Social Media Apps Help Public Agencies, But Raise Questions

May 18,2015

LOS ANGELES— Social media are changing the ways that police departments and other public agencies do business. New media are helping monitor police and keeping the traffic moving on congested highways. But they are also raising questions.

At the Los Angeles public transit system known as LA Metro, workers monitor banks of video screens showing buses on their routes and busy intersections, looking for delays or other signs of trouble. The system uses information from its cameras and sensors, and will soon use data from the social media application Waze, sent by drivers who note real-time traffic conditions.

Kali Fogel of LA Metro says the transit system must have up-to-date information.

“Data is king, so to have a lot of data is very important. We have a lot of infrastructure data. What crowd-sourcing and apps like Waze allow us to do is to fill in the gaps," said Fogel.

Waze, owned by Google, has partnered with cities from Rio to Jakarta to better understand urban traffic patterns.

Drivers like Freda Sideroff of Los Angeles rely on Google Maps and other navigation apps to get through the traffic.

“It is so useful, I use it every day," said Sideroff.

The California Department of Transportation, known as Caltrans, also communicates with drivers - through message signs on freeways, its highway mapping site called QuickMap, and social media sites like Twitter. Caltrans spokesman Patrick Chandler says traffic managers see millions of trips each day.

“But the system is old. It’s 60, 70-years-old, so we try different things to maximize capacity beyond just building new freeways or interchanges or widen the freeways. We try to inform travelers of the conditions that are ahead of them," said Chandler.

Police departments are using social media to communicate with the public.

But following protests in many American cities over the deaths of African Americans at the hands of police, and the killing of several officers in separate incidents, some police are worried that applications like Waze that identify police locations can pose a danger to officers.

Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck expressed this concern to Google in December. A Google spokeswoman did not respond directly to his concern, saying only that the company works with police to keep officers and citizens safer.

Meanwhile, civil liberties groups are using their social apps to encourage citizens to monitor police, including applications being distributed in New York and California.

These developments underscore the growing importance of social media for the public, police and other public agencies to communicate and gather information.