The Spanish town where Twitter reigns

Residents use Twitter to report crime, check up on the mayor and make appointments

Mayor Jose Antonio Rodriguez Salas checks his smartphone at his office in Jun, Spain. Salas claims he has shaved an average of 13 per cent off the town’s budget every year since 2011, thanks to the extensive use of Twitter, and created a digital democracy where residents interact online almost daily with town officials. Photograph: Laura Leon/The New York Times

Mayor Jose Antonio Rodriguez Salas checks his smartphone at his office in Jun, Spain. Salas claims he has shaved an average of 13 per cent off the town’s budget every year since 2011, thanks to the extensive use of Twitter, and created a digital democracy where residents interact online almost daily with town officials. Photograph: Laura Leon/The New York Times

 

When José Antonio Rodríguez Salas’s daughter Martina was born in April, he turned to social media to share the news.

However Rodríguez Salas, the mayor of Jun, a small town nestled in the foothills outside Granada in southern Spain, did not post a message through his own Twitter account. Instead, he wrote a short message from @martinajun, a Twitter account he had created for his newborn, saying, “I’ve just been born”.

To Rodríguez Salas’s more than 400,000 followers on the social network, his actions came as no surprise. That is because the Spanish politician has spent much of the past five years turning Jun (pronounced hoon), where the population barely tops 3,500, into one of the most active users of Twitter anywhere in the world.

For the town’s residents, more than half of whom have Twitter accounts, their main way to communicate with local government officials is now the social network. Need to see the local doctor? Send a quick Twitter message to book an appointment. See something suspicious? Let Jun’s policeman know with a tweet.

People in Jun can still use traditional methods, such as completing forms at the town hall, to obtain public services.

But Rodríguez Salas said that by running most of Jun’s communications through Twitter, he not only has shaved on average 13 per cent from the local budget each year since 2011, but he has also created a digital democracy where residents interact online almost daily with town officials.

“Everyone can speak to everyone else, whenever they want,” said Rodríguez Salas in his office, surrounded by Twitter paraphernalia. “We are on Twitter because that’s where the people are.”

Test bed

By incorporating Twitter into every aspect of daily life – even the local school’s lunch menu is sent out through social media – this Spanish town has become a test bed for how cities may eventually use social networks to offer public services.

“Jun is one of a group of islands of innovation in the public sector,” said Arthur Mickoleit, a researcher who until recently was a digital government adviser at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris. “They’re tapping into social media to improve public services.”

Jun’s embrace of Twitter did not happen overnight.

Rodríguez Salas, a career politician, was elected Jun’s mayor in 2005 – the year before Twitter was founded – after serving as deputy mayor. In 2011, he asked all town officials, from his deputy to the street sweeper, to open accounts on Twitter and send messages about their daily activities.

The goal, he said, was to create greater accountability and transparency over how Jun was run. Rodríguez Salas added that he chose Twitter over Facebook because Twitter allowed quicker interactions.

Jun’s officials also started asking residents to verify their Twitter accounts at the town hall, a relatively simple process of checking people’s government IDs with their online profiles to ensure their concerns were answered online.

Officials began with basic services such as public maintenance, letting people tweet when they saw a broken streetlight, or a road that needed cleaning.

Rodríguez Salas said such activities built good will with residents, who at first opened Twitter accounts sporadically. But since 2013, the online activity has become almost universal as people saw how their neighbours used the service.

María José Martínez, Jun’s information technology chief, also ran courses at the community center to teach Twitter 101, such as sending direct messages and using the right hashtag during local campaigns.

One recent hashtag that residents have used is #EndesaMeEstresa, or “Endesa You’re Stressing Me Out,” to highlight problems with Endesa, a local utility.

After the company was confronted with Jun’s angry tweets, it quickly fixed the blackouts, Rodríguez Salas said. An Endesa spokeswoman declined to comment.

“We can check if they’re really working or not,” said Paco Castellano, a resident who recently opened a Twitter account, mostly to keep tabs on local officials.

Rodríguez said these interactions have made the town more efficient just as Jun’s budget, like that in many Spanish towns, is under strain. His officials rarely receive calls or visits from people looking for help, he said.

Using Twitter has also reduced the need for some jobs. Jun cut its police force by three-quarters, to just one officer, soon after turning to Twitter as its main form of communication when residents began tweeting potential problems directly to the mayor.

“We don’t have one police officer,” Rodríguez Salas said. “We have 3,500.”

Jun has not gone unnoticed by Twitter. Dick Costolo, the company’s chief executive until 2015, visited last summer, leaving his handprints in cement below an obelisk topped with Twitter’s logo of a blue bird. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, with funding from Twitter, has analysed how the town’s residents have benefited from using the social network. Jun does not receive money from Twitter for using it.

For Justo Ontiveros, Jun’s remaining police officer, those benefits are up close and personal. He now receives up to 20, mostly private, messages from locals daily, with concerns ranging from advice on filling out forms to reporting crimes such ase domestic abuse and speeding.

Ontiveros said his Twitter interactions have given him both greater visibility within the community and a higher level of personal satisfaction, as neighbours now regularly stop him in the street to discuss things that he has posted on Twitter.

“It gives people more power to come and talk to me about their problems,” said Ontiveros, whose department Twitter account has more than 3,500 followers.

Still, Jun’s reliance on Twitter has not been universally embraced.

Some residents question whether a publicly listed company such as Twitter should be permitted to help provide government services.

“Should a municipality take pride in cutting its workforce by outsourcing it to an international company?” asked Richard Rogers, a professor of new media at the University of Amsterdam.

For José María de la Torre Sarmiento, an architect, the chance to quickly send tweets remained preferable to submitting forms that often took weeks to process.

“I work from home and use internet services all the time,” he said during the five-minute verification process. “Why can’t I do the same thing when I use public services?” – (2016 New York Times News Service)

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