In Panama, potholes are a huge concern for residents. Telemetro Reporta, a news program in the country, commissioned the help of advertising agency P4 Ogilvy & Mather to address the issue. As a part of the campaign, the agency created a Twitter account called El Hueco Twitero, or The Tweeting Pothole. In 140 characters or less, the account sends out snarky, pleading tweets directly to Panama’s Ministry of Public Works, asking for the potholes to be fixed.
It works like this: sensors in the form of durable discs that look a lot like hockey pucks were placed in numerous potholes on some of Panama’s busiest streets. They send a signal to a digital wireless receiver every time a car runs over them, which then tweets out a message that tags the public works department.
“I am not in danger, I AM THE DANGER,” reads one of the tweets sent June 8. Another tweet, translated from the page, roughly reads, “I feel horrible, I just caused a tire damage to an old lady’s car. @MOPDePanama, See what you made me do.”
By tagging the ministry each time, the campaign (which was still ongoing at time of writing) practically forces the government to respond. According to Adweek, the head of the department, Ramón Arosemena, went on a segment of Telemetro Reporta at the beginning of June to address the campaign and what the government was doing about it. You can watch the segment in Spanish on Adweek’s page, but the gist is that there’s a mix of low-quality construction and slow-moving bureaucracy to approve funds to fix the roads.
So far, the tweeting potholes have sent more than 1,300 tweets over the course of a few weeks, often getting sent out a few minutes apart. The ministry’s Twitter page, in correlation, shows an increasing number of messages and photos being tweeted out related to pothole repair. Other reports say that the potholes are slowly disappearing.
The campaign shines light on an interaction between governments and people that wasn’t nearly as easy before the advent of social media. Most public government bodies in developed or developing countries have Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, and sometimes even Instagram profiles. Sometimes the accounts are meant to inform, other times it’s a way for public service officials to connect in humorous or less formal ways than their offices normally allow. In every case, the idea is to engage citizens in more meaningful ways.
It’s pretty safe to assume that the Panamanian Ministry of Public Works had at least one meeting about how to handle the tweeting potholes. More likely than not, there were several meetings. Snarky tweets maybe aren’t the best way to make friends with public officials, but the goal of actually effecting change seems to be within reach. When public entities open up social media pages, they take the risk of getting all sorts of feedback from the community. Apparently, they need to be prepared for large-scale calls to action, too.
“Any time you are working to engage people, you’re going to want a social media presence to amplify your ability to reach supporters quickly. Social media is not a fad, it is a powerful trend that represents new methods for advocating,” reads a post from the Work Group for Community Health and Development at the University of Kansas. The post’s author, Heather Bowen Ray, advises that social media campaigns should have a clear objective and focus around one central social media avenue, at least to start. “The purpose of digital advocacy is to galvanize supporters to take action,” she states.
In the case of the tweeting potholes, the news program gave its viewers more of a voice. Though the Twitter account contains mostly original tweets, it also shares the tweets of residents who are posting their own pictures of other potholes in the area that don’t have a sensor. The news program aired a few segments about the initiative, letting people know that the ministry would be receiving an onslaught of these complaints. That created a domino effect, with everyday people then believing they too could access government officials and make their concerns heard.
That sort of call to action, though on its face a publicity stunt, is beginning to solve a widespread problem within a country’s infrastructure. It’s also a blueprint that shows how other action in various communities could take place, too. Los Angeles Magazine published a brief web post, clamoring for its own set of tweeting potholes for the “canyons” around the city. But in theory, this sort of campaign could work for a number of public concerns, including safety hazards, park maintenance, or other projects that governments are responsible for but might otherwise be ignoring. In this case the ad agency’s sensors did most of the hard work, but there’s hope that a similar grassroots campaign could be effective, too.
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