You may have noticed that we’ve recently released the results of the BDO 2013 Social Media survey and have published a jazzy infographic filled report with some top tips for councils to get the most out of their social media presence. 

Social media is a pretty exciting area to be working in right now because advances in digital technology are changing the way that we deliver public services.  Among many other things, social media provides public services with the opportunity to mine vast quantities of data to learn about their customer’s preferences.  Today I’m going to delve into the murky waters of customer profiling to see how social media and digital tools might be able to support local authorities to learn about their customers and manage demand.

Customer profiling is a common phenomenon in the private and public sector – it involves mapping out your customers’ profiles and creating population segments based on income, employment and accommodation to ascertain typical service requirements.  Tools such as MOSAIC and OAK already provide local authorities with this type of information but councils are yet to fully capitalise on how digital tools can go further to provide an interactive real-time snapshot of their customer’s needs.  The idea is simple, if you know what sort of person your customer is, you can push services towards them to reduce the need for them to contact the local authority and ask for those services in the first place. 

There are already a number of tools available on the market.  Agilisys Digital has pioneered a “you may like” solution which it claims uses technology to profile more than 3 million people a month.  In the private sector companies such as Yahoo and Google use “search and assist” technology to predict what customers want when typing in terms into their search engines.  Social media tools such as map my followers go one step further to help pinpoint the exact location from which someone is tweeting if they have the GPS function turned on so you can see exactly where your followers are based in your local area.

A map of the BDO Local Government Twitter account followers

A map of the BDO Local Government Twitter account followers

Using digital services to target those most in need is clearly a positive outcome of the digital revolution.  However it also raises privacy implications.  The public recoils from the idea of that the Government is mining our personal information – just look at the current furore over the NSA collecting mobile phone conversations in the United States.  The benefits of discovering personal information about residents for service delivery purposes need to be balanced with a respect for the individual’s right to privacy. I sense a local government PR crisis in the making if we start using technology to identify exactly who our residents are, what they want and how they want it before they have even presented themselves to their local authority.

Over the coming years as we get used to living out our lives online we will start to see digital solutions that better manage the difficult boundary between public and private information and these ethical considerations will diminish.  In the meantime, if you’ve seen any interesting examples of digital tools that use customer data to provide public services – please feel free to share below. 


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