Who's on first: Ranking the best U.S. cities online

City governments are jumping on the social media train in a big way, more than tripling their use of social platforms in a two-year span between 2009 and 2011, according to a national study by the University of Illinois at Chicago that ranks cities on how well they interact with people online.

The study of the country’s 75 largest cities found that 87 percent of them had a presence on both Facebook and Twitter, and 75 percent had YouTube links.

Meanwhile, cities are making some progress in offering their constituents open data portals for making use of government information, although only 12 cities currently have them and they often present unstructured data that’s difficult for people to use.

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Karen Mossberger, who leads the university’s administration graduate program, and associate professor Yonghong Wu analyzed the cities’ online presence, interactivity, transparency and accessibility to come up with their Civic Engagement Index for measuring how the cities interact with constituents online. They then compared the results with a similar study from 2009.

The biggest change was with social media, the researchers said. Use of Facebook jumped from 13 percent of cities in 2009 to 87 percent in 2011. Twitter use increased from 25 percent to 87 percent, and YouTube use rose from 16 percent to 75 percent.

In all, the researchers ranked cities on 94 criteria for those with council manager governments, and 90 criteria for governments without city mangers. In addition to use of the top social media platforms, criteria included such things as the presence of official blogs and whether they allowed comments, searchable databases, Flickr links, virtual town hall meetings, newsletter subscriptions and e-mail updates. 

New York and Seattle led the way, each scoring 93.33 percent use of their applicable criteria. Toledo, Ohio, brought up the rear, with a score of 51.11 percent. The average overall score for the 75 cities rose from 78 percent in 2009 to 83 percent in 2011.

The top 10 (actually, the top 13, accounting for ties), with their scores:

1 (tie). New York, 93.33 percent.
1 (tie). Seattle, 93.33 percent.
2. Virginia Beach, Va., 90.43 percent.
3. Portland, Ore., 90 percent.
4. San Francisco, 89.36 percent.
5. Kansas City, Mo., 87.23 percent.
6. Denver, 86.67 percent.
7. Mesa, Ariz., 85.11 percent.
8. Louisville, Ky., 84.44 percent.
9 (tie). Philadelphia, 84.04 percent.
9 (tie). Long Beach, Calif., 84.04 percent.
9 (tie). Sacramento, Calif.,  84.04 percent.
10. San Jose, Calif., 82.98 percent.

In the past couple of years, federal, state and local governments have made a push toward making data available for public use, with efforts such as the federal Data.gov. To date, a dozen cities (16 percent) have implemented open-data portals, according to the study: Baltimore; Boston; Chicago; Honolulu; Louisville, Ky.; Milwaukee; New York; Philadelphia; Portland, Ore.; San Francisco; Seattle; and Washington, D.C.

Open-data portals give the public access to information such as crime rates, health trends and traffic. Having access to data, however, doesn’t necessarily mean that the average person can do anything with it, so several cities also held app-development contests, offering prize money for programmers who can create ways for people to use the data.

In New York, for instance, the Big Apple Apps contests have yielded apps to help people get around town or compare schools. In Washington, D.C., the Apps for Democracy contest has produced apps for everything from taking historic tours to finding the safest route home late at night.

About the Author

Kevin McCaney is a former editor of Defense Systems and GCN.

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