Archive for Januar, 2007

Government Social Software - SNS in Japan Part III: Some observations

Donnerstag, Januar 18th, 2007

In today’s entry I would like to make some comments on the two Japanes local government SNS case studies I presented earlier.

Mr. Kobayashi, the member of Yatsushiro’s IT department, has a key role for the future development and functionalities of the SNS platform. He started this local SNS completely on his own, inspired by the rise of private social networking platforms and personal interest in technology. His government membership and high level of personal involvement ensure the sustainability of “Gorotto Yatchiro”. By comparison, “Ococo Nagaoka” is managed by an actor outside of government. The NPO, although well connected, has less leverage on the level government support and involvement. Government officials reportedly evaluate success by the quantity of users which influences their willingness of support. Therefore, “Ococo Nagaoka” is in a critical state (only 600-700 users).

Many online activities (i.e. exchanges) are depending on a critical mass for others to be attractive, a criteria which has not been met in both cases (1%< of the total population) and both mostly exclude older generations. In addition, both are competing with big platforms like Mixi.

If the local SNS has more users, the load on technology and burden on involved managers will also grow. Mr. Kobayashi would not be able to monitor user behavior without further help if that happens. Although officials claim to learn something from citizens, there is nobody checking the information in the citizens’ blogs.
Mr. Kobayashi is right when pointing to the importance taking a gradual approach of getting more users and introducing the platform. However, government marketing is not helping much and poorly done which reminded me of discussions with administrators who were wondering about the slow user uptake in their eGovernment projects.

Although Mr. Kobayashi added the map feature, functionality and design of existing platforms led to an early framing of his understanding of the possibilities and limits of local SNS. The lack of feedback by other people in the creation process is certainly a reason why its use in disaster or the government citizen relationship is not fully exploited. Administrative members would also be more willing to join, add content and engage with the citizen if there would be a considerable and visible amount of support by executive level administrators. Again, Mixi and Gree formed their perception of SNS so that in their words local SNS is mainly a way to interact with the public and offer it a way to interact with each other. They miss the aspect of building social capital.

Moreover, MIC should have planned a longer pilot phase since the tendency of a slow user uptake was already visible in the data for Yatsushiro. Central government is still influential in Japan so MIC could have also done more to inform and motivate the public and administrators alike.

Government Social Software - SNS in Japan Part II: Nagaoka City

Samstag, Januar 6th, 2007

The following describes my findings from Nagaoka city. Follow the highlighted area to read the first part about on government social software in Yatsushiro.

Nagaoka is a city located in the center of Niigata prefecture spanning from the northern coast inland of Japan’s main island Honshu. Just like Yatsushiro, Nagaoka merged with a couple of surrounding cities and towns between April 2005 and January 2006 increasing its population by approximately 100.000. Nagaoka was completely destroyed during Second World War and always had to cope with some form of disaster (earthquakes, snow, flood). This fact left its distinctive mark on the now roughly 283.000 people living in Nagaoka and is a reason why the Phoenix was chosen as a symbol of the city. The recovery of the Chuuetsu earthquake (More on the geophysics) in October 2004 is still taking place in some mountainous areas. The community is said to be better connected in those rural areas than in the city. According to city officials internet penetration is now at 60%. During the earthquake the internet and basic mobile messaging were the only communication channels working.

Before Nagaoka introduced the local SNS platform, it had a web bulletin board besides its official city website. Citizens showed the same frustration with the language and inappropriate behavior of some users which led many to abandon the platform. The city’s local SNS called “Ococo Nagaoka” was introduced in mid December 2005. As it is based on “Open Gorotto” I will not go into detail about its functionality. By now (December 2006) there are 600 registered users compared to 300 at the end of the MIC test phase in February. Only a few forums around casual topics like food eco-tourism can be considered active. The local SNS was marketed through publications in city newspapers, banners and section on the city website. In contrast, Mixi has 2000 members just for Nagaoka.


The process that ultimately led to the Nagaoka local SNS started in 2004. Soiga, an NPO, originally founded for environmental activities in April 2004 used a blogs and RSS to inform the public when the region first experienced a severe flood in April and earthquake in October. They provided faster information than government which received wide media attention, especially when they took over communication after Nakanashima government was operational ineffective through flooding. The NPO tried to convince government officials later that year to start an official government blog but their idea was rejected because nobody saw any need or importance in it. Thereafter, the head of the NPO was asked by MIC to join a newly formed working group on local SNS. (Furthere information in Japanese) The group consisted of academics, members from MIC and members of local administrators among them Mr. Kobayashi. They formed two groups to cover the theoretical and implementation/system aspects. First, they all looked at Mixi and Gree as the majority of them had never heard of SNS or used it before. To get the funds, the official project goal was officially about improving civic participation in Nagaoka and Tokyo’s Chiyoda Ward. Although they could not think of a different kind of use, improved information sharing in disasters was a secondary object. MIC covered the costs (¥ 1,500.000) for the local SNS pilot phase whereas the NPO was asked to manage it and work together with local government. Running costs are at around ¥ 30,000 per month.

When Nagaoka’s local SNS started, many sections except for information policy did not understand the SNS concept and why Nagaoka was chosen. In fact, of those interviewed, many admit that they are still wondering what SNS is all about, why they should put their information online and how it could be further utilized for government. Many immediately joined Mixi to get a feeling for SNS. Perceptions of local SNS vary. The dominating view is that local SNS provides a convenient location for communication and information sharing for citizens and government. In the past neighbourhood associations (NA) were the link between government and citizens. However, most leaders and people in the NA are now very old and lack knowledge or interest in the use of IT. Some interviewees think it could complete or add value to real-life relationships. People could help each other more by learning more about each other, what they could do for the community and as a result rely less on government. One mentions a group that started discussing how to have a nicer city and improve economic growth which members first got to each other through the local and later offline. A member of the disaster section adds that it is strengthening the community by building broad networks between the newly merged cities. Sceptics think that there are more dominating means of communication like mobile phones. A council member who uses multiple blogs and the SNS, thinks that the level of impact on the community of the local SNS is very low. To stress this point he compares his networks on Mixi (112 contacts) and the local SNS (12 contacts). In general though, SNS helped the council member to interact with the younger community.

Currently the members of Soiga (Japanese only) are working on an updated version which should be online by early 2007. The biggest change lies in the use of the Google Maps API. They are as well talking about online advertisement space and how to attract more users to the platform. Significant changes to “Open Gorotto” can only be introduced if they are implemented by Mr. Kobayashi or someone with his skills.