Palo Alto takes residents on a social-media ride | February 22, 2013 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - February 22, 2013

Palo Alto takes residents on a social-media ride

Recent 'virtual ride-alongs' the latest push by city to strengthen social-media presence

by Gennady Sheyner

Palo Alto Police Chief Dennis Burns is no stranger to chasing criminals or stopping drunk drivers, but last week he found himself in unfamiliar territory as he slowly trailed a mattress that was resting precariously on the roof of a moving sedan.

The mattress was held in place by a pair of hands — one belonging to the driver and one belonging to the passenger. Burns stopped the driver and, after a brief chat, followed the car to its destination two blocks away. Minutes later, the Police Department's Twitter account featured a tweet: "The mattress holders are home safe and sound. First time Chief has seen that in 31 years."

The incident was also Burns' first venture into the Twittersphere for a "virtual ride-along," a new type of event designed to give residents a glimpse into the department's work and to bolster the department's social-media efforts launched last March. Between late Friday afternoon and early Saturday morning, anyone with a Twitter account could follow Burns as he helped a woman find a car downtown; gave a verbal warning to a driver who failed to stop for pedestrians; stopped a bicycle for running a red light; and bought a cupcake and lemonade from a lemonade stand (the photo was tweeted immediately after the lemonade-stand transaction).

The Police Department's Twitter exercise is the latest move in the city's effort to get in on the social-media game. Over the past two years, various departments and top city officials have opened Twitter and Facebook accounts, to which they now post links, meeting notices and recent news tidbits for their followers to digest.

Not to be outdone, the Fire Department followed up Burns' Friday journey with its own "virtual ride-along" Tuesday. All day, followers had a chance to virtually chase a fire engine as it responded to medical calls, shuttled its occupants to a training course, hurried to accidents and made a stop at Philz Coffee downtown. Along the way, fire and medical responders offered insights ("freeway calls are the most dangerous because of the fast speed of vehicles and small shoulder space") and factoids ("nearly 80 percent of our calls are medical" and "In 2012 PAFD responded to 7,796 calls for service, averaging 21 calls per day").

The stream of action, trivia and minutia seemed to work. By the end of the event, the department had added 151 followers to its account.

The growing citywide emphasis on social media has as its leading advocate the city's recently hired Chief Information Officer Jonathan Reichental. Last year, he unveiled the city's dramatically redesigned website, which is now stocked with interactive features and social-media links. The city's official Facebook page is full of public announcements and staged photos of dignitaries in City Hall. Reichental and City Manager James Keene each have an active Twitter account and each uses it to update followers on the latest news, recent statistics and event announcements. And LinkedIn, a social-media site with a more professional bent, recently cited Reichental and Assistant City Manager Pamela Antil as two people whose accounts were among the 1 percent most viewed.

While city's myriad social-media accounts are accessible to the masses, the city also has plenty of offerings for the techier, wonkier set. As part of the Open Data initiative Reichental ushered in last fall, visitors to the city's website can now peruse data on a wide range of subjects, from U.S. Census figures and development permits to library visits. Some of these data sets, the city hopes, will one day be turned into practical and useful web and smart-phone apps by enterprising citizens.

The City Council is fully behind the effort. At its Feb. 3 retreat, council members signaled their support for what Reichental is doing when they adopted as one of its 2013 priorities "Technology and the Connected City." At the retreat, several council members, including Larry Klein and Marc Berman, emphasized using technology to make city government more efficient, innovative and open to the public.

Reichental told the council that a greater emphasis on building what he calls a "digital city" would "bring more of a community into enriching our democracy if done the right way."

"Over time, if you have the expertise of the community that helps us build applications through connectivity, you can reduce costs and deliver innovative technologies," Reichental said

The effort, he said, is also "well aligned with the brand of Palo Alto," which has a global reputation for housing forward-thinking startups and tech companies, he said.

The virtual ride-along was, in one sense, a reaction to the council's direction at the retreat, Burns said.

"They basically challenged the departments to use technology to be more effective, more efficient, more open to the community," Burns told the Weekly.

He said the department is now considering future events of this sort, including one focusing on emergency dispatchers.

The social-media push may be a citywide effort, but it holds special appeal for Palo Alto's public-safety departments. Engaging the citizenry through sites like Facebook and Twitter allows the police and fire departments to gain community trust and gives residents more channels for contacting the police with information. Residents also gain another source for information in the event of a major disaster.

So far, the results appear to be bearing fruit. The department's Twitter account last week before the ride-along had more than 2,300 followers, and its Facebook account had more than 1,300 "likes." As of this Wednesday, the number of Twitter followers rose to 2,719 and the number of Facebook "likes" jumped to 1,515. The most recent police ride-along was, in a way, the department's response to the council's direction at the retreat.

Then there's the immediate gratification. Some time during the Friday night exercise, the Police Department's Twitter account received a message that began with the line, "Thx again for making sure we got our mattress home safe & sound!"

What they're tweeting

Chief Information Officer Jonathan Reichental


"Another important modernization effort complete. The @cityofpaloalto has successfully deployed a new, redesigned intranet, CityConnect." (Feb. 4)

City Manager James Keene


"Retirement luncheon: Seemed like all Palo Alto turned out Wednesday to wish Steve Emslie well after 33 years public service. Go Steve!!" (Feb. 15)

Palo Alto Animal Services


"PAAS long timer "Rudolph" and new comer "Sweet Pea" were both adopted into new homes yesterday... Happy trails kids!" (Feb. 20)

Palo Alto Fire


"With all of the construction at SUH (Stanford Hospital) it is always a new adventure when we go to the ER. Drive carefully." (Feb. 19)

Palo Alto Utilities


"If you live in an Eichler, an excellent way to maintain comfort is to install insulated drapes to keep out the cold." (Feb. 12)

Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be emailed at


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