident quickly that it's not the truth,' he said.

At the same time, MEWR and its agencies will treat complaints filtering through social media channels as a 'data point' to be collected and responded to.

This open and transparent approach, said the minister, 'shows that we have nothing to hide'. It also opens up government data for the public to 'analyse and gain a deeper appreciation' of the issues, he added.

MEWR's approach is part of a bigger effort by the Government to engage the public through social media more effectively. Earlier this week, Minister for Information, Communications and the Arts Yaacob Ibrahim had urged the public sector to recognise the strengths of social media and adapt to what it has to offer.

MEWR has taken pains to embrace social media as it interacts frequently with the public on daily issues such as cleanliness and public health.

This week, it revamped its website, saying that the upgrade was needed to better communicate policies while also making it easier for the public to give feedback.

Dr Balakrishnan noted that such engagement efforts would not have been possible 'in the old days'. It was expensive to have sensors in every drain, and there was no Twitter to keep people and officials updated.

'Now you are limited by your own imagination,' he said. 'We're only scratching the surface.'

Indeed, by making data more readily available, MEWR has given the private sector more opportunities to get involved in data collection and distribution.

Local app developer BuUuk, for example, has combined flood alerts from PUB and heavy rain alerts from the National Environment Agency (NEA) to create a mobile phone 'app' called 'WeatherLah', which lets users monitor drains and canals fitted with sensors and tells them if rain is predicted at their location.

Other apps in the works include one allowing users to send information about environmental lapses to the Department of Public Cleanliness, and one that warns of risk of lightning strikes.

Just last week, NEA launched two new apps, at a cost of $31,000, that helps track energy consumption and compare energy costs of different home appliances.

Such investments, noted Dr Balakrishnan, were 'worth doing' because they make daily life better for the public and also build trust and enhance engagement.

Observers like MP Lee Bee Wah, chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee for National Development and Environment, praised such efforts, noting that the public is increasingly relying on social media tools to communicate.

But others such as local environmentalist Olivia Choong, 33, said that although government agencies have fared well in putting out information through various tools, more can be done.

'Not that many have downloaded the environment-related apps so there is room for more public visibility for these,' she said.

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