Meshwest’s afternoon sessions started with a discussion about the possibilities of open data for citizen government. Panellists Ashley Casovan and Mack Male from the City of Edmonton spoke about how open data sets are starting to be used in ways that are useful to everyday citizens. Edmontonians, for example, now have access to a mobile app that takes raw Edmonton Transit data and lets them know when their bus will arrive at a particular stop. Other examples include online garbage collection schedules, sports fields information and crime mapping. By making this data available via user-friendly applications, Caovan and Male believe that greater interest and engagement in local government can be fostered.

The next session focused on social media and its applications for marketing communications and PR. Allyson Simpson (Osum Oil Sands), Scott Walker (HootSuite) and Doug van Spronsen (DDB Canada) formed the panel of experts, each having a depth of experience using a variety of social media tool, for marketing purposes. Each panellist agreed that communicating with stakeholders and the public-at-large via tools like Twitter and Facebook isn’t an exact science and that mistakes are inevitable but on the other hand, the potential to reach a large and diverse audience is tremendous.

One of the biggest challenges facing companies looking to use social media to their advantage is measuring both value and success. Unfortunately, there isn’t a clear answer to this problem. The consensus seems to be that any approach should be integrated with other, more traditional communications tools in order to achieve maximum effect.

Another challenge is ensuring that the conversations had online with consumers are authentic.  Today, people place a lot of value on genuine, human interactions. We are tired of seeing automated systems do the work of customer service professionals and we are equally tired of getting one-size-fits-all responses. Social media provides an opportunity to have a real conversation with our target audience – it allows us to answer questions, receive valuable feedback and make personal connections. It is this potential for meaningful engagement that showcases the real value of social media.