Our view

SC agency tracks social media to improve service

April 21, 2014 

20120507 Going viral


  • In summary

    The S.C. Department of Health and Human Services appears to be using data from social media to improve its service to the public.

News flash: Many items posted on social media can be accessed by just about anyone.

Actually, that shouldn’t be news to any frequent users of Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and other forms of Internet communication. If an average citizen can find information on those sites, so can private companies and government agencies.

The S.C. Department of Health and Human Services openly mines such information. DHHS pays Clemson University’s Social Analytics Institute $50,000 a year to “scrape data” from 150 million public, real-time feeds each day and report to the agency what people on the Internet are saying about it.

DHHS officials say they use social media to analyze what the public thinks of the job the agency is doing. Clemson’s daily search through the ocean of posts turns up comments about the state Medicaid program and the Affordable Care Act, which it then aggregates in reports sent back to DHHS.

The purpose, according to DHHS, is to correct disinformation about the agency and to help answer questions people post online about the agency’s services. In other words, the agency says it uses the data mined by the Social Analytics Institute strictly to improve its services to clients.

But some critics claim the program invades people’s privacy and smacks of Big Brother. They say the government shouldn’t be tracking what residents are saying online.

But it probably is too late to think about putting that genie back in the bottle. As Jason Thatcher, director of the Social Analytics Institute, noted, the institute is using the same tools that everyone in the Fortune 500 is using to improve customer service.

All DHS is doing is applying those tools to the domain of public health.

We understand the discomfort with the notion that the government is constantly “spying” on us, reading private communications, listening in on private conversations. But the DHS and the Social Analytics Insititute are confining themselves to information that is public, not private.

And it’s a two-way street. Many private businesses routinely use social media to talk back and forth with customers.

Unfortunately, many who use social media to interact with friends, post pictures and videos, or post opinions about controversial issues often forget that those are not private exchanges. And there are ample examples of people running into trouble because they failed to recognize that fact, posting something they later regretted.

But if an agency such as the Department of Health and Human Services can use the information from the vast amount of data on social media to improve services to the public, we should welcome that. Government may be watching and listening, but in this case at least it appears to be for our own good.

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