6 December 2006
As I wrote in an earlier entry I am currently in Japan doing research in 2 areas. First, I look at local SNS (social software) and how this could be useful for disaster management. Second, I will do another case study for my research on Citizen Relationship Management.
Yatsushiro is the second largest city of the Kumamoto prefecture and is centrally located about 40 km from the Kyushu west coast, the southernmost of the four Japanese islands. As part of the eGovernment efforts in 2002/03 the city started “Gorotto Yatchiro”. It offered a bulletin board, calendar, link posting and email form functionality. However, it never got quite of the ground with a final community size of 600, 40 truly active users and 10.000 page views per month. Usage decreased over time and since membership offered anonymity some members did not stick to accepted conventions of online behaviour. As for Japanese culture, this keeps a lot of people critical of such initiatives paired with general mistrust in government and public administration in Japan. More than 900 local governments around Japan had set up citizens’ virtual conference rooms by 2004 as part of their eParticipation efforts. Though, most of these projects met the same fate as the one in Yatsushiro city.
Meet Mr. Takao Kobayashi who had/ still has the biggest influence on local government social networking services in Japan with his ideas and "Open Gorotto" platform which is available free as openSource software (click the above link to download the latest version).
In response to the decline of the bulletin board and inspired by bigger and popular social networking platforms such as Mixi, Mr. Takao Kobayashi, a young member of the Yatsushiro IT department, decided to design and program a new version of Gorotto in 2004. Interestingly, he was neither ordered to do so nor did he ask for permission. Within three months the first version of the “Open-Gorotto” SNS using openSource software as Free BSD, PostgreSQL, and PHP was developed. Except being inspired by existing social networking platforms no additional surveys on user needs were conducted. As the platform is hosted on government servers and development was done in work and free-time costs can be considered insignificant. Up to this day there is no additional budget set aside or significant recognition of political or administrative leadership except that that there is no interference.
Mr. Kobayashi mentions four points that motivated him to create the SNS platform: First, citizens are much better at sharing government information, so each citizen’s network serves as a multiplier. Second, the platform helps the community to grow stronger, meaning that people who share mutual interests can get together in a pleasant atmosphere. Third, the platform presents general and government information in a different way. Finally, administrators can interact and learn from citizens. Disaster is missing here but was picked up by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications (MIC) as a goal. MIC conducted empirical testing of SNS communities in the City of Nagaoka which will be described in LINK and in Tokyo’s Chiyoda Ward in early 2006.
The SNS platform exists parallel toYatsushiro city's website which links to the former. “Gorotto Yatchiro” functionality includes a blog, networking, personal profile, picture/media library, calendar and newsgroups (see picture below). Its uniqueness compared to sites like Mixi, Gree, MySpace or Xing lies in additional features as GIS/Google maps mash-up, a fire alert or open architecture with allows for integration of other features. Besides that the platform is mobile friendly. Although everybody can use the platform registered users can invite contacts. In order to prevent a development similar to the bulletin board “Open Gorotto” includes the “Alien” or “Grey Person” feature. This automatically scans for swearwords and the like and also sends a quick note to the administrator (Mr. Kobayashi) and another person supporting him with this task.
Since the new version was made available online by end of 2004, member expansion was left to invitations of users only. Mr. Kobayashi thinks that this allows for a healthier online community and avoids the objections citizens might have towards government although it is much slower. Advertising was only done through links on the city website, flyers and ads in the city magazine. Additional public attention came through press articles first in the regional and later in national press which is visible in higher website traffic after key interviews. By now the platform has around 2800 members with 70% being from Yatsushiro. Average age of members is 39 with males tending to be more active than females (ratio: 7:3). 400 users can be counted as truly active in terms of their blog, commenting or in forum behavior. The most used features are the diary followed by the internal email system and forums. 400 users have also subscribed the RSS feature. Smaller forums are managed by citizens; bigger ones are managed by the admins. 100 members of the community belong to the local administration or politics. When asked, Government officials see the local SNS mostly as another communication channel. They are still thinking about further use, especially with regard to disaster though.
Mr. Kobayashi is currently promoting the idea of having local interconnected SNS in all of Japan's municipalities that also mirror each other in case of a failure/disruption like a disaster. Modifications of "Open Gorotto" are already used by other local SNS throughout Japan. However, many times Mixi is able to attract more people from the same area as the local SNS. This relates very much to questions raised by Ines Mergel regarding individual social networking platform online behavior.
In any case, the actions of Mr. Kobayashi are unique. It is proof of an individual's impact on a smaller and ultimately broader scale. I could not find similar projects of government SNS in the world with regard to eDemocracy or disaster management. Hence, "Open Gorotto" is an innovation for local government worthwhile spending more time thinking about.
Posted by Alexander Schellong at December 6, 2006 12:30 AM