Bexley News

Public officials turn to Twitter to keep residents informed

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A lot can be said in 140 characters on the popular social network Twitter, and several local governments are hoping these short blasts of information will help residents know what's going on in their communities.

Municipalities like New Albany, Dublin, Gahanna, Westerville and Bexley and organizations like the German Village Society are using the micro-blogging Web site to "tweet," letting residents know about events, services and even local emergencies.

Twitter (www.twitter.com) allows users to post status updates and links that are no longer than 140 characters. Users "follow" other users on the site, receiving updates on a personalized homepage.

Since its inception in 2006, Twitter has added mobile capabilities so users could send their "tweets" through text messages and have permitted third-party users to develop Twitter software for both smartphones and personal computers.

The village of New Albany began tweeting last week under its username, "NewAlbanyOhio."

Scott McAfee, village spokesman, said he is trying to use multiple forms of technology to reach residents.

"There are so many different forms of social media, and Twitter is definitely all the craze right now," he said. "Just in the one week that our Twitter page has been out there, I really can see the viral effect."

He said he has been toying with the idea of tweeting for the village but said he initially had concerns about keeping up with it.

"I don't expect it to replace any of our other tools anytime soon," he said. "But it's free, and it can complement all of our other tools, like direct mail, e-mail blasts and our Web site."

The New Albany Police Department also is tweeting.

"I went to the Dublin Web sites and the Ohio State (Highway) Patrol and saw how they were using it, and I thought this could be a handy way to get the information out," NAPD Chief Mark Chaney said.

He said he tweeted last week when a semi-truck overturned on U.S. Route 62 to let residents know the road was closed. The username is "newalbanypolice."

Dublin police Chief Mike Epperson said his department has been using Twitter since spring to alert residents and drivers of emergencies. Dublin police tweets are at "Dublin Police."

"We're just starting to explore and utilize any resources that help us communicate with people," Epperson said. "We saw it as a natural extension to give us another means to communicate. We're always looking for more avenues to communicate."

The city of Dublin also has been using the social-networking tool, communications director Sandra Puskarcik said.

She said Twitter not only provides another form of communication, but it's also in line with the city's "green" initiative.

"Printing and mailing can be expensive, so this is a more efficient and cost-saving way to get the message out," she said.

Westerville officials have been using the social network since early June and already have more than 100 followers, according to community-affairs administrator Christa Dickey.

"I know that the administration up here really recognizes the value of social networking," Dickey said. "It's not only communicating but exchanging information. It's just another tool in our communication toolbox."

She said city leaders used Twitter last weekend to get the word out that the city's Fourth of July parade start time had changed.

"We used Twitter and relied on some of our followers to help get the information out," Dickey said. "The parade went on without a hitch."

Bexley development director Bruce Langner tried out the network for the city in May after reading part of a book by Kyle Ezell, a member of the regional planning faculty at Ohio State University. Ezell was the keynote speaker for a recent city-planning retreat.

"He talked quite a bit about twittering and how people are going online and getting information about things," Langner said. "They wanted brief sound bytes."

Langner uses "Bexley_Beckons" as a Twitter username and aims to promote both community events and economic-development opportunities.

"My intent on there is to promote things happening in the community, tweet interesting facts about the community," he said.

Since starting to use Twitter at the beginning of the year, the German Village Society has gained more than 400 followers.

Still, Erin O'Donnell, the executive director for the German Village Society, said it's difficult to tell whether the site has brought new members to the nonprofit organization.

Though the German Village Society is not a governmental entity, the nonprofit organization is dedicated to the community's history and acts as an advocacy group for the area.

"It's really hard to figure out if there is a direct correlation between sending out a (tweet) and getting someone to attend an event," O'Donnell said.

In the weeks leading up to the society's major fundraiser -- the Haus und Garten Tour -- the society used the site to drum up excitement.

"For two weeks, every day in a row, we set up a Twitter where an intern researched different fun facts (about the tour) from throughout the decades," O'Donnell said. "Through that time we got a lot more people signed on."

Though O'Donnell said she doesn't know if the site has helped bring in members, she said it's still a valuable tool.

"It takes 20 seconds to send out a twitter, and it's worth it," she said. "Even if it means that five or 10 people have signed on and now know what we are doing, it's beneficial."

Bear Braumoeller, a political-science professor at Ohio State University, said he thinks Twitter is an appropriate form of communication for municipalities only if it is combined with other modes.

"Twitter only reaches a very small percentage of the population, most of whom are younger and computer-literate and implicitly, sufficiently well-off to be computer-literate and computer-enabled," he said. "Municipalities are obliged to communicate with all of their citizens. Twitter is appealing because it's easy to use and free, but we won't be able to rely on only using something like Twitter for quite a while."

gmartineau@thisweeknews.com

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