What It's Like To Use Twitter For EVERYTHING

Photo Courtesy @JoseAntonioJun/Instagram.
At first glance, Jun seems like a quaint Spanish town; located just a few miles outside Granada in southern Spain, many of its 3,500 residents have lived there for their whole lives. But this middle-class town is blazing trails — it’s the first in the world in which residents communicate with their local government via Twitter.

Since it was first implemented in 2011, Twitter has made the government more transparent to the citizens of Jun. But, it has also created a stronger sense of community, and is receiving the attention of researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), who would like to implement the same system in larger cities elsewhere in the world.

To understand how Twitter works in Jun, consider a streetlight, which went out on Calle Alemania, right next to the house where Alejandra Fortes lives. “I wrote to the electrician because the streetlight next to my house was out, and just three minutes later, it was repaired,” Fortes told me. “Twitter has changed our lives.”

That’s how incidents tend to happen in Jun, according to the people who live there. Citizens tweet at the government about something in need of repair, a suspicious car, a lost dog, or a leak in the water main, and a government crew jumps into action. “The government pays much more attention, there’s a lot of transparency, and they come more quickly,” says Carmen Bocanegra, a Jun resident for the past 15 years. The mayor, José Antonio Rodríguez Salas, says he answers an average of 81 queries per day, resulting in over 118,000 tasks coordinated almost instantly with the proper crews, which otherwise would have taken days or weeks to accomplish.

The government’s operations are much more transparent, Bocanegra says, but so are the complaints. That accountability may be why repairs are completed so quickly. “It helps that now everyone can see how [these repairs] work. Before, you could only call the government. Now, everything is much more visible to the world,” she says.

Not only has Twitter created a stronger connection between the local government and its citizens, but the social media network has unified members of the community as well. “The relationship is much more fluid, in part because the citizens feel heard by the mayor and public servants, but also because now we are better at solving our own problems and eliminating bureaucracy,” Bocanegra says. “I have a stronger connection to my neighbors.” And mayor Rodríguez Salas notes that citizens appreciate the work more because they can now put a face to the often thankless task of infrastructure repairs.

Jun’s Twitter experiment hasn’t gone unnoticed: It caught the attention of researchers from MIT’s Media Lab, who want to scale Jun’s model to cities like San Francisco, New York, Boston or Chicago.

What’s not quite clear is what would need to happen to implement such a system. “The mayor has an unusual combination of tech sophistication and personal charisma,” the MIT researchers wrote on Medium. “Is such a leader required for bringing government into the social age? Could the Jun system work in a metropolis with millions of citizens and a different kind of mayor?” Rodríguez Salas thinks so.

One of his ideas is to bring technology and training to the people who are the most reluctant to use it — the elderly. Jun has a long history of embracing technology, and was one of the first cities in the world to consider the internet to be a universal right in 1999. Since then, the government has put a Wi-Fi router in each of the homes of elderly people, provided special training programs to teach them how to surf the web, and, yes, even create a Twitter account. “That’s how we prepare the weakest sector of the population of Jun to use a basic resource to work with the government of the future, in which there is no space for bureaucracy,” Rodríguez Salas says.

As a whole, the citizens of Jun are overwhelmingly happy using Twitter. The only suggested improvements are for more transparency and that the government listen even more closely to its constituents. “Not everything’s perfect,” Bocanegra says. “But when something happens here, if the government doesn’t answer you, your neighbor will. I don’t know what’s faster or better than that.”

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